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Danny Steffel marks off which students came prepared with supplies to his 9th grade English class at Noble's original campus.

The ins and outs of Chicago’s charter network expansion: What’s working, what’s not – and why

by Bryan Lowry
Jan 31, 2013

Charter School 5 Essentials

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Data courtesy University of Chicago

Click on this graph to compare how different charter schools in the city scored on the University of Chicago's 5 Essential Survey for 2012. According to the data, there is a big difference between Noble and other charter networks.

Noble pic 1

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Wesley Jackson (front), a junior, listens intently to his teacher Nick Caputi in biology class.

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Nick Caputi leads his junior class in a lesson about cell organelles for which he has them create an analogy between something in the city and a part of a cell based on the similarity of functions.

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Ashley Riggio helps freshman Nina Lobodecastro understand the directions to a grammar assignment.

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Paulina Juache and Bianca Diaz participate in the discussion in their biology class.

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Nick Caputi, a biology teacher who uses a lot of humor in his lessons, discusses with his students how chloroplasts are like factories that produce batteries.

Walk into a classroom. The subject is biology. The teacher is discussing cell organelles. The students are focused, taking notes. Some are even smiling. The teacher asks a question and a dozen hands shoot up. There are no disruptions or misbehaviors of any kind. Is this really happening in Chicago? Is this really happening in America?

This is Noble Street College Prep.

Don’t let the name fool you. This is not a school with selective enrollment. This is not a private school. It’s a charter school. It’s also a public school, according to Angela Montagna, director of external affairs for the Noble charter network, who is quick to correct anyone who says otherwise.

“This is my home,” said Tonya Milkie, who founded the school with her husband, Mike, in 1999. “Until we had kids, we really did live here, and I wondered why we even had a condo.”

Both Milkies worked in CPS neighborhood schools before opening Noble’s initial campus, located in West Town. Their network has since expanded to 12 schools across the city, and there are plans to add two campuses in the near future.

For the 3,000 spots available for incoming students at Noble’s various campuses, they have received nearly 6,000 applications. The original campus has received four times as many applications as there are spots, according to the principal. Noble is non-selective, so the students are chosen by random lottery. Families will find out if their child’s name has been drawn early this month.

Noble operates with a philosophy that stresses two things: autonomy and accountability. That applies for students, teachers and administrators.

“One of the things that teachers appreciate is respect for their ability to make decisions in the classroom,” said Bill Olsen, the principal of Noble Street College Prep, who previously worked at the school as an English teacher. “You’re crazy if you don’t give them autonomy.”

Students must learn a set of skills, but how they do so is left to the teacher’s discretion. Teachers are given the freedom to design their own curriculum. Student growth is then measured with several assessments, according to Noble officials, with priority going to their performance on the ACT, an exam that predicts college readiness. Teachers are then evaluated on their students’ success on these assessments. “More autonomy and more accountability,” Olsen said succinctly.

The Chicago Teachers Union criticized the charter movement and Noble in particular in a December report, titled “The Black & White of Education in Chicago Public Schools: Class, Charters & Chaos,” for placing too much emphasis on standardized testing.

“The amount of data-driven instruction and decision making in terms of how they deliver instruction, it’s completely tied into the ACT. From the moment they step in, they’re just all about improving test scores,” said Pavlyn Jankov, a research facilitator with the union, who contributed to the report. “The level of test prep or test-driven instruction seems to be really, really sort of suffocating in these environments.”

“The question is are these students really learning or are they just learning to improve on these metrics and how are they going to be succeeding later on in life? And are we really giving them a rounded education,” Jankov said.

Noble maintains that its instruction is geared toward developing knowledge and skills, and that standardized tests merely function as a measurement of progress toward that goal. Last year Noble accounted for nine of the top 10 ACT scores for non-selective Chicago schools. This is with a student population that is 89 percent low-income and 98 percent minority, according to data provided by the schools.

“Our students’ experience of learning, of the life of the mind, has got to be deeper than standardized tests,” Olsen said.

Morelia Rangel, a freshman originally from Mexico, shared a smile when asked what she likes about English, her favorite class.

“I’d say the writing, because I get better at it,” she said. “I add more detail now.”

The 5 Essentials study conducted by the University of Chicago provides a portrait of a school’s environment not always shown by standardized tests. Here Noble is also surpassing the average CPS schools.

The study breaks the recipe for a successful school into five components: ambitious instruction, effective leaders, collaborative teachers, involved families and supportive environment. Survey answers from students and teachers are compiled and then calculated on 100-point scale. The results are then transformed into a chart that resembles a traffic light: green for schools succeeding, yellow for schools that fall in the middle and red for schools that need improvement. Noble, at each campus, is green across the board.

However, that doesn’t mean every charter school is seeing the same level of success. Chicago International Charters, another large charter network, has several campuses in the red, scoring below the CPS average. Chicago International’s Washington Park campus only scored a 19 for supportive environment. These categories can then be broken into subcategories. The school scored a 12 for safety and a 1 for student-teacher trust.

This score comes from student responses to statements such as “My teachers treat me with respect” and “I feel safe and comfortable with my teachers at this school.”

Other campuses in the network that scored low on the 5 Essentials included Avalon/South Shore, Prairie and Ralph Ellison. Chicago International’s West Belden campus scored far higher, with an overall score of 70 in supportive environment. Chicago International Charter Schools did not return a request for comment.

Other charter networks scored more evenly with the CPS average. For example, the Octavia Paz elementary campus of UNO, a network that mainly serves the Hispanic Community, scored a 50 on involved families compared to a CPS average of 53. Not enough students answered survey questions regarding ambitious instruction or supportive environment to calculate scores.

“There needs to be more campuses like Noble in Chicago. Not every charter school is a good school,” said Marion Tucker, whose daughter attends Noble’s Johnson College Prep campus in Englewood. “Bottom line is they need to be quality.”

Tucker’s daughter, Kameryn, is in her sophomore year and her family has already noticed effects from her transition to the charter. “Before, it was a little difficult to get her to do homework. She does those things now. She comes right in, lays it down on the table and does it.”

He credits this to the school’s culture, noting that students are referred to as scholars. “Can you imagine being a C or D student coming into a new school and being called a scholar?”

Jen Cotton graduated from the original Noble campus in 2005 before moving onto Carleton College in Minnesota, where she majored in American Studies with a concentration in education. After graduation, she took a job at her high school alma mater. She observed that the school had evolved since her time there as part of the third graduating class. Each teacher provides office hours similar to a university professor and student advisory groups have become more structured, two changes she believes have increased the school’s effectiveness.

“I see how the students now are a lot more motivated,” she said. Cotton, the school's office manager, serves as adviser to a group of 15 sophomore girls, whom she will follow through to graduation.
“Money and buildings are our two biggest challenges to expanding,” Montagna said.

CPS officials confirmed that the number of charter schools will expand from 117 to 129 next school year, a move that has been criticized by neighborhood schools advocates, who accuse charter schools of draining students and resources. Two of those additional 12 charters will be Noble campuses. The locations for the new schools have not been determined. Some supporters of neighborhood schools fear that schools closed by CPS will be reopened as charters.

“It would infuriate me that I would have to walk by the school that I was a part of – I’ve had four graduates come out of that school – and now you’ve changed it to a charter school and tell me that I can’t go and that I have to go two miles down the road?” said Kenwood resident Charlene Campbell, the mother of a student at Reavis Elementary, a school in danger of closing, at a neighborhood schools rally last week.

A bill introduced in the Illinois House on Monday by state Rep. Daniel J. Burke, a Chicago Democrat, seeks to increase charter funding. Charter schools currently receive 75 percent of the per pupil public funding that traditional public schools receive. They make up the difference with grants and donations from corporations, trusts and individuals. His measure, HB980, if passed, will increase charter funding to 97 percent per pupil.

“The fact is that charter schools are public schools. The dollar amount will travel with the student. Very basic,” said Burke, who introduced a previous version of the bill last year. That one failed to pass. He is optimistic that the new bill, which has yet to go to committee, will be able to find the needed 60 votes this time. “In my community we quickly realized charter schools were a godsend, because they relieved overcrowded public schools.”

Burke said the bill will not affect funding for traditional public schools.

He blames the influence of the Chicago Teachers Union for defeating the original bill.

The union has repeatedly warned that charter expansion will have a negative effect on the school system as a whole.

“We’re not trying to say that Noble might not have innovations worthy of replicating,” said Jankov, the union’s research facilitator, clarifying the union’s published claim that the charter movement provides innovation in name only.

“The issue is whether or not the reason that charters are being expanded is to systematically improve schools or is it to have a system that effectively creates this two-tiered education level, where in one hand you have a high turnover, selective environment and another school system where you have underfunded neighborhood schools,” he said.

Montagna, director of external affairs at Noble, acknowledged that charters such as Noble, which requires a parental commitment of four school visits a year, attract families with higher levels of involvement in their child’s education. Involvement has been shown to be a major predictor of academic success. She said that this may contribute to Noble’s high test scores. To counter this, the network does numerous outreach events to inform families that might be unaware of the option, she said.

“I mean, this is about school choice. We think that every school should have the high expectations that we have for our students, but ultimately it’s a parent’s and a family’s choice. And they should have that choice,” she said.