Nurturing ‘School Minds’

By Mary Ann Zehr — October 02, 2009 10 min read
Kindergartners at Veterans Memorial School in Chicago arrange themselves in the order that makes a sentence out of the word cards each holds.
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As a new school day begins, Donyell Beck praises her 7th graders for forming straight lines and keeping their shirts tucked in.

“I’m very proud of how you have been lining up,” says the teacher here at UNO Veterans Memorial School. The conduct shows that the students are thinking with a “school mind” rather than a “summer mind,” she says.

That philosophy of quiet and order as a foundation for learning is a trademark of educators at Veterans Memorial and the other eight charter schools run by the Chicago-based United Neighborhood Organization, or UNO, a Latino advocacy group with a history of community organizing.

Chicago is soon to see more of these schools. The group recently received a $98 million grant from the state of Illinois to open new ones. That’s believed to be the largest grant of public capital funds to a U.S. charter school operator.

With the help of that money, UNO, which opened its first school in 1998, plans to nearly double its number of schools, to 16. All but one of UNO’s eight K-8 schools and its one high school are in Chicago; its other K-8 school is in New Orleans.

Nurturing ‘School Minds’

Juan Rangel heads the United Neighborhood Organization. The Chicago-based Latino advocacy group recently received a $98 million grant that will allow it to nearly double its network of charter schools to 16.
—Photography and Videography by John Zich for Education Week

Juan Rangel, the chief executive officer of the organization, preaches the value of a disciplined school climate. He came to appreciate the strong discipline of his traditional Mexican-American family and the Roman Catholic high school he attended in Chicago.

UNO leadership imparts that philosophy to students and staff, along with other goals it sets for the schools, from the top down.

The schools, which cater largely to Latino students, are expected to “assimilate” their populations into American society. In part, they do so by using an English-immersion approach rather than bilingual education for English-language learners.

Assimilation doesn’t mean Latinos should deny their own culture or native language, Mr. Rangel said. “What it means is having our families and children have an understanding of belonging. They have a role in developing this country.”

On the Rise

In the past ive years, more Chicago students in UNO schools have met or exceeded state standards than their peers in the regular public schools.


SOURCE: Chicago Public Schools

Administrators at UNO headquarters handle the budgeting and manage the buildings so the directors—principals—are free to focus on academics. The curriculum is the same across the network, as is testing. For the past two school years, all network schools have been assessing students three times a year with benchmark tests to identify students’ strengths and weaknesses; teachers receive training on how to use the test data to improve instruction.

The directors are charged with having students grow academically by 1½ grade levels each school year on average, a goal that leaders of the organization say about 60 percent of students in their K-8 schools in Chicago have reached.

The network’s overall mission is to foster a culture that can turn out students who are leaders in the community and beyond.

Mr. Rangel says he wants Latino students to understand the ideals by which the United States was founded. “Most of our kids were born here. They aren’t isolated or segregated from the regular society.”

Creating leaders means preparing students to excel in college, Mr. Rangel said. The network employs staff members responsible for easing the transition of students to academically sound high schools.

Judging by state test scores, the formula appears to be working. In the 2007-08 school year, each campus had a higher proportion of students meeting or exceeding state standards in reading, mathematics, and science than students in the regular Chicago public schools.

A study released last week by the Illinois Policy Institute, which has offices in Springfield and Chicago, and the Lexington Institute, a think tank based in Arlington, Va., shows that both Hispanic students and English-language learners in UNO schools score better on state reading and math tests on average than do those same groups in regular Chicago schools.

Sitting upright, hands folded, kindergartner Rafael Garcia adopts the “learner’s position” at Veterans Memorial School in Chicago, part of a charter network that employs order and English immersion to produce well-informed students who are leaders.

The strong discipline at UNO schools enables students to focus on learning, according to Mr. Rangel and other school administrators.

