Blog: Latino Ed Beat

Latino Charter School Operator Promotes English Immersion

The United Neighborhood Organization (UNO) began as a Latino advocacy group in Chicago in the 1980s. But now the UNO name is known more for education, as a charter school operator running ten K-8 schools and one high school.

UNO enrolls about 6,500 students, about 95% of whom are Hispanic, 93% low-income and 38% English Language Learners.

The group still emphasizes serving Hispanic students. What I find interesting is that the system emphasizes using English immersion techniques for English Language Learners. The school system’s web site emphasizes that the curriculum offers “a complete American experience.”

Juan Rangel, CEO of UNO, recently emphasized the approach in an essay about how to best educate Hispanic children for Education Next. Rangel himself did not speak English when he enrolled in kindergarten, The New York Times noted in a profile of him. He was born in Brownsville, Texas, to undocumented immigrant parents from Mexico.

“I picked up the language so fast,” he told the Times.

In his most recent essay for Education Next, he promotes the necessity for schools to promote assimilation to immigrant children.

Rangel’s support of English immersion is interesting, given that many Latino educators support the bilingual education model. Illinois is one of the states that uses bilingual education to educate ELLs. Rangel points out that his students perform better than those in Chicago Public Schools on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT).

In particular, the following passage stands out:

“Immigrants and native-born Americans alike recognize English as a unifying feature of American society and as a key to immigrant advancement. Poor English-language skills not only delay full assimilation for our community, but also deny Hispanics full access to American opportunity. UNO chose English-language immersion over the traditional bilingual transition program to teach English to its children and families.

Structured English-language immersion challenges the conventional approach to educating English language learners (ELL). Our students’ limited English-language skills could easily be used as an excuse for low performance or a need for unlimited resources, but we see it as a necessity for teachers to differentiate their instruction to reach all learners, including ELL students. Most pragmatically, English immersion is effective in closing the performance gap between ELLs and their peers nationwide, and is financially viable and scalable—unlike the many bilingual transition programs that require untenable complements of teachers and resources and produce mixed results at best.

I believe, and our schools’ performance bears this out, that a well-rounded, rigorous program with excellent teachers and leaders works with any population of students, and works especially well for Hispanic immigrant children.”

According to the Illinois Interactive Report Card, about 76 percent of UNO students met or exceeded state standards. The system does face academic struggles–it did not make adequate yearly progress.