Southwest side Chicago Public Schools organize against Noble Street Charter School Network

Today’s anti-charter-school public meeting at Kelly High School, organized by the Brighton Park Community Council, appeared to have two objectives: 1. Change the public’s negative view of Southwest side neighborhood high schools 2. Prevent Noble Street, which operates 16 campuses, from opening and getting any Chicago Public Schools money.

The variety of student speakers and leaders sent a clear message to the overflowing auditorium full of mostly students—neighborhood high schools on the Southwest side are good places to be.

Jocelyn Rodriguez, a 2012 Kelly graduate, emceed the meeting in English and Spanish wearing her graduation honor chords.  “Kelly High School,” Rodriguez said, “does make quality students.”  She explained to the audience that Noble Street’s claims about Southwest side schools being overcrowded and families not having quality options are inaccurate.  “We don’t need new schools,” Rodriguez emphasized.  “We’re not overcrowded.  Our schools are not bad schools.”

Shortly after the event began, a student sitting near me in the balcony asked a Kelly teacher if they could leave.  “Support your school,” the teacher answered.  A few minutes into the event, many students in the balcony left.  One student told me they were part of Freshman Connection, a district’s transition program for the fall’s 9th graders.

When Kelly’s principal James Coughlin spoke, he announced that the coalition of Southwest side schools would “meet and beat the competition.”  Kelly lost almost 1,000 students since Coughlin took over, leaving a current student enrollment of 2,200 students. Coughlin said they have plenty of seats at Kelly and at other Southwest side high schools.  One Kelly staff member told me that they lose most of their students to Noble Street high schools.

According to the CPS Educational Facilities Master Plan, Kelly has the capacity for 1,872 students, meaning that (according to this report) the high school is at 136% capacity.

Kelly High School Utilization

Catalyst-Chicago reported that “eight Southwest Side high schools –including two United Neighborhood Organization (UNO) charter schools – are projected to be at or over capacity next school year” based on these plans.

Whatever the cause for the discrepancy in school utilization perspectives, the real conversation is about money.  Since CPS began student-based budgeting, money follows the students.  If a school loses students, a school loses money.

Alderman Raymond Lopez stressed that $2.4 million were cut from 15th Ward schools.  This will lead to cuts, Lopez identified, in drama programs, teachers, security, and ultimately, he said, in students’ future.

Tyrika Taylor, a Kelly student in the school’s choir, stressed the value of the music program and pushed politicians to “invest in our school building instead of a new one.”  She gave examples of a hole in the school cafeteria’s ceiling, cold water in the locker-room showers, and the lack of A/C in the building.

Later, Hancock student Victor Salgado discussed the “academic and physical transformation” his school is currently undergoing with state money, estimated at $10 million, because the 50% of this year’s freshman class will be Selective Enrollment with admission based on grades, attendance, and test scores.  The other 50% will be open to neighborhood students in the Careers-to-Education Program with a pre-law component.  Without this new status, Hancock’s interior re-design would likely not have happened.

The intensifying argument about money repeats that charter schools are getting more funding than neighborhood schools.

Kennedy High School Principal George Szkapiak recently questioned the math behind his school’s budget, which principals received July 22.  In a letter to his community, Szkapiak wrote, “Public schools which had increases in their enrollments, like Options and Alternative schools, had their budgets reduced. All while Charter Schools which definitely had increases in enrollment received more than double the amount of Student Based Budget allocations they were entitled to.”

Most of today’s meeting focused on Noble Street Charter School’s intent on opening two  Southwest side campuses.  According to the Overview of the 2014-15 Request for Proposals, at least 4 other organizations applied to open schools in Southwest side locations.  So why the fuss about Noble Street?

One reason might be the vast amount of campuses the organization already oversees.  This, in many people’s views, makes Noble Street a business, a business that in 2012 paid its founder Mike Milkie a salary of $195,520 and a $20,000 bonus.  That same year, Noble raised more than half of their $50 million goal for expansion.

Compare that to one Southwest side neighborhood high school’s recent fundraising campaign to pay for their graduation at a downtown theater.  The efforts, while historic for the school, fell $370 short of a $3,000 goal.

Olivia Albrecht, community organizer at the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, says that charter schools are “more about the PR and less about the results.”  She says that she “would love to have a million choices” for Southwest side students to choose from, but “opening a new school would equal millions in losses for neighborhood schools.”

Albrecht wants to see a plan for Southwest side schools to invest in programs, safe passages, mentoring, and tutoring that are already taking place.  “That’s the biggest problem,” she says.  “there’s no plan for the Southwest side.”

Another Brighton Park Neighborhood Council staff member told me that “Noble Street lies.”

Matt McCabe, former teacher and current Director of Governmental Affairs at Noble Street, says that a Noble Street graduate who attended today’s meeting was disheartened.  McCabe is disappointed about the rhetoric. “It’s superfrustrating,” he said.  “You’ll never hear Noble Street bash another school.”  He wants to see neighborhood schools be “fantastic,” and he shared his concern about where his soon-to-be-born child will go to school.

He went on to say how at all these gatherings, no one ever yells at the parents who decide to send their children to Noble Street.  “Parents make the choice.  If parents thought Noble was bad, we wouldn’t be in this situation.”  He reiterated that Noble Street has 1,500 students from three Zip codes near Kelly currently attending Noble Street schools.

But not all the students who enroll at a Noble Street school stay.  A Kelly staff member told me the school gets many students from Noble Street schools after the first semester.  Many people attribute Noble Street’s loss of students to the fact that they cannot meet schools’ stringent discipline demands.  In fact, Noble Street stopped fