In this file photo from 2010, middle school students at one of UNO Charter School Network's Archer Heights campuses attend a naturalization ceremony. Credit: Photo by Elizabeth Rodriguez, courtesy of UNO

(This is one of two Catalyst stories on efforts by CPS charter schools to respond to a new state law on bilingual education. See also: Charter schools take steps to improve bilingual ed.)

A year after a new state law required charter schools to provide native language support and other specialized services to English-language learners, some are sending staff to get necessary credentials, revamping curriculum and improving trainings.

But the UNO Charter School Network (now known as UCSN) — which serves more English-language learners than any other Chicago charter, and is a big reason for the new law — has made comparatively few strides to come into compliance.

When CPS pushed the network to speed up its compliance — and threatened to revoke UCSN’s charter if it didn’t — the network agreed to push up its timeline. But at the same time, network officials said doing so would have “a number of negative consequences,” including layoffs of up to half the teaching staff.

“That’s ridiculous,” says Rob Heise, a UCSN teacher and union leader who was abruptly fired at the end of the most recent school year. Heise says there’s no need to fire teachers when existing staff could start coursework to get the necessary credentials. “Look, I need the tools to help these kids. It’s frustrating for me, but imagine how frustrating it is for the kids, where they understand maybe half of what I’m saying.”

Officials from UCSN declined to be interviewed for this story, but answered questions in emailed statements.

The story of UCSN’s lagging compliance is clouded by bickering among the charter network, its beleaguered former parent organization, the United Neighborhood Organization (UNO), and CPS leaders — and by the network’s historic stance of providing English-only instruction to English-language learners, instead of native language supports.

But politics aside, how the network decides to comply with the law will significantly impact how English-learners are taught in charter schools.  (UCSN officials say the district has no right to revise or approve its plans.)

More than 2,500 English-language learners attend UCSN’s 16 campuses. That’s nearly half of all English-learners enrolled in Chicago charters. The school system as a whole has 18 schools where at least one in three students is learning English, and UCSN manages eight of those.

Because of these numbers, many advocates of bilingual education — which the Legislature mandated in 1973 — have long worried about the schools’ English-only approach. (UCSN opened its first school campus in 1998.)

“I think there’s been concern for a number of years regarding the fact that UNO has been implementing ‘sink or swim’ English immersion at their schools,” says Josie Yanguas, who directs the Illinois Resource Center, a service agency that helps staff who work with English learners.  “That type of language model flies in the face of federal law [that protects the civil rights of English-learners]… You had other charter schools that got established and from the minute they opened their doors, they were able to be compliant.”

Big hurdles to overcome

In 2013, Juan Rangel — at the time the head of both the charter schools and the United Neighborhood Organization — wrote that the network’s English-immersion model was chosen with an eye toward closing the achievement gap between English-learners and their peers and helping immigrants assimilate into American society.

As evidence, he pointed to UCSN schools that routinely outperformed district-run schools in the same neighborhoods on state assessments. And last year, most UCSN schools were rated in the district’s top two tiers for school performance.

(Rangel resigned from his post later in 2013 after the Chicago Sun-Times exposed a series of insider deals at UNO, prompting state and federal investigations. And this summer UCSN took over the management of the schools from UNO, which the charter network is now trying to distance itself from.)

Many parents believed in Rangel’s vision — which included taking pride in Latino heritage through music, celebrations and field trips — and chose UCSN schools for their children because of the English-only approach.

But because of that history, UCSN schools have perhaps some of the biggest hurdles to overcome in complying with a new state law that was passed last summer. The law clarifies that charter schools must follow the same stringent state laws regarding special education and English-language instruction as all other public schools. Previously, some charter school operators — including UNO — argued that the laws didn’t apply to them.

(It’s worth noting that UNO, other charter schools and the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, an advocacy group, lobbied against the bill before it passed. The Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff, which represents unionized UCSN workers, lobbied in favor of the bill.)

Now, charter teachers who work with English-language learners must hold an endorsement in bilingual education or English as a Second Language (ESL). Both credentials require six to eight courses and about three months of classroom time with English-language learners. The ESL credential doesn’t require knowledge of a second language, but a language exam is necessary for the harder-to-obtain bilingual endorsement.

Vague compliance plans

Last fall, CPS officials told all charter schools to begin offering bilingual programs and services with any credentialed staff already in place, and to work toward increasing the number of qualified teachers.

Documents obtained by Catalyst show that the district gave charter schools until the 2016-2017 school year to have enough properly credentialed teachers and a “clear and coherent vision” for instruction of English-learners.

CPS officials did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this story.

Blanca Jara, a spokeswoman for UCSN, told Catalyst that network officials thought they were on the right path last year, after submitting a five-year plan as part of an application to get federal and state funding meant to assist English-learners.

In the application for one elementary campus with 133 English-learners, UCSN said it wanted to use federal money to buy Rosetta Stone software to provide extra help to students learning English.

The five-year plan fit onto a single page. According to that document, the network wouldn’t “seek” a university partner for teacher credentialing until this fall. And it wouldn’t provide bilingual instruction in Spanish across all grade levels in core subjects until fall 2018 — two full school years after the compliance deadline CPS gave charter schools.

