Chicago's biggest high school charter told to fix admissions policy, make it easier to apply

CPS tells Noble Street charter schools to stop requiring families to attend info sessions to obtain applications.

July 17, 2014

(WBEZ/Bill Healy)

Chicago Public Schools is telling its largest charter high school network to make it easier for students to apply to its schools.

Noble Network of Charter Schools runs 16 high schools in the city, including two opening this fall. The network educates 10,000 CPS students.

In the past, Noble has only given applications to families who attend scheduled “information sessions” on particular dates. If parents wanted to apply to five campuses to increase the likelihood their child would be accepted at a Noble charter, they had to go to five information sessions.

Noble CEO and founder Michael Milkie says the goal was to get parents to make an informed choice about whether to sign their children up for the schools, which have a reputation for strict discipline. He says he also wants parents to know the basics, like where the campuses are located.

“They’re going to have to get here 200 days in a row in their freshman year, so we don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask them to go to five sessions if they’d like,” says Milkie. “But, at the same time, we are adjusting (the admissions policy) slightly.”

Noble Street’s charter renewal with the school district, signed by Chicago Public Schools board president David Vitale last month, says “the application must be available to all parents and students without limitations, such as an open house or school visit requirement.”

Noble must also indicate that a student essay it has required on its application is actually optional.

“Any essay requested must be optional for the student, will not be judged, graded or considered as a part of the application process, and completion of such essay will not impact lottery submission,” Noble’s new charter contract states.

Milkie says Noble Street has never graded the essays, which ask students why they want to attend a Noble school. Nor have they been used to sort kids. “We just want to make sure they’re interested,” says Milkie, who says requiring the essay gave kids who really wanted to attend Noble school a greater possibility of going, and sorted out “people who don’t know anything about Noble. Because Noble is different than other schools, and they should know about it.”

Changes to the application process come as a new WBEZ analysis shows that in every community with a Noble high school, the charter attracts a significantly higher proportion of above-average incoming students than the nearby traditional neighborhood high school—even though both types of schools must be open to all kids. For instance, at Kelvyn Park High School, 25 percent of incoming freshmen scored above the district average on an exam CPS mandated all schools give in the fall of 2012; at the nearby Noble-Pritzker campus, 54 percent of incoming freshmen scored above average.

The Noble charter network touts high ACT scores and college-going rates and has used its success to fuel expansion. It hopes to open 20 schools by 2020. Mayor Rahm Emanuel has called Noble “the most successful high schools I’ve seen.”

Jack Elsey, Chicago Public Schools’ Chief Innovation Officer,  said CPS  “routinely evaluates charter school policies and procedures…to ensure alignment with the district’s values and expectations” –particularly during the sort of charter renewal process Noble just went through.

Elsey said Noble has always been transparent about its application process, but that “CPS expectations have evolved since Noble's contact renewal five years ago.  Previously acceptable practices may not meet the current standards,” he said. “It's important that every student has as easy access to an application as possible.”

Elsey could not say whether the district believes Noble’s admissions policies are the reason the network enrolls more above-average kids and fewer low-performing students than nearby schools. “It's impossible to say what kind of role this played,” said Elsey, noting there are other reasons why higher performing students might be disporportionately represented at the schools. “Good schools attract certain students, and Noble has a very good reputation here in the city of being a great school.”

Milkie disputes the notion that his incoming students achieve any higher than students at other schools. He says the Noble scores look higher because by the time students took the incoming test, which was given 4-6 weeks into ninth grade, his students had pulled ahead. “There’s no question that a part of this or maybe all of it is the learning that they get early,” Milkie says. “Other schools may not be so focused. We really tell them, ‘Hey, this test is important. Focus on it.’” A citywide admissions pool may be another factor, Milkie says. Neighborhood schools may also enroll students from any part of the city, as long as there is space.

Milkie says Noble will enroll anyone of any ability level. There is room today in a third of Noble campuses for anyone who wants to come, he says. The schools’ new application materials are available at the campuses.

Linda Lutton is a WBEZ education reporter. Follow her @WBEZeducation