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Making Americans: UNO Charter Schools and Civic Education

Wednesday, January 30th, 2013

In the latest in our case studies series on teaching citizenship in charter schools, David Feith, an editorial features editor at the Wall Street Journal and editor of Teaching America: The Case for Civic Education, takes a look at the way that UNO charter schools in Chicago approach civic education. The UNO Charter School network is one of the two largest charter operators in Illinois, and the nation’s largest with a focus on the Hispanic community.

You may remember learning about the UNO charter network  from our event last year on “Teaching America,” at which UNO CEO Juan Rangel spoke. According to Rangel, immigrants typically come to the United States with the intention of returning to their home country—but rarely do. UNO’s task is to teach both parents and children that their future is in America, and to give them the tools and mindset to thrive in this country.

He continued: America has “lost sight of what the public schools were intended to do and what we need to do to help students feel that they’re part of a whole . . . . We need to get back to what the purpose of a public school was intended to be. That’s to create not just educated and engaged citizens, but educated and engaged American citizens.”

In his policy brief for the Program on American Citizenship, Feith examines how this goal plays out in the schools’ daily approach to civic education. He writes:

With 13 schools, a staff of 450, 11 buildings, 191 instructional days a year, a charter authorizer to satisfy every five years, and several standardized tests to administer annually, UNO has much to do besides directly Americanizing its students. But in doing all that, the network tries to apply its civic principles as broadly as possible. This begins outside the formal curriculum.

UNO mandates that all students begin each day by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, for it and the national anthem “powerfully convey commitment and reverence toward the United States. . . . Especially for immigrant communities, it symbolically helps instill a sense of belonging, membership, and shared purpose as Americans.” School rules demand deference to civic protocol: “When reciting the Pledge, all must be standing at attention, facing the flag with the right hand over the heart. Men, not in uniform, should remove any non-religious headdress and hold it with their right hand over their left shoulder, along with the same hand that is over their heart.”

UNO explains that this daily routine—so controversial elsewhere—flows simply and directly, indeed necessarily, from the network’s core mission: “UNO recognizes that the United States gives its people the right and the opportunity to pursue happiness, a promise that has driven generations of immigrants to this nation. In return, we have an obligation to pledge our loyalty and demonstrate our national unity.” As for the Star-Spangled Banner, UNO mandates its singing at all public functions, accompanied by the display of an American flag.

Read all of Feith’s report, “Making Americans: UNO Charter Schools and Civic Education.”

Related: Learn more about our case studies series, “Teaching Citizenship in Charter Schools.”