Teachers and parents at Acero Schools, one of the largest charter school networks in Chicago, say school leaders are not doing enough to eradicate what they describe as a culture of racism that doesn’t do enough to support its mostly Hispanic students.
The network, formerly known as UNO Charter School Network, long had an English-only approach across all 15 campuses. In the last six years, school leaders have moved away from that approach and say they’ve tried to create a more culturally inclusive environment for all its students. But, at a board meeting Wednesday, teachers and parents said those changes were made in name but not in practice.
“Over the past few months, I keep hearing that Acero is an anti-racist network and a network that puts the social-emotional needs of students first,” said Emily Rosen, a kindergarten teacher at Acero Brighton Park. “I hear this, but I do not see it.”
Acero officials defend their approach, saying they have brought many programs to support student’s language and cultural background. These include mental health resources, information on citizenship classes, virtual “know your rights” workshops, scholarships opportunities and English language classes.
“We have done this as well as prioritizing celebrations like Indigenous People’s Day, National Coming Out Day and Hispanic Heritage Month,” Richard Rodriguez, CEO of Acero Schools, said during the meeting.
This comes as non-Hispanic families are also raising concerns about the school culture.
“My daughter is an African American young lady that attends Acero Schools and she has been bullied,” said Khalilah Omar, whose daughter is a sixth grader at Acero’s Zizumbo elementary campus. “I sent several of the board members emails since spring concerning my daughter and racism and bullying.”
A lack of support for LGBTQ students was also raised Wednesday night.
Despite some improvements, teachers and parents at Acero, which enrolls some 7,000 students, have long complained about bullying and lack of support, especially for students with language needs and disabilities. Unionized Acero teachers were also the first charter school teachers in the nation to walk out over issues including class size and more support for immigrant students.
Their frustration grew over the summer and when Acero two weeks ago laid off 10 teacher aides, most of them bilingual. Acero officials say the layoffs were due to enrollment declines.
“We continue to discriminate against bilingual staff and hire administrators with no bilingual experience who can’t communicate with students and families,” said Katherine Huete, a sixth grade teacher at Marquez Elementary in Brighton Park on the Southwest Side.
The move from English-only to bilingual education
The network began to move away from English immersion 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. It also launched a pilot dual language program starting in two of its schools a few years ago.
But an analysis by WBEZ of the most recent Chicago Public Schools evaluations of bilingual programs shows that 8 of 15 Acero schools have the lowest rating when it comes to serving its English learners. These students make up nearly half of the student population at Acero. Acero schools are among the 72% of schools evaluated by CPS that also fell short.
Acero officials say they’ve come a long way.
“For four years now, Acero Schools has worked extensively to transition from what was historically an English immersion to a bilingual approach to student learning.” said Helena Stangle, Acero’s chief external affairs officer via email. “Year-over-year, we see the fruits of this labor,” she said, noting an improvement from previous years when all 15 of Acero’s schools only met CPS’ “minimal” bilingual program standards — the lowest rating.
Acero officials also say they’ve invested in biliteracy training and faculty enrichment opportunities. They also expect the bilingual education rating to improve at some of its campuses.
Over the summer, Rodriguez received a letter signed by the network’s chief education officer and principals of the Acero Network, but didn’t specify their names or the schools they represented. In the letter, principals complained of not being heard when they advocate on behalf of students and staff. That chief education officer is no longer employed by the network.
The letter addressed other key issues. “We have documentation of sexism, racism, preferential treatment and a lack of support to our LGBTQ+ communities where issues have been raised and are ignored,” the letter said. “This has been a consistent and significant obstacle to student learning for the last 10+ years.”
The school administrators also raised issues of lack of transparency and access to Acero’s financial information. They called for an overhaul of the network’s leadership structure to help facilitate these changes.
The letter also includes a list of strategic priorities they want network officials to follow, including ensuring an anti-racist experience for students, families and staff and a thorough evaluation of the systems in place to serve English learners. Other demands include creating a truly welcoming environment for everyone, regardless of race and sexual orientation.
In a recent letter to staff, Rodriguez said the allegations of discrimination were unfounded, adding that several principals had not seen the letter or were not involved in its creation. Rodriguez also said he and other school officials have begun a series of one-on-one meetings with school principals and other staff on how to further support students.