Jara says UCSN officials believed CPS had accepted that timeline because the district provided money for English-learners in response to the charter network’s funding request.

“The five-year plan was developed based on dialogue with CPS, during which the challenges of coming into compliance were discussed,” Jara wrote in an email. “Everything that we did was in concert and in collaboration with CPS and OLCE.” (OLCE is the Office of Language and Cultural Education, which oversees English-learner education.)

But emails obtained by Catalyst show that CPS officials questioned UCSN about its compliance plans on multiple occasions. Last September, a CPS official even told UCSN to revise its short-term plans for the 2014-15 school year because of the mismatch between a high number of English-learners and few teachers to serve them.

Finally, CPS denied the network extra money for bilingual supports at seven schools because they lacked credentialed teachers.

“According to your office, this is based on the fact that currently there are not certified Bilingual/ESL teachers at each campus,” a UCSN official wrote to the district’s Office of Language and Cultural Education last fall. “While this is the case, we were hoping to discuss our plan with you to further explain the need for funding on these specific campuses to help recruit or train teachers.”

Jara says after receiving this email UCSN added goals to its five-year compliance timeline, but she didn’t specify what they were. The seven campuses never received additional funds.

Audit shows problems

This past June, then-interim CPS CEO Jesse Ruiz called for an audit of UCSN to determine whether it was complying with state law governing English-learner services.

The audit was rushed. It was conducted over just two days, and the final document provided to UCSN is missing entire sections to explain compliance issues.

Ruiz defended the quality of the audit and explained it was done quickly to give UCSN as much notice as possible to try to hire more credentialed teachers.

In addition, the district was in the process of reviewing UCSN’s ability to run its schools as the network prepared to drop UNO as its paid schools manager. Ruiz thought it was “prudent to call for an ELL audit” at the same time.

But UCSN officials described the targeting of its network as “unfair and discriminatory conduct initiated against UCSN” by Ruiz, who had lobbied against the split between UNO and UCSN.

CPS did not conduct a similar audit in other charter schools, although Ruiz announced in July that the district will audit all schools, including charters, for compliance with English-learner services and spending requirements. That audit is expected to take at least until January to complete.

“It’s not just them,” Ruiz says. “We started with them because frankly, I suspected they were way off compliance, and they are.”

Although the UCSN audit may have problems, it still raises serious questions about how quickly the network will be able to offer state-mandated services for English-learners.

Auditors found that the network had not implemented 16 of 28 applicable legal standards for English-language learners — including failing to put a bilingual and ESL program in place and not providing appropriate instructional materials — and only partially implemented 10 others.

Teachers at UCSN campuses say their schools continued to follow the network’s English-only model throughout the 2014-2015 school year. It wasn’t until the very end of the school year — when news reports surfaced that CPS might revoke its charter because of its failure to serve English-language learners — that teachers say administrators began discussing the issue.

By the end of the school year, UCSN employed just 11 teachers with credentials to serve students learning English, according to CPS. That number was up from earlier in the school year, CPS said, indicating an attempt to increase qualified staff. But the number was still well below the nearly 100 credentialed teachers CPS says UCSN would need to serve its English-learner population.

“Despite having staff in place,” CPS auditors wrote, “interviewees stated that the Network was gathering facts and assessing how it was going to implement programs and services over the coming years.”

(UCSN doesn’t agree with those figures. The network told Catalyst that in the most recent school year it employed 17 teachers with ESL endorsements and 11 with bilingual endorsements.)

A new plan for compliance

Most of the steps UCSN did take in the first year after the law was passed involved preliminary planning.

The network says it put together an “ELL Bilingual Task Force.” It’s made up of the same people who drafted the original five-year plan, plus teachers and parents — although some parent activists say they’ve never heard of any such group. The network also says it has trained staff on the proficiency test for English-learners and traveled to California to visit model schools, with more visits planned to schools in CPS, Elgin, Cicero and Waukegan.

Jara, the spokeswoman for UCSN, says the network is still working to choose a model and design a program for bilingual education. She declined to share any details about those plans.

Asked whether UCSN teachers had been advised of programs where they could seek credentials to serve English-learners — as is happening at other charters — Jara said UCSN was continuing to “collaborate” with teachers to “explore and evaluate the available programs.”

In response to the CPS audit, UCSN now says it aims to achieve compliance with state law by July 2017. The network says it will purchase appropriate ESL materials and encourage teachers to begin coursework for a bilingual or ESL credential, as well as identify teachers eligible to get a provisional license. It also said that in hiring new teachers, it would prioritize those with the credentials.

But the network is not speeding up its compliance plan happily. And it has threatened to sue the district for interfering with its plans.

“Instead of fighting compliance, they should be complying with the law,” Ruiz says. “Focus on how you’re going to fix it — and how you’re going to fix it as quickly as possible.”

Kalyn is a reporter for The Chicago Reporter. Email her at and follow her on Twitter @kalynbelsha.

Melissa Sanchez is a reporter for The Chicago Reporter. Email her at and follow her on Twitter at @msanchezMIA.

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