ACORN, UNO: Schools Stumble

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Octavio Paz 6th-grader Victor Tucker draws lines for a group art project.

Octavio Paz 6th-grader Victor Tucker draws lines for a group art project.

Shirley McKinney is both a parent and teacher at Paz’s 4th- through 8th-grade building, the former Precious Blood School. She says her 7th-grade daughter, a high-achieving student, was “getting lost in the crowd” at her public school. McKinney enrolled her and her 4th-grade son at Paz. So far, she has been pleased with the results, even though the school lacks such basic facilities as a playground, library, gym and auditorium. “This is a private school environment,” she explains. “It’s that quality.”

McKinney teaches 22 6th-graders. With 26 years experience in CPS and private schools, she bucks the profile of mostly younger, inexperienced teachers who gravitate to charters. “I wanted something different,” she says. “Here, a lot of the fat outside the classroom is taken out,” giving her greater freedom.

With Advantage gone, daily decisions now are made by Chief Executive Officer Cuttie Bacon, whom Advantage recruited in January, and Principal Benita Goldman, a former CPS assistant principal who came on board in June. Rangel says the Paz board of directors, comprised primarily of UNO officials, handles policy matters.

“Running a school is not our primary business,” says Rangel. “We’ve quickly developed the capacity because we’ve had to.”

He even concedes that the hurdles may now be too high for UNO, given the start-up and facilities problems and the ground left to cover on test scores.

“If we’re coming in behind those standards, maybe that’s not the business we should be in,” he says.

ACORN far from tree

School leadership is the most debated issue at the ACORN-run charter school, now called Nuestra America (Our America).

ACORN, which stands for Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, has had a grass-roots political organization in Chicago for decades. In 1997, it began to roll out a charter high school in Little Village to solidify its base there and in Pilsen, both predominately Latino communities. Unable to secure a facility large enough for a full four-year program in either community, the group moved the school in 1999 to West Humboldt Park, a mostly African-American neighborhood.

William Campillo, principal for two years, charges that since then, ACORN has abdicated responsibility for the school, which enrolls 190 mostly Latino students. Campillo says he changed the school’s name this year to reflect ACORN’s absence.

“They don’t offer any kind of support,” says Campillo, who previously worked with the Small Schools Workshop at the University of Illinois- Chicago. ACORN board members have not attended board meetings in more than six months, he says, and ACORN organizers have tried to recruit Nuestra America parents for its political causes and to raise money.

Ginny Goldman, lead ACORN organizer, acknowledges that leadership has suffered because of the school’s move out of Little Village and a turnover in ACORN officials who serve on the school’s board.

In the meantime, Goldman says ACORN has given Campillo free rein to operate the school–“We’re organizers, not educators,” she notes. However, ACORN insists that the curriculum be focused on Mexican culture and social justice and that parents run the board.

Campillo takes issue with both stands. Given its location, he says, the school will attract more African-American students and needs a broader focus than Mexican culture. And a board dominated by parents won’t have the connections to other organizations that the school needs to raise money to obtain space in Little Village.

Bill Olson, 28, has taught at Nuestra America since the start. He says teachers appreciate the stability Campillo has brought. Wary of what the ACORN-Campillo dispute may mean for the school’s future, he intends to finish a teacher certification program to make himself more marketable.

UNO also decided to offer an English-only curriculum. Rangel says many parents believed CPS bilingual programs were not teaching their children English fast or well enough to succeed academically.

“We thought that would be a source of controversy. It was not. It was more of a selling point,” he says.

Today, Paz enrolls about 810 students at two sites, one near Little Village and the other about three miles north.

Troubles, began mid-way through the first year when the first principal left for personal reasons, Rangel says. While UNO searched for a replacement, Advantage shuttled four interim principals through. Parents started to complain. And the “nightmarish” unreliability of the school’s chosen bus company aggravated the situation. Students often were stranded by buses that didn’t show up.

Two years of management trouble “clearly was reflected in the grades of students and morale of the staff,” Rangel says. Last year, with just 16 percent of Paz students scoring at or above national norms in math, the school ranked last among charter schools. Reading scores were low, too.

UNO fired Advantage in July, two years into a five-year contract.

“It was frustrating for everybody,” says Ann MacDonald, spokesperson for Advantage, which runs 15 schools in Texas, Michigan and other states. She notes that with the school split between two buildings, the revolving- door leadership took an especially heavy toll.

Rangel declined to divulge financial terms of the split, though he says UNO has lost money on the school. MacDonald says Advantage did not earn any profits from running Paz. She says the company invested $2 million in building renovations, including the installation of elevators in each building. UNO agreed to re-pay Advantage $1.5 million over 10 years for those expenses, she says.

Community organizations are among the most enthusiastic supporters of charter schools because charters give them another way to serve their constituents. In Chicago, two such groups, United Neighborhood Organization (UNO) and ACORN, jumped at the chance. UNO hired a for-profit school management firm to run its school, and ACORN entrusted its school to parents.

But both schools have been in constant turmoil, and their test scores have ranked at the bottom among Chicago charters. In the last year, both took steps to shore up their operations, yet questions about leadership threaten their existence.

In 1998, UNO partnered with Advantage Schools Inc., a Boston-based management firm, to open Octavio Paz Charter School to serve Latino elementary school students from Pilsen and Little Village.

Juan Rangel, UNO executive director, says UNO wanted to open a school to have the maximum impact on Latino youth. “We had an opportunity to showcase what our community was about,” he says.

From the start, Paz has emphasized the basics–math, reading and discipline. Latino parents were finding this emphasis in private schools, Rangel says. With no tuition costs, Paz was an attractive alternative.