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The Reader goes to charter school 

A visit with UNO's Juan Rangel

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In the spirit of diplomacy—think Sadat going to Israel, Nixon to China, or Obama to Congress—the Reader recently paid a visit to an UNO charter school.

The United Neighborhood Organization is the former Alinsky-styled community group that's built an empire of 11 charters and counting through what executive director Juan Rangel describes as years of "hard work."

What he doesn't stress quite as much is the political clout and connections UNO has cultivated with mayors Richard Daley and Rahm Emanuel, as well as Governor Pat Quinn, to the tune of about $30 million a year in public funding. And counting.

As for the Reader, well, in our tongue-in-cheek political roundup to close out 2011, we honored Rangel, in a manner of speaking, with the Halliburton Award, given to the private contractor who quietly runs a wing of government.

To his credit Rangel hit us right back, posting a link to the piece on his Facebook page with his own snarky wisecrack: "I usually don't promote the rants of people who despise charter schools, who are knee-jerk UNO haters or who just plain loathe successful Hispanics, but this week's Chicago Reader made me LMAO.... Check it out! If you want a hard copy, you can find one in any gentrified neighborhood where Hispanics have been displaced."

Touche, Mr. Rangel—you should be blogging for the Bleader.

Anyway, not long after, Rangel's press secretary got in touch and invited us to visit their newest school and talk with Rangel in person.

And so on a recent weekday morning we drive down to a predominantly Hispanic southwest side neighborhood of bungalows—except for the mansionlike complex that 14th Ward alderman Ed Burke built behind a fence paid for with public funds. Burke, by the way, is another UNO ally.

The school, officially named the UNO Charter School Network Soccer Academy, is a gleaming modern building of steel and glass at 2916 W. 51st that truly stands out—it looks a bit like a space station that landed in a stretch of railroad yards and vacant industrial lots. UNO had it built last year with $27 million of a $98 million grant that Quinn awarded the organization for school construction.

In the front is a red, six-foot-high steel UNO logo, impossible to miss for anyone driving down 51st or flying above in a rocket to the moon. We're greeted in the lobby by Rangel, a squat man with a soul patch who wears an impeccable suit. He's accompanied by his press aide and Miguel d'Escoto, UNO's senior vice president, who served as city transportation commissioner under Daley. They immediately take us on a tour that's been given to numerous other reporters and columnists in town. Hey, better late than never.

Rangel starts by explaining that the school has a soccer theme—the classrooms are named after countries that play in the World Cup, and in addition to academics, the curriculum emphasizes sports and fitness.

But most of the students aren't in classrooms just then—they're on their way to or from gym or lunch. As we talk, groups of youth file past in neat lines, all wearing matching navy blue Adidas sweat suits with the UNO logo emblazoned on them.

Rangel stops at a window on the second floor overlooking a vacant lot to the north. He explains that by summer this will be the site of one of the largest soccer fields in the city. "We will have exclusive use during the day, but the public will be able to use it after hours," he says. This is important for the whole community, he continues, because there's a shortage of first-rate soccer fields in the public park system.

In short, having stepped in to take over duties once performed by the public schools, UNO is now moving in on the Chicago Park District. "We are filling the gaps," Rangel says.

If it sounds like he's telling us that these public institutions have failed the Hispanic community, that's because he is: "They could do better."

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