Concern & Praise About UNO

This week's roundup of Chicago education stories from Seth Lavin includes something you don't see from many reform-oriented types -- an attempt to consider whether UNO, possibly the third-largest charter network in the city, deserves all of the attention and praise that it's getting:  "I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again—in the school innovation world it’s very common for reporters, politicians, funders and advocates to attach to the shiny-ness of change instead of asking tough questions about the effectiveness of change... It undermines the credibility of the overall movement, enflames the backlash against charters, TFA, etc. (it’s happening... ignore it at your peril) and ultimately hurts students."

Levin notes that aggregate report cards are inconclusive and includes some emails from UNO teachers that are interesting to check out - lots of the same problems and complaints we've heard before, but praise for things like home visits, middle school college visits, and -- yes -- the extended day. Check it out below, give us your thoughts -- please say something interesting -- and sign up for Seth's email if you want to by emailing him here:



Many of you clicked Linda Lutton’s story about the new building for UNO Soccer Academy, the network’s hyper-designed, grant-funded $27Melementary school.

She followed up by comparing building costs per seat for the new UNO school to 10 recently built CPS schools. UNO: $47K building cost per seat vs. CPS: $40K per seat.

Read those pieces but also watch this video of the new UNO school’s grand opening. I’ve never seen anything like it. Start at 45 seconds if you’re in a hurry

All this means it’s time we had an honest conversation about UNO. We’re having some kind of conversation already—this week Rahm and Gov. Quinn attended Soccer Academy’s opening, WSJ profiled Juan Rangel (UNO’s leader) as a model for Latino political power and Mick Dumke tracked UNO’s decades-long political transformation.

We’ve also read a lot about Rangel’s rising star in the Chicago schools world. After UNO and TFA created a formal teacher supply partnership Rangel joinedthe board of TFA Chicago. As soon as Brizard hit town he also embraced the network , doing an early UNO town hall with Rahm and Rangel where he announced hopes that CPS will adopt UNO’s home visit policy and PD scheduling.

So why am I calling attention to a flashy charter network that’s already getting a lot of attention? Because the attention terrifies me! I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again—in the school innovation world it’s very common for reporters, politicians, funders and advocates to attach to the shiny-ness of change instead of asking tough questions about the effectiveness of change. We do it all the time with charters—reprinting talking points from schools with strong PR but weak student achievement. It undermines the credibility of the overall movement, enflames the backlash against charters, TFA, etc. (it’s happening... ignore it at your peril) and ultimately hurts students.

So let’s talk about UNO. UNO’s a 27-year-old Latino-focused community org/political advocacy outfit with close, cultivated ties to the Chicago powers that be (Read about UNO’s leadership academy or Rangel’s co-chairing Rahm’s campaign, for examples).

In 1998 UNO started a charter school. Soccer Academy is UNO’s 11th campus. It’s hard to find centralized, vetted data on Chicago’s charter portfolio, but by my calculations UNO is the 3rd biggest charter network in the city. As far as I can tell these are the Chicago charter operators with more than 2 schools:


  • CICS (15 Chicago campuses, ~9K students),
  • Noble (10 campuses, ~6.5K students)
  • UNO (11 Chicago campuses, ~5.5K students)
  • Perspectives (5 campuses, ~2.5K students)
  • LEARN (5 campuses, ~1.5K students)
  • U of C (4 campuses, ~1.5K students)
  • Aspira (4 campuses, ~1.5K students)
  • Urban Prep (3 campuses, ~1K students)

So as the press, political leadership and school reform leadership in my city embraces this charter network I ask what we should all be asking all the time… are the schools any good? Is what success they have replicable and sustainable?

Unfortunately I don’t think we have any idea. The Trib’s school report cards aggregate performance data for all UNO campuses. Grade by grade the results are inconclusive. UNO usually outperforms CPS on % of students meeting state expectations but underperforms on % exceeding expectations. We can’t analyze UEI survey data for UNO because UNO staff and students didn’t take the survey. I can't find any data on college enrollment rates for UNO grads or (more importantly) college persistence rates.

I’ve met UNO teachers along the way so I asked a few who teach or taught there to give impressions of UNO quality. Now I wasn’t raised to source anonymously but I can’t think of a better solution here. Teacher voices are a critical part of an honest conversation about school quality. Many teachers don’t want to go on-record about their current (or former) employers, so these voices are often absent from mainstream school coverage. I wish there was a better way to include these perspectives but for now I don’t have it. I asked “Does UNO run good charter schools?” Here are two responses:

“I think that UNO suffers from many of the problems that plague other charter schools: low teacher and student retention, variability in the quality and experience of teachers, and at best only slightly better outcomes for students (as measured by standardized test scores).  However, I do believe that my school has made a sincere effort to effect change in the lives of students and families.  Required home visits are a pain for teachers, but I believe that it does help to erase borders between parents and teachers so that more communication can occur.  The hours are long, but it is obvious that students need more time in school.  My biggest concern is that with the lack of an authentic IB or AP track, high performing students are not being pushed to reach their potential, but I believe that steps are being made to rectify this.  Overall, I do not feel like students that attend UNO have dramatically better outcomes than their peers at other schools, but I believe that many in UNO are working tirelessly to improve the charter school model and increase impact.”

“In short, yes, I believe UNO runs good schools. Based on what I know about my school, teachers and staff as well as the other teachers I have met through PD and committees, UNO has good schools. What makes these schools good are the teachers and school directorship, and their commitment to high standards, not necessarily the network administration. However, I can shout out the network for its willingness and even their search to try new things that just couldn't be done at a "regular school." Examples: 6th graders visit a college every year, 7th graders will now visit New York every year (this is new this year, they will be focusing on 9/11 and immigration). To sum up, If I had children of my own, I would send them to an UNO school over a CPS, private, or Catholic school.”

Those actually seem pretty good, right? I’m not trying to argue that UNO schools aren’t pretty good. Or that they are. I’m just saying we’re giving UNO a lot of love these days and we need an honest, public conversation about UNO quality before we all get ourselves into trouble.


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  • CICS in not the charter with the most campuses. That dubious distinction belongs to the Youth Connection Charter Schools (aka YCCS) with something like 22. Understandable mistake as YCCS flies way under the radar.

  • The high turnover of teachers portends to a dysfunctional leadership. Test prep passing itself off as curriculum is not innovative. Juan Rangel hates transparency. Give Juan credit for siphoning off our tax dollars for his drill and kill schools without anyone taking a deep look into its operation. When I hear charter folks talk about quality in charter schools, UNO Is never mentioned. I wonder why?

  • The lack of data that has been released about all charters, especially at the high school level in Chicago is disgraceful. In my opinion, it proves what I thought since I first heard of and interviewed at the original Noble Street Charter School way back in the late 90's: They're all a hustle. And they are playing the hustle well. If they were doing such a good job why not release their data, all of it? Just like every other school has to? Seeing as how there has been a downright refusal to turn any data over to the public, my opinion is that anything that was released couldn't be trusted. There are few rules for these charters, they outright lie about their success, and neighborhood schools are being set up to fail. Take Urban Prep & their 100% rate that they brag about. Total crap. Having taught young men that had been kicked out of Urban Prep as recently as last year, I have first hand knowledge of how they treat children that fail to meet their criteria. They show them the door and then don't count them in their data. If you went to some of the better non selective enrollment high schools, the neighborhood schools, where scores are decent, numbers are good, you'd find the real success stories of teaching in Chicago. It's just disgusting that some of these charter & selective enrollment schools, with their beautiful hallways & classrooms, their huge course selections for students, and their selectively enrolled student body can't produce better numbers or even numbers that they would proudly release & discuss. There are some of us out here who are devoted to teaching & improving the lives of kids and then there are those, who are in it for the fame, glory & the money. We'll see one day when the charters have completely taken over this city, what they will do with those poor children that they exclude so purposefully right now. Let UNO & Noble Street go into Humboldt or Englewood, or South Chicago with the same rules, having to educate everyone who walks in their door and lives in their attendance area. When they take over we will see how their model works for them and the children they have avoided serving thus far.

  • In reply to justifiablygrumpy:

    I have taught charter and turnaround "rejects" as well. I agree, it's going to be very interesting when they have to teach all students who come through their doors.

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