By Dan Mihalopoulos and Azam Ahmed Tribune reporters
The recent dedication rally for a new school on Chicago's working-class Southwest Side drew a long list of political heavyweights, including the governor, the Illinois Senate's top Republican and some of the mayor's highest-ranking Latino aides.
The outdoor rally on 47th Street wasn't just about turning a former industrial bakery into a striking, luminous glass school building. It also was a display of political prowess by the people who built it.
The United Neighborhood Organization, the city's largest Latino community group, is poised to become the biggest charter school manager in Illinois after scoring a $98 million state grant to build eight more schools.
How UNO landed all that cash -- believed to be the largest-ever taxpayer windfall in the U.S. for a community-run charter group to build schools -- at a time of massive government budget deficits is a classic Chicago story of awakening immigrant clout and lobbying muscle.
It's also a story of a Latino organization whose leaders unabashedly encourage the state's fastest-growing minority group to assimilate to life in this country and apply that approach to schools that largely educate Hispanic children.
The group's Mexican-American chief executive, Juan Rangel, said the organization makes a conscious effort to copy the century-old, up-by-the-bootstraps approach of white ethnic immigrants like the Irish and Italians. He renounces the more recent fight-the-power style of some African-American and Latino leaders who have sought to expand their political influence.
"Is this community going to see itself as another victimized minority or are they going to be the next successful immigrant group?" Rangel said. "There is an assumption that this community mimics the African-American community -- where it's been and where it's going. That's not the case at all. It has very little in common with the African-American experience."
Rangel also is not shy about touting the group's friends in high places, including Mayor Richard Daley and Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago).
"UNO is very open about what it's trying to do," Rangel said. "It's trying to build power for the Latino community."
But he insisted that the state grant was the result of more than old-fashioned clout, noting that the group builds schools faster and cheaper than Chicago Public Schools . And UNO schools outperform city district averages on tests.
The group began organizing in 1984 in the South Chicago neighborhood and soon spread to other heavily Latino areas. It adopted the approach of noted Chicago community organizer Saul Alinsky, who sought to lift up the poor by working from within the existing power structure.
Rather than fight City Hall, the group has sought to cozy up. Daley has attended its annual banquets and has spoken to its leadership class, where the political ambitions of young Latino professionals are nurtured.
Two graduates of that class sat front row at the recent school opening: new CTA President Richard Rodriguez, who also has headed Daley's buildings and aviation departments; and city Human Resources Commissioner Homero Tristan. Joining them was Ald. Danny Solis (25th), the former UNO leader who now is Daley's chief Latino ally on the City Council.
Also in the crowd of Mexican-American families at the event in the Archer Heights neighborhood was Mike Noonan, the group's Springfield lobbyist and a former top Madigan aide. Noonan's lobbying partner is Victor Reyes, a former top Daley aide who doubled as head of the scandal-scarred Hispanic Democratic Organization, a pro-Daley patronage army.
UNO's ties to Reyes -- and Daley -- have sparked complaints that the group is nothing more than the "new HDO." Rangel caused widespread grumbling among Chicago Latino leaders in 2006 when he wrote an essay in the Tribune defending HDO. Though Reyes has never been charged, another top HDO leader, Al Sanchez, recently was convicted of rewarding campaign workers with city jobs.
Latino critics of HDO say it did not empower Hispanics and merely was used to harness Hispanic clout for white politicians. Detractors note that HDO worked against Latino candidates who were not backed by Daley.
So a small uproar erupted in Springfield when some Hispanic leaders learned how much UNO was set to receive.
"I just felt like $98 million for one entity? What about all these other entities there that deserve some money?" said Sen. Iris Martinez (D-Chicago). "It's kind of hard when all these other schools don't have paid lobbyists."
To appease all sides, legislative leaders gave $50 million to four other charter-school operators.
UNO first got involved in charter schools in the mid-1990s, when Paul Vallas ran the district. The endeavor got off to a rough start, Rangel said, but by the time their charter renewal was up, results had improved.
Among Latinos, the organization is rare for openly using the term "assimilate" to describe the process of getting used to life here. At its charter schools, "bilingual education" are the dirty words. Even a student who speaks only Spanish, freshly arrived from a Mexican village, is placed immediately in an English-language class.
With the new $98 million, the group plans to double its schools to 16, making it the largest charter operator and manager in the state. The organization's schools serve 3,450 students, of which 91 percent are Hispanic. Nearly all qualify for free or reduced lunch.
The new schools also will help address crowding in predominantly Latino areas. The organization has waiting lists for its schools, but hopes to be able to educate 8,340 students when the new buildings open.
As for performance, the schools on the whole perform better on state assessments than city public schools, records show. Attendance rates at the group's schools also are higher.
The recently dedicated three schools in the new building are named after Latinos killed in U.S. military duty. A group of local Latino veterans enjoyed seats of honor at the front during the rally.
After the speeches ended, the time came to drop the scarlet curtain obscuring the building's glass facade. The crowd began to count down as the theme song to "2001: A Space Odyssey" boomed through speakers.
Parents and children held American flags. There was not a single Mexican flag in sight.