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The Noble Network is the leading charter chain in Chicago. It boasts of high test scores. It is the darling of the Chicago white elite, including such luminaries as former Republican Governor Bruce Rauner and billionaire Penny Pritzker, who served as Obama’s Secretary of Commerce. White apologists and admirers of the strict no-excuses discipline policy claimed that black and brown children needed the tough rules so that they could learn middle-class behaviors. David Whitman published a book praising “no-excuses” schools called Sweating the Small Stuff: Inner-City Schools and the New Paternalism, in which he praised the high-performing schools (mostly charters) that enforced “no excuses.” His book was published in 2008; in 2009, he became the chief speech-writer for Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who often lavished praise on “no excuses” charter schools.
The Noble Network wrote a letter to its alumni, apologizing for its strict “no excuses” policy, which it acknowledged was “racist.” Over the years, critics have said that the practices of “no excuses” schools are racist, but they were defended by charter advocates based on their test scores. They argued that the ends justified the punitive and harsh means. To be sure, the “no excuses” practices enabled charters to kick out the kids who did not conform and did not meet the school’s demands. The high suspension and attrition rates contributed to their “success.”
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...
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.
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...
Some students 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 and sending a collection agency after them.
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.