Playing the Advantage

Harry Backlund

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“If you notice, everything starts here and moves up.” Juan Moreno stands at the edge of a small astroturf soccer field and motions around at the encompassing school building that his architecture firm JGMA designed. His gesture starts at a low fence that rises at an angle on one side of the field and follows it up into a tall wall of fogged metal that reflects the bright green playing surface like a funhouse mirror. Continuing on, his hand sweeps over three levels of ultra-modern metal and glass corridors that expose the rows of student desks inside.

This freshly built structure at 51st and Kedzie houses the United Neighborhood Organization’s (UNO) Soccer Academy, a school designed to incorporate academics with a soccer training campus. Open since the beginning of August, the academy is the eleventh campus in the Latino-based nonprofit’s growing charter school network, and serves 576 students in grades K-8. The building covers three acres of a woody ten-acre plot where UNO is hoping to build a high school and a full-sized stadium.

The miniature field that currently sits at the center of the structure is somewhere between a practical place for younger students to play the game, and a symbol of the sport’s significance. Moreno calls it a stage, which makes sense, not only because of the glass looking down on it, but because the soccer academy is itself established around the daily rehearsal of a specific vision of success.

“There’s a kind of rite of passage,” Moreno explains, pointing to the stratified levels of the building. On the first floor, where the youngest students are taught, the windows draw your attention to the pitch, and to the grass and trees around the building. Once they enter third grade, students graduate to the second floor, where a view opens up over the colorful storefronts and single story homes of working-class Gage Park. When they reach sixth grade, students move up to the third floor, where the entire city spreads out before them, and skyscrapers finally become visible on the horizon.

“The gesture of the building moves towards downtown, so that students can imagine themselves there,” Moreno says. “It’s a way of anticipating the future and creating a design that speaks of something much greater to follow,” he adds later.

For its students, the UNO Soccer Academy building frames two separate spectacles: the soccer field at the center, and the peaks of downtown in the distance. This dual definition of success runs throughout the school. The kids wear three-piece uniforms, walk silently in single file lines through hallways, and are reminded daily that discipline and sacrifice are keys to success. But two days a week they come dressed in full soccer uniforms and spend a few hours of the day playing and training. It’s early yet, but by one important measure, the incorporation of the beautiful game into primary-school education seems to be working–during the first month of classes attendance has hovered between 98 and 99 percent. But outside the debate over how to best measure the effectiveness of education, the UNO Soccer Academy offers a unique–and perhaps not entirely intentional–insight. The force behind the school has less to do with rubrics and formulas than it does with the qualitatively different ways its students and families are connecting to education.

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With over 4,000 students enrolled in its programs in Chicago, UNO is the largest direct-service charter school management firm in the state, and is frequently cited as an example of a successful alternative education model for urban neighborhoods. By maintaining similar spending, demographics and class sizes of traditional public schools, they hope to show how innovative approaches can do more with less.

Sitting in the school’s conference room, Juan Rangel, UNO’s CEO and charter network president, summed up his hopes for the organization and its influence. “I want people to say, If it’s working at UNO, why can’t it work over here?”

The development of Chicago’s charter schools took off with Renaissance 2010, an initiative begun by Mayor Daley in 2003 that closed or restructured CPS schools that the system determined to be under-performing and replaced them with charter and contract models.

Charter schools are notoriously confusing, in part because they are hybrids: they are open to the public but operated privately. They are granted significant operational advantages over traditional CPS schools, including looser restrictions over hiring and firing teachers, and the flexibility to write their own budgets with minimal oversight and–at least in practice–little transparency. They also face some special limitations–most notably an Illinois law that only assures charter schools 75 percent of appropriations for education that a normal public school would receive.

Initial positive reports from charters started a continuing chorus that they are the up-and-coming solution to a variety of urban education dilemmas. But the results are hard to assess, not least because the metrics used to evaluate charters make it difficult to compare them with traditional public schools.

The first major, financially independent study of charter high school performance was published in February 2009 by University of Illinois at Chicago Professor Rico Gutstein and CPS educator (and former charter school teacher) Liz Brown. Its conclusions varied from neutral to negative. Rejecting state tests on the grounds that they reflect some of the changes in approach that they are meant to measure, the study’s authors examined composite scores from the nationally administered ACT test between 2006 and 2008. They found no statistical difference between charter and neighborhood high schools. Based on an analysis of enrollment practices, the study’s authors further concluded: “Charter schools have not improved the overall quality of, or equal access to, education for all Chicago high school students.” Charter school teachers, who are almost entirely non-union, were also found to earn around 15 percent less than CPS teachers while working a longer work day and for more days per year. Based on their results, Gutstein and Brown recommended an immediate moratorium on new charters.

