Hopes for new school shine brightly in its architecture

Hopes for new school shine brightly in its architecture

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CEO Juan Rangel says UNO's new charter elementary school will be an anchor for the community around 51st and Homan.

A crowd of parents and students inaugurated a shiny new school Thursday night on Chicago’s Southwest Side. 

Juan Moreno, architect of the UNO charter elementary school, the city’s 11th UNO school, said the architecture is meant to show students what’s possible. The ultra-modern steel and glass structure stands out in a neighborhood of tidy brick bungalows. There are three levels of floor-to-ceiling windows.

The school is built on what used to be vacant industrial land.
With a $27 million pricetag, the UNO school costs millions less than schools built by the district.

“The corridors are on the outside, and we purposely always wanted to connect the students to the community—visually—and vice-versa. It’s terrific to drive by it and see the kids,” said Moreno.

Hear Moreno talk about his vision for the building here:

Moreno said from the top floor, UNO CEO Juan Rangel sometimes points to the Loop. “He’ll point to it and he’ll tell the kids, ‘Look, you’re not gonna be the custodians of those buildings. You’ll be the leaders of those buildings,” he said.

Rangel gave me a tour: playground-music 110915.mp3

Students have only been on campus for a week, but second-grade teacher Marissa Akason thinks the building is impacting kids. “It’s bright and sunny every day in here. There’s a lot of light,” says Akason. “Our attendance has been really high this first week, and I think part of it is they’re excited to be here. It makes our job easier when they’re ready to come to school and are excited to come.”

The school's focus is soccer. A courtyard play area includes a small AstroTurf field.
Rangel shows Mayor Rahm Emanuel where UNO intends to build a soccer stadium and high school.

On the eve of Mexico’s Independence, a crowd of mostly Mexican parents cheered as an American flag climbed up the flagpole at the school. It adds 580 seats to a neighborhood hit hard by overcrowding.

A classroom, as seen from the all-glass corridor.
Classrooms are named after countries that have hosted the World Cup. Narrower hallways and vinyl flooring kept construction costs lower.

Ten months ago, UNO didn’t even own title to the land where the school now stands. “I think we have to learn how to build schools cheaper and faster,” says Rangel. At $27 million, UNO’s Soccer Academy is the lowest priced elementary school built in the district in recent years, comparisons  provided by the Public Building Commission of Chicago show. Adam Clayton Powell Elementary on the South Side, which also opened this fall, cost $29 million. The new Ogden International Elementary on the North Side cost taxpayers $54 million (though underground parking there made it atypically expensive).  But UNO’s new Soccer Academy serves just 580 students, while Powell and Ogden can serve more than 900 students. That means taxpayers paid thousands more per seat for the UNO school than they did for schools built by the district.

Rangel focuses on the low overall cost. He says UNO rethought elements that have become standard in school construction. He says if terrazzo floors don’t improve test scores, he doesn’t need them.

UNO is seeking permission to name the school after this guy:

A gaggle of politicians was at the inauguration, including Ill. Gov. Pat Quinn. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel had stopped by earlier for a tour. “This new school is literally transforming our neighborhood, and strengthening it,” 14th Ward Ald. Ed Burke told parents. After the polticians finished speaking, the crowd was treated to a sound and light show.

A $98 million state grant—believed to be the largest capital grant ever to any charter organization nationwide—paid for the school. UNO urged the governor to release more funds from that grant so the group can continue building charter schools.

Updated at: 1:15pm on 9/16/11
Updated at: 5:02pm on 9/16/11