A string of old and fading banners hangs along 47th Street on Chicago’s Southwest Side. They’re a reminder of the end of an era for one of the largest charter school networks in Illinois.
The UNO Charter School Network was once known for its radical approach to educating Latino immigrant students under its English immersion model — an approach that prioritized students’ English language skills in an English-only classroom environment.
But over the last four years, the network has been transforming itself. Under the recently adopted name Acero — steel in Spanish — the network has a new approach to educating Latino students.
On a recent morning, at Acero’s Daniel Zizumbo elementary school in the Archer Heights community, bilingual teacher Alexis Espinosa provided simultaneous instruction in English and Spanish to her first-graders.
“We did a morning meeting in Spanish. We also did a calendar that’s both in English and Spanish,” Espinosa said. Then, they moved on to math in English, “but we do the vocabulary in Spanish, and they do some activities outside of the book in Spanish as well.”
The idea is to make sure students are learning not just language, but every subject — in two languages.
Espinosa’s students are in the second year of Acero’s new dual language program. The goal is for students to emerge fully proficient in both languages — not just English, which was the original goal in the charter network’s early years.
“In the last three to four years, we started to develop an identity that values and really seeks biliteracy and really valuing our students, not just as individuals in many cases with a Latino heritage, but also as learners who have a tremendous amount of value to bring to the table being able to speak two languages,” Joel Pollack, chief education officer of Acero Schools, told WBEZ last year.
The network’s 15 schools first began to transition from an immersion approach to a bilingual education model in 2014, after the state required all charter schools to comply with federal and state laws that mandate support for English learners.
More than 30 percent of Acero’s 7,500 grade school and high school-aged students are learning English — what the state calls “English Language Learners” or ELLs.
Adopting bilingual education meant dropping English immersion, hiring more bilingual teachers, and focusing on Spanish when an ELL student arrives, but then slowly transitioning that student into English.
But in 2015, Chicago Public Schools officials alleged UNO wasn’t doing that and threatened to revoke its charter.
A year later, Acero launched a third approach — a pilot dual language model at two of its schools, Octavio Paz and Zizumbo elementary. It’s an initiative that goes far beyond the original bilingual requirement mandated by the state.
“In some ways, we were behind the tide for many years and now have to position ourselves as leaders in language and cultural learning,” Pollack said.
Through the dual language approach, network officials want to build a stronger group of students earning the Illinois seal of biliteracy — a recognition given to high school students who are proficient in English and another language.
The network’s shift in priorities comes at a time when Latino students are no longer the minority in Chicago Public Schools. They are now the largest student group. If this trend continues, the district will be majority Latino in just a few years.
With those changing demographics and more Latinos in a range of professions, preparing bilingual professionals and preserving students’ native language has gained popularity among educators.
Juan Rangel, founder and former board president of Acero’s predecessor, UNO, had a different vision of how to best prepare Latino immigrant students back in 1998 when the network opened its doors.
For years he defended his English immersion model, and he does to this day.
“I firmly believe that immigrant parents want their children to learn English because they know that’s a language their children are going to need if they are going to succeed in this country,” Rangel said. “We had an opportunity to do something that’s radically different than what the public schools were doing at that time.”
Under his English immersion model, immigrant students who spoke in their native language at home were taught subjects like math, science, and reading in English only — whether they understood the concepts or not. The idea was that students would pick up English faster that way.
That model, however, went against federal and state law that required public schools in Illinois to support English learners in the classroom.
But Rangel said 20 years ago, the state had a shortage of bilingual teachers and described his English immersion model as a way to work around that problem.
“We could tinker around the edges to try to fix it or we could go to the other extreme like we did and say, ‘We are going to do English immersion,’” he said. “‘You accuse us of being anti-immigrant, anti-Hispanic. No, we are going to help to reform the system.’”
Rangel stepped down in 2013 in the wake of a school building contracting scandal involving state money.
It’s unclear if his model succeeded. According to standardized test data from 2001 to 2014, average elementary school test scores — for all subjects combined — for UNO’s English learners were below district average.
Starting in 2013, eight schools met or surpassed the state average. In 2014, six schools hit that bar.
Rangel’s ideas of assimilation into American culture and English immersion were part of a wider ideology on how to ensure Latinos’ participation in the power structure in Chicago and civic life.
But after the contracting scandal, he fell out of favor and so did his assimilation philosophy.
Rangel, for his part, is skeptical of Acero’s new model. “I think they have a task ahead of them … We need to wait and see if any progress continues to be made within those schools or whether they beat other challenges.”
One of those key challenges for Acero and other schools remains the shortage of teachers with the required bilingual certifications from the state — the same issue Rangel said he was hoping to work around two decades ago.
“Finding teachers with that endorsement is extremely difficult,” said Zizumbo Principal Chris Allen. “It’s a challenge, it’s something that … we struggle with.”
The network currently has 35 educators with bilingual certifications and 99 teachers who are certified to teach English as a second language.
The lack of teachers with bilingual certifications is evident across the state. The number of students whose home language is other than English has been around 200,000 over the last five years. The number of certified bilingual teachers has been gradually decreasing in the last few years. In 2017, just under 1,500 teachers in Illinois had bilingual certifications.
Acero officials say they are still figuring out exactly what the network’s approach to bilingual and dual language education looks like — an approach that could look different at each Acero school.
“Bilingual support at a different school might include a multigrade-level group coming together for a block of instructions across math, science, language development,” said Evan Gutierrez, director of curriculum and assessment for Acero Schools. “So we are in the process of experimenting and iterating and sharing best practices across multiple schools to determine and discern what the best model is and how we could best support each other in rolling out a program that meets all of our students’ language development needs.”
Karen Garibay-Mulattieri, a bilingual education expert with the Latino Policy Forum, said going from an English immersion model to a dual language approach is a radical shift. Before making such a drastic change, school officials need to put in place a strong infrastructure in order to succeed, she explained.
“Recruitment is one of the single most difficult challenges that any school faces in trying to implement dual language,” said Garibay-Mulattieri, who formerly led the Chicago Public Schools’ Office of Language and Cultural Education. “First of all, we have a shortage of teachers in Illinois, we have positions we can’t fill [for].. true bilingual teachers. Really, there is a shortage in that area.”
She explained that schools that start a dual language program without properly certified teachers, without a commitment to the program and also without a strong communication to the community at large are going to see a lot of challenges.
The importance of bilingual teachers to a school or network making dual language its priority is on display back in the first-grade classroom at Zizumbo elementary.
Bilingual teacher Alexis Espinosa easily switches back and forth from English to Spanish as students read their homework in the language they are most comfortable using.
“We are both learning together,” Espinosa said. “This is my first year teaching in Spanish and teaching content in Spanish, so it’s been a learning experience for both of us.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of the chief education officer of Acero Schools. The correct spelling is Joel Pollack.