UNO’s network seems to avoid many of the criticisms made of the charter system as a whole. The most recent evaluations are from the 2009-2010 school year and show almost uniformly high academic performance ratings. While the percentage of special needs students in UNO’s network is lower than the district average (9 to 4 percent), the percentage of limited English proficiency students is much higher (42 to 13 percent) as is the percentage of low-income students (95 to 87 percent). In the same year, UNO’s combined high school dropout and transfer-out rate (which absorbs much of the drop-out rate, since charter students can transfer back to their neighborhood school) was only 6 percent.

But the high stakes debate around how to read the numbers is only part of the story, and in many ways has distracted the way education happens is changing. Here the soccer academy stands apart.

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According to Rangel, in its early stages, the school had been planned as an extracurricular program modeled on the soccer academies that college scouts use to recruit top players. These programs often proved prohibitively expensive for Latino athletes in Chicago, or poor academic performance may prevent them from attending. UNO officials met with the United States Soccer Federation, the Chicago Fire, and coaches from UIC to gather ideas. Two of UNO’s staff even went to Mexico to study similar academies in Pachuca and the soccer school of former-Fire player and Mexican national team captain Cuauhtemoc Blanco.

In the process the idea grew into a broader project that sought to tap the deep passion for the sport among Chicago’s Mexican and Latino communities as the sentimental foundation for a new school. Rangel recalls family trips to Douglas Park where his father played league games. It’s easy to imagine that many of the parents at UNO’s schools share variations on these memories of soccer in the park.

“We’d go to mass early on Sundays, and then we’d go to the games. It was something in the family culture; it was about more than the kids,” Rangel says.

The passion for soccer is one way of making connections between education and the lived experiences of students and their families, but it doesn’t have to be the only one driving a school.

Rangel sees the same intangible impact in the home visits that his teachers are required to make. “I tell my teachers…your mere presence on the doorstep speaks volumes,” he says. “At that moment, once the parents and kids see you at their home, you got them. They will come through for you.”

UNO also invests in bigger spectacles to make lasting impressions on students.  The soccer academy was inaugurated with a spectacularly lavish show of smoke, lights, and fireworks. Rangel has a photograph of the event that he plans to blow up to billboard size and set in a frame in the school’s hallway to remind students of the moment. “Is there data [to support] this? Probably not. But all of this is about a culture that we’re trying to create for our kids.”

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It’s a specific kind of culture, though, and it’s no coincidence that the phrase “master plan” gets used a lot in descriptions of the academy. UNO presents itself as the vanguard of a rising Hispanic middle and upper class that is establishing a powerful community infrastructure. Their rhetoric emphasizes civic responsibility and political assimilation, which they say is meant to stand against images of Latinos as victims. On Flag Day, UNO hosts a naturalization ceremony in a school gym where around a hundred immigrants take the oath of citizenship, and while UNO advertises their schools in Spanish, their schools all use English immersion techniques.

“We want them to become successful American citizens,” says Rangel, who at times sounds zealously patriotic. “Anyone who thinks otherwise is either delusional, or is working against the interests of this nation.”

UNO’s rhetoric is, at least in part, a way of reconciling its present with its past. The organization was founded in 1984 as an alliance between grassroots labor organizers and local priests, and rose to prominence in large part because of their succesful use of the community organizing tactics of Rules for Radicals author Saul Alinsky. But as campaigns against school overcrowding prompted the organization’s growth, UNO started to establish stronger ties to the city government. These connections now go deep. UNO’s most recent capital drive was chaired by Mayor Daley, and Rangel co-chaired Rahm Emmanuel’s mayoral campaign. In another intersection of sport, spectacle, and politics, Rangel was observed sitting courtside at a Bulls game with the current mayor. UNO isn’t shy about the fact that their effectiveness as an organization is at least as much about political clout as it is cultural roots.

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There’s another level to the charter school problem: UNO doesn’t just expect success, they’re literally banking on it. The network received a $98 million grant from the state of Illinois for the construction of new schools, and they hope to leverage that credible state money into $150 million for eight more schools by 2017. The loans UNO takes out would be paid back with the per-pupil payments they receive from the state. This means that unless significant alternative revenue streams are developed, the UNO network would have to use a portion of their yearly state funding to pay off their debt, leaving less for educational programs. Although Department of Education Credit Enhancement Grants make charter-related bonds comparatively stable investments, the use of debt financing for educational institutions shouldn’t be seen as a safe bet, especially in the wake of the recent financial crisis. And in contrast to the UNO network’s strong academic ratings, the most recent accountability report available from the 2009-2010 school year reveals a score of 1 out of 5 for financial management.

In the face of questions surrounding finances and ambivalent reports on the success of charter schools, journalists and readers should be forgiven for skepticism about the charter school movement. But while the promise of inspiring facilities and effective, accessible education for all Chicago students still hangs on the horizon like the downtown skyline, the real innovation of the soccer academy–the one that sets it apart from even other UNO schools–is the incorporation of community experience that plays out daily on the little green field.

Here, Rangel makes a point that has little to do with school formats. “Every school ought to be aware of what their children are doing after hours with their families, and engage them in something they’re interested in. This one happens to be soccer.”