A Passion to Succeed

Add to the billions of soccer aficionados around the world the students, families, teachers and staff at the new Soccer Academy charter school in Chicago, a brand-new facility that brings together a love of the sport with a real push toward academic excellence. In other countries, “soccer academies” cost a pretty penny, but elementary school students in Chicago’s largely Latino neighborhood of Gage Park attend at no cost thanks to the efforts of the United Neighborhood Organization (UNO). The nonprofit runs nine other charter schools in predominately Latino neighborhoods across the city and is the nation’s largest Hispanic-based charter system.

Organizers of the Academy figured that they could appeal and inspire children ---and gain interest among the parents---if the newest school focused on the Latino community’s number one sport: soccer. “Soccer has a unique place in the world and in the Latino community,” said Academy principal Thomas Denneen. “It is an interest and a passion that students share with their parents and it motivates them to succeed. There is enormous local interest in the sport and it connects them.”

Denneen added that when students are given an issue or topic they like, it can be the “hook” that keeps them in school and helps them succeed. “When students have a real passion for something, they tend to do better. Soccer is their passion and it’ll help them succeed academically.” UNO is hopeful that the Academy will also help erase the historically large percentage of Latino students who drop out of school. Latino students have a higher dropout rate nationwide than any other group, and educators and analysts say that many times students leave school because they don’t feel “connected” to their studies and are bored and not motivated. Additionally, their families face many challenges of raising children in an urban area oftentimes without resources and with underperforming schools. “This school grew out of the consideration of the challenges the Latino community faces in education,” said Denneen.

Like at any other school, Academy parents are concerned about their child’s education and are always looking for better options for their students, and that is precisely what this school offers. “Many of our parents do not have the resources and access to options that others may have, and this school gives their children the opportunity to succeed, and we give parents the opportunity to become involved. Parental involvement is very important,” said Denneen.

UNO received nearly $100 million in state funding two years ago to build additional campuses in Latino neighborhoods around the city, and $25 million was earmarked for the state-of-art glass-enclosed facility that the 575 students at the Academy enjoy. According to a 2009 study on overcrowding in Chicago schools, there is a need for at least 27 new elementary schools to address overcrowding. UNO’s vision is to educate and train young students and athletes, and over the next several years add a high school, an indoor soccer facility, and an outdoor soccer stadium with a public plaza.

“There’s no doubt that Hispanics, especially teenagers and young adults, face serious challenges. We see that in the rising high school dropout rates, teen-pregnancy and gang violence,” UNO CEO Juan Rangel wrote in a recent Huffington Post blog. “Our nation’s immigrants have always succeeded in building on our high expectations of them. Hispanic Americans are no different. I am heartened by the hard work and determination that I witness in our schools and our community. Every day I see young Hispanics who are eager for America’s promise.”

UNO officials say they envision integrating soccer into the entire school curriculum, and have named the classrooms after countries that hosted the World Cup, soccer’s ultimate prize. The school’s focus on the world’s number one sport doesn’t mean a day just of fun and games for the students.

“Our emphasis of course is on academics,” said Denneen. “We are making sure our students develop academically, such as in reading and math. We want them to succeed academically.” Denneen and other academy officials say soccer is an avenue to help the students in the classroom. Sports, they say, help students set goals, become disciplined, and learn to work together.

Another unique aspect of the school is a concerted effort to integrate not only fitness into the school day, but nutrition as well. School lunches are healthy as well as tasty. This addresses another challenge facing the Latino community, the connection between childhood obesity and food insecurity.

“We are looking at the overall wellness of the student, making sure they have proper nutrition, access to the resources they need, a good environment,” says Denneen. “That way they become the well-rounded, successful student we all want them to be.”

By Patricia Guadalupe