Top Chicago Charter School Network Admits A Racist Past

The Noble charter school network is one of many charters nationally backing away from punitive discipline policies aimed at students of color.

The Noble Network of Charter Schools, which has 17 Chicago campuses, is apologizing for its past discipline and promotion policies, which it now calls “assimilationist, patriarchal, white supremacist and anti-black." WBEZ
The Noble Network of Charter Schools, which has 17 Chicago campuses, is apologizing for its past discipline and promotion policies, which it now calls “assimilationist, patriarchal, white supremacist and anti-black." WBEZ

Top Chicago Charter School Network Admits A Racist Past

The Noble charter school network is one of many charters nationally backing away from punitive discipline policies aimed at students of color.

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Chicago’s largest charter school network sent a letter to alumni this week admitting that its past discipline and promotion policies were racist and apologizing for them. The apology is notable not just as an acknowledgment of misguided policies, but as a repudiation of the “no-excuses” philosophy adopted by many charter schools during the 2000s.

For years, Noble Charter Network had an ultra-strict approach in which students, for example, got demerits for small offenses, such as not wearing a belt, not following a teacher with their eyes and failing to sit up straight or wear black dress shoes. After a certain number of demerits, students had to pay for behavior classes. If they continued to get demerits, they could be forced to repeat a grade, which led many to transfer out.

The email calls the discipline and promotion policies “assimilationist, patriarchal, white supremacist and anti-black,” according to the email sent to alumni on Monday. “We were disguising punishment as accountability and high expectations. We did not fulfill our mission to ALL students,” the email continues.

The letter set off a firestorm among former students, some of whom feel vindicated and others who say they think it was disingenuous. Some alumni point out the email did not explain what changes have been made, offer any type of reparations or ask for their feedback. Instead, the email includes a survey about whether they would want to participate in alumni events.

“I felt like it was too late,” said Monyea Collins, who attended Hansberry College Prep, a Noble campus in Auburn Gresham on the South Side. “I cannot go back and redo high school. They knew the policies were wrong and they could have redid them.”

But Noble officials say they have made and are making fundamental changes, and that the apology is just the beginning of the work they intend to do to repair harm.

With about 13,000 mostly Black and Latino students, more than one in 10 Chicago public high school students goes to a Noble campus. For years, Noble’s “no-excuses, sweat the small stuff” philosophy was well-known and embraced by the school district and by some of the most prominent Chicagoans.

Its founder and chief executive officer Michael Milkie saw this approach as fundamental to the network’s success. He highlighted the fact that his schools, which don’t require a test for admission, out-performed neighborhood high schools. The Noble campuses are consistently highly rated with impressive high school graduation and college-going rates. Charter schools are largely publicly funded but privately managed.

Mayors touted Noble’s success and big donors such as former governor Bruce Rauner and the former U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker and her husband Bryan Traubert lined up to support them financially. The organization’s most recent audit shows it brought in nearly $200 million in fiscal year 2020, the vast majority from tuition payments from Chicago Public Schools, to run its 17 campuses. It also raised $9.4 million last year.

But Noble’s campuses also had high student suspension and expulsion rates. Charter schools can set their own student discipline codes, and even as CPS changed its disciplinary practices to move away from suspension and expulsions in district-run schools, it never held Noble accountable for its practices.

In fact, in recent years, charter school suspension data has not been publicly available through the school district. But CPS officials are now applauding the apology by Noble. “All schools should continually self-evaluate biases and act to change them if a student group is being disproportionately impacted,” they said in a statement.

“It’s important to own it”

Noble is one of a number of charter school networks across the country, opened in the 2000s, that touted strict discipline and high expectations. Like Noble, these schools serve mostly low-income Black and Latino students. Facing criticism, many of them have backed away from the rhetoric of no-excuses.

Noble might be the first to ask forgiveness from alumni.

Jennifer Reid Davis, chief equity officer for Noble, said it is part of an initiative by the network to become anti-racist.

“It’s important to own it,” she said. “I think you have to say it, I think you have to be honest. Part of what it truly means to be anti-racist is to be honest about the circumstances in which you are in and or created.”

