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Academic goals score highest at  Soccer Academy

Updated: November 16, 2011 1:27AM



If I were to tell you what this city really needs is a new elementary school built around a basketball theme to entice African-American kids and their parents to take more of an interest in school, I imagine I’d understandably catch some grief.

But on Tuesday, Chicago will see the opening of its newest charter school, the UNO Soccer Academy, a gleaming $27 million facility at 51st and Homan designed to attract the interest of Hispanic students and their families by harnessing that community’s passion for its favorite sport.

And I’m thinking this just might be the start of something.

Organizers of the UNO Soccer Academy say they are more interested in teaching the school’s 576 students in kindergarten through eighth grade how to successfully pursue academic goals than how to score soccer goals.

Yet it’s the excitement of putting a round ball in the back of a soccer net that they think will persuade more students to work hard in school while getting their parents engaged.

At the same time, school organizers also hope to groom some elite-level soccer players with the academic credentials to earn college scholarships — after a stint at the soccer academy’s yet-to-be-built high school campus. Many otherwise qualified Latino players at present don’t have the grades or test scores to play in college, they say.

For those who see some kind of stereotyping or misplaced values in the school’s soccer emphasis, United Neighborhood Organization CEO Juan Rangel has a simple answer.

“We know our community very well,” Rangel said of the group that has been organizing around Hispanic empowerment in Chicago for nearly three decades and in the process has become its most influential voice in the halls of government. “Soccer is part of the family culture. We’re adopting that culture into our school.”

Not coincidental to its political involvement, UNO also is a major player in the charter school movement. The Soccer Academy will be the 10th school in its network. Another smaller UNO charter slated to open on the North Side this year will bring the total to 11.

The group used its power to push a $98 million school construction grant through the Legislature two years ago. The soccer academy is the first facility built with that money. Rangel said UNO is waiting for Gov. Pat Quinn to release more of those funds to move ahead with plans for the soccer high school.

When I visited Friday, construction crews were still hard at work inside the stainless steel and glass structure erected on a former industrial site in just 10 months since the groundbreaking. If the state money is made available, Rangel said he expects to have the high school open by next fall.

Rangel touts that ability to move faster and at lower cost than the Chicago Public Schools bureaucracy as part of what sets the UNO charter schools apart. Charter schools, as you may know, don’t have to play by the same rules as your normal public school.

The only obvious physical aspect of the school that speaks to its special mission is a small-scale practice field in the place of a playground with a rubberized surface like the type you might find on a running track.

In addition, each classroom is named for a country that hosted the World Cup soccer tournament with an accompanying locator map by the door.

Even after hearing an explanation from the school’s director, Tom Denneen, I’m not clear exactly how the academy’s teachers will work the soccer theme into the educational curriculum, though many of the teachers have soccer backgrounds.

“We are not going to be judging and grading students on soccer skills,” Denneen promised.

But Rangel said the school will treat physical education as seriously as reading or math, while gym classes will revolve around soccer and soccer-related conditioning.

Noticeably missing at the school is an actual full-size soccer field. Rangel says that won’t be ready until spring. In the meantime, UNO hopes to use other fields in the neighborhood and will bus students to a nearby indoor soccer facility this winter.

He pointed out a warehouse north of the school that he said UNO hopes to acquire and convert to its own indoor soccer facility.

More than 800 students signed up in a lottery for the 576 available slots, nearly all of them Hispanics from the Southwest Side.

The school doesn’t yet have a name, but Rangel said UNO has been trying to get in touch with Edson Arantes do Nascimento to seek his blessing to name the school after him. The world knows him better by his nickname, Pele.



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