UNO schools “are quiet, disciplined, orderly,” said Mr. Rangel in describing what parents and students can expect of the school culture. “There is learning taking place. It’s a safe place for kids.”

Expectations on student conduct are transmitted to classrooms partly through an annual summer institute for UNO teachers and classroom walk-throughs by school directors.

During the first weeks of school, directors encourage teachers to make a deliberate effort to establish the norms of UNO school culture.

That means reminding students to avoid social chatter during class and to be silent in hallways. Teachers tell students to assume “learner’s position”—sitting up straight and folding their hands—when beginning a new lesson.

Chris Allen, the director of Veterans Memorial School, spends a good part of a recent morning visiting classrooms with a check list of the elements of the culture. He notes if students aren’t “100 percent” in uniform. Are they wearing tennis shoes instead of the requisite black dress shoes? He also notes whether teachers are making smooth transitions between lessons and whether their libraries are well organized. Have students formed straight lines on the way to the restroom? Are they making noise in class that isn’t what Mr. Allen calls “purposeful”?

Likely because the UNO schools are in Hispanic neighborhoods, 92 percent of the 3,400 Chicago students are Latino, though anyone is eligible to enter the admissions lottery. Ninety-five percent are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. The organization reports that 37 percent of its students are English-language learners. In its K-8 schools, 6 percent are special education students; in the high school, 10 percent.

By contrast, 13 percent of the 408,000 students in the regular public schools in Chicago are English-language learners, and 12 percent are in special education.

Mr. Rangel said the state awarded UNO the $98 million because its schools have strong academic results and the organization has shown it can build schools faster and cheaper than the Chicago district can.

Chris Allen, the director of Veterans Memorial, talks with 2nd grader Andres Limias in a hallway of the charter school. UNO school directors are relieved of many of the duties of a typical principal so they can focus on the academic mission.

Jaime Guzman, the interim director of the office of new schools for the Chicago district, agrees.

“It’s hard to argue with the results they have. They are really strong results,” he said. “They are a nonprofit that can operate more nimbly than a large bureaucracy like Chicago public schools,” he said. “They have focused on creating schools in neighborhoods with severe overcrowding.”

Parents also lobbied state legislators in their Springfield offices as part of a campaign orchestrated by network leaders to persuade the lawmakers to provide the organization with facilities funding.

Some observers, however, wonder if more UNO schools are good for Chicago. They question, for example, if they serve English-language learners and special education students as well as they appear to on paper.

Josie Yanguas, a board member of the Illinois Association for Multilingual Multicultural Education, expresses skepticism at the Illinois Policy Institute study’s findings on ELLs because they are based on scores from state content tests. Such tests, she contends, aren’t “valid and reliable” for those students. Instead, Ms. Yanguas said, any study of ELLs should include their scores on the state’s English-proficiency test.

Students from two classrooms line up silently before proceeding down Veterans Memorial’s main corridor. The United Neighborhood Organization, which operates the charter school, emphasizes a quiet, orderly movement of students throughout all the network’s single high school and eight K-8 campuses in Chicago and New Orleans.

And some Latinos who live in the city’s Pilsen neighborhood, which has a strong Mexican-American presence, advocate bilingual education. They maintain that it’s not fair that charter schools—which are publicly financed but operate free of many regulatory constraints—don’t have to abide by the state’s mandate to provide it.

All the public money that UNO has received to build schools also bothers some Latino critics, especially when buildings for regular neighborhood schools are run-down.

“It seems to us these charter schools have been opened at the cost of the neighborhood schools,” said Alejandra L. Ibañez, the executive director of the Pilsen Alliance, a partner for an after-school program in a neighborhood school.

Ms. Ibañez also opposes UNO’s assimilation policy. She’s heard that some students have been reprimanded for speaking Spanish in the schools.

“It hits a nerve,” Ms. Ibañez said. “The fact that I can speak Spanish and English should be seen as something beautiful and not something I should be reprimanded for.”

Within the UNO school community, plenty of parents and students say network schools are a better option than the regular public schools.

Fifth grader Ashley Rodriguez raises her hand. Civics plays a significant role in the UNO schools’ curriculum.

Emily Martinez, a 3rd grader at Officer Donald Marquez School, says the rules help her feel safe. A regular public school in Chicago that she and her siblings attended had “gangbanging” and “people killing people,” she said.

Arturo Velasquez also likes Veterans Memorial “por las reglas,” for the rules. He and his wife, Georgina Velasquez, who have college degrees from Mexico, enrolled their daughter in 2nd grade and son in kindergarten there.

“I never tire talking about this school,” Guadalupe Garcia said in Spanish. She enrolled two of her children in Veterans Memorial and another in UNO’s high school. “Most of all, the learning is very advanced,” said Ms. Garcia, who finished 4th grade in Mexico.

Ms. Garcia said she welcomes the network’s English-immersion approach. Her oldest daughter, now 15, received bilingual education in a regular Chicago school, which was actually, Ms. Garcia contended, “puro español,” pure Spanish. As a 2nd grader, her daughter couldn’t speak any English, but after a half-year in an UNO school, Ms. Garcia said, she could speak English well.

But Majdden Hejaz, a Palestinian-American, said UNO may go overboard on the rules. After her son, a kindergartner, gave her a teary goodbye at the security desk at the entrance of Veterans Memorial, she said, she didn’t like how she was barred from escorting him to the classroom after the first week of school.

The rule, according to Mr. Allen, cuts down on distracting teachers from focusing on the day’s lessons.

UNO leaders acknowledge that the education of English-language learners is evolving.

Mr. Rangel says his organization has had the “honesty” to recognize bilingual education hasn’t worked as intended and thus UNO schools have always used “structured English immersion.”

Critics of UNO’s approach to teaching ELLs—such as Jane Nolan, the co-chairwoman of a group called Multilingual Chicago—say it’s really “sink or swim.”

In the network schools’ English immersion, students get a period or two of Spanish each week, but otherwise, all instruction is in English.

And only this school year has the network ensured that each school employs a specialist in how to work with English-language learners. Just this past summer, it began training those specialists and a few other educators in specific strategies for ELLs widely used across the nation, known as Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol.

Shannon Swindle, the language-acquisition specialist at Officer Donald Marquez School, said she expects to work regularly with about 50 of the school’s 293 English-learners this year, her first full year in the job. She’ll be coaching teachers in using strategies to work with the ELLs she can’t reach directly.

A glass wall fronts the rehabbed building that houses Veterans Memorial School.

The Chicago district is satisfied with the network’s ELL plan submitted a year and a half ago, according to Mr. Guzman of the district.

Mr. Allen, who was certified to teach English-learners in California, said the UNO schools are “formalizing” their approach to educating such students, but he thinks the schools have already been successful because teachers stress language instruction. For a long time, each school has had at least one “master teacher” and one reading specialist freed up to coach teachers and co-teach with them. Schools also have specialists in special education.

Mathew Ayala, 6, who comes from a home where Spanish is the primary language, has done well.

His 1st grade teacher at Veterans Memorial, Amanda Stoerman, recently asked her class to write about the plot of a book she had just read aloud. The story was about characters coming to life when a teacher and her students didn’t finish reading a book. Ms. Stoerman wrote “characters” on the whiteboard to help the pupils write it correctly, along with the prompt: “The problem in the story was ...”

Without help, Mathew wrote: “The problem in the story was that the kids didn’t finish the book and then the whole school filled up with characters from the book.”

He capitalized the first word of the sentence, ended it with a period, spelled each word correctly, and remembered the punctuation for the contraction.

It was Day 6 of 1st grade for Mathew, who had attended kindergarten at an UNO charter school.

A version of this article appeared in the October 07, 2009 edition of Education Week as Nurturing ‘School Minds’


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