Davis said the network has been making changes to its policies over the past few years, including letting students go to the bathroom without an escort, letting students attend school with dyed hair and it’s stopped charging students $140 for behavior classes. Noble is in the process of reviewing all policies through an anti-racist lens. She also said the network is now rejecting this “no excuses,” approach.

Milkie insisted that by paying attention to small infractions, discipline issues did not snowball. Milkie who had taught at a neighborhood high school often said he wanted to provide an alternative to what he saw as a chaotic environment.

Milkie held this view until he was forced out in 2018 after allegations of impropriety came to light. At the time, Chicago Public Schools said it was launching an investigation into what was going on at Noble. The school district says its investigation into Noble is still “ongoing.”

Davis said the current Noble administration, which is led by a Black woman, does not believe that the only way to get good results with Black and Latino students is to have them in a super-strict environment. That belief, she said, is racist. She also doesn’t think that discipline is key to the schools’ outcomes.

“I personally believe that we have gotten great results because of our awesome teachers, because of our focus on college and because I believe that students genuinely, deeply, honestly want to learn,” she said.

“High school was dreadful”

Alumni agree. In fact, they say the super-strict discipline made them dislike school and changed their vision of themselves as students.

“For the most part, it felt like every day going to high school was dreadful,” Collins said. “At most high schools, the goal is to graduate and go to college. When I hit Hansberry, my only goal was to get through the day without getting into detention or getting suspended.”

Collins said she will never get back the innocence, time or money that the school took from her. She said she started getting demerits her freshman year in 2015 for coming late or not wearing a black belt or leaving class to go to the bathroom without an escort.

Up until 2014, Noble charged students for each demerit, but that practice stopped after it was revealed that Noble was catapulting families into debt. 

Collins, who rarely got in trouble in elementary school, got so many demerits at Hansberry that she had to pay for several behavior classes.

Collins said her mother started to see her as a troublemaker. Then, at the end of her sophomore year, her demerits rendered her unable to be promoted. She left and went to Hyde Park High School where she graduated early. She’s now a student at Jackson State University in Mississippi.

Collins said she would like to hear more about the policy changes at Noble campuses and also to be paid back for the behavior classes she was forced to take.

In January, Noble announced it was changing the promotion policy. It now allows every student to be promoted as long as they meet minimum academic requirements. It also allows students who transferred out because they weren’t promoted to return and join their original class.

Josh Helm, another Hansberry alumni, said the policy that tied promotion to behavior had devastating consequences for some students. Some of his classmates transferred, but others wound up dropping out.

He said it also made him dislike school. Helm said it stripped him of creativity and being himself.

“The discipline was well-intentioned in how they articulated it to us,” he said. “But it only seemed to degrade students and did not do students any good.”

Over the years, some teachers and parents have charged that forcing students out was one way that Noble got its seemingly stellar outcomes.

A 2010 joint investigation by WBEZ and the now defunct education news site Catalyst raised questions about how Noble and other charter schools were getting academic results. It detailed some of the strict discipline policies at Noble. The investigation also found charter schools had a high number of students transfer out and, according to an internal CPS memo, students who left charter schools were lower performing than those who stayed.

A parent’s view

In the years that followed, there were numerous reports about how the network’s discipline policy affected students. But parents continued to send their children to Noble schools.

Parent Athena Mitchell said she was attracted to Hansberry because it was small and she believed it would be safe. And at first, she liked the discipline and the fact it was well enforced. Her oldest son started at Hansberry in 2014 and she said he got a good education.

But Mitchell said she had to go up to the school several times to stand up for him when she thought the discipline was too much. Mitchell said she sometimes felt the staff did not understand the students’ culture and overreacted to their behavior. She said they had to be reminded they were working with teenagers.

“I understand you have to have discipline, but these are young adults you are dealing with and you have to have balance,” she said.

By being super involved, Mitchell helped her son work through the issues. Yet many of the students who started with her son did not wind up graduating with him.

Still, she is happy that discipline is more relaxed and that the school is intentionally talking to staff about racism and helping students address the reasons why they might be acting out. She also has built a good rapport with the current staff at the school. And so as her twins started high school this year, Mitchell decided they too would go to Hansberry.

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.

An earlier version of this story said Noble hired a collection agency to recover debt owed by students. Noble says the school never hired a collection agency but parents over the years reported being contacted by debt collectors.