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Noble maps out massive charter school expansion, feds support it

Despite a financial crisis in Chicago Public Schools and increasingly organized opposition to the prospect of more charter schools, Chicago’s largest charter network has plans for a massive expansion in the city, according to a successful grant application it submitted to the federal government.

The Noble Network of Charter Schools, which already runs 16 schools and educates 10 percent of all city high school students, plans to open eight more high schools in Chicago in the next five years. Noble forecasts educating 6,000 more students for a total “market share” of 15 percent of Chicago Public Schools’ high school population.

By 2020, the charter network projects its total revenues from CPS and the state will climb above $200 million annually for the education of 17,675 high school students.

“We continue to experience demand for additional Noble seats from the families we already serve, and the families that want us to come into our communities,” says Sara Kandler, development director at Noble. “We hear from them about the impact that Noble has made on their children, their nieces and nephews, their neighbors—and we have new families coming to us regularly saying, ‘I want a Noble option, or I want a Noble option closer to home.’ And so that’s what drives our continued vision for expansion,” says Kandler.

The U.S. Department of Education is supporting the expansion through an $8.4 million “Replication and Expansion” grant awarded at the end of last month. Noble was one of just 12 charter networks in the country selected to receive the grant.

Noble’s application, submitted in mid-July,  calls for the network to grow at the rate of two campuses per year — and includes specific locations for the first three campuses as well as “naming donors” — wealthy individuals who agree to bankroll the start-up of a campus until students arrive and sustained public funding kicks in. The budget section of the application outlines plans for the next nine campuses:

  • “Campus 17 - Mansueto” Joe Mansueto is CEO of Morningstar. This campus, the only one in the federal application currently being considered by CPS, could open at 47th and California in Fall 2016 if Chicago’s Board of Education approves it later this month.
  • “Campus 18 - Lavin (Bernick) at St. Jerome” The Carol Lavin Bernick Family Foundation has been a donor to Noble in the past. In June, Noble announced that the charter school network was nixing a plan to locate in Rogers Park, possibly at St. Jerome.
  • “Campus 19 - Lutz at St. Turibius” St. Turibius school, located  at 57th and Karlov near Midway Airport, closed in June. The Michael And Karyn Lutz Family Foundation has donated to Noble in the past.
  • Campus 20-25 No specific locations are mentioned for these campuses. Noble’s budget forecasts some being located in leased facilities and others in CPS facilities.

Noble staff and representatives say locations listed in the grant are “not up-to-date,” but they would not say the locations are completely off the table through 2020. Noble would not confirm the identities of the “naming donors” associated with each campus, saying that talks with donors are ongoing. In the grant application, Noble credits “deep networks of high-wealth individuals” for its growth to this point. It says it already has names for four campuses.

Noble schools post high ACT scores (though WBEZ has shown they also start with far more high-performing students than neighborhood schools). Noble was recently named the best charter network in America.

Illinois U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel both wrote letters in support of the federal grant, on official letterhead.

Noble says it will use the grant to purchase things like new technology and furniture at two current and eight  future campuses: lab tables, lockers, laptops. They will also purchase “enrichment supplies”—things like weight room equipment and musical instruments.

Teachers union: Noble grant is a “mortal attack” on struggling schools

The Chicago Teachers Union’s assessment of the federal grant for Noble expansion: “I think it amounts to [U.S. Secretary of Education] Arne Duncan putting out a hit on neighborhood high schools,” says union vice-president Jesse Sharkey, who says the grant is a “mortal attack on a number of public schools.”

Sharkey says the traditional public school sector is “starved for dollars. Our neighborhood schools have a hard time just delivering a basic education program. But at the same time there’s federal dollars and private dollars mixing together to privatize schools.”

Several Chicago high schools this year have freshmen classes of just 20, 25, or 30 kids — that’s the entire freshman class. There are more than two dozen district-run high schools — including neighborhood high schools Fenger, Harper, Hirsch, Manley, Richards, Robeson, and Tilden — with fewer than 400 students total. A half dozen high schools have fewer than 200 students.

The under-enrollment problems have ballooned as the city has continued to open new high schools — part of its school improvement efforts — even though high school enrollment has been essentially flat. Since 2004, the population of high school students has grown less than 2 percent, while the number of high schools has grown 58 percent — and that’s not including dozens of alternative schools the city has added.

Sharkey predicts more school closures will be a “natural consequence” of the Noble grant.

“It’s like we’re going on a privatization bender in our schools,” he says. “And we’re gonna wake up in the gutter and discover that we have sold off the assets of our public education system, and our schools are being run by private operators that don’t have our values.”

The teachers union, which has been a consistent political foe to Mayor Emanuel, stands to lose thousands more members — and power — if Noble’s schools do open, pulling kids away from schools with unionized teachers toward the non-union Nobles.

Patrick Brosnan, the executive director of the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, wants to know why a private entity gets to decide it’s opening more taxpayer-funded schools.

Who says we need more high schools? he asks. Brosnan’s group has opposed the new Noble campus proposed for 47th and California for fear it will mean fewer students and thus less funding at nearby Kelly High School, which has seen its population cut by one-third and its budget slashed by $4 million in recent years, as five new schools have opened nearby.

“It’s basically up for grabs. They get to make these decisions and make these plans, and there’s really no public discussion about this,” says Brosnan. “I mean, there would be a tremendous impact on existing schools.”

This is Noble’s second federal charter school expansion grant. Sara Kandler at Noble says the last grant helped Noble open six campuses.

“Ultimately it would be unwise for Noble to not take advantage of this grant opportunity and directly bring a significant amount of cash and investments to the Chicago Public School system to affect and hopefully improve the education for thousands of students,” Kandler says.

Kandler says the network has had a growth mindset for at least a decade: “This grant...can really help us start on that next phase.” Noble’s founder and superintendent Michael Milkie told WBEZ in 2011 that he could imagine Noble Street running “20, 30, 40 high schools….I foresee a day where—I hope—where a majority of the students are educated in either Noble campuses or campuses like that at the high school level.”  

Chicago’s Board of Education will still have to approve the eight new schools Noble wants to open. And the hurdles to that have never been higher. The district is in a financial crisis. Forty-two aldermen have called for a freeze on charter schools. North side communities shut down plans for new Noble campuses this summer.

But the network has the mayor and the governor on its side, along with tens of millions of dollars in projected philanthropic donations. Plus, Noble says, thousands of kids who want the sort of education the charter school offers.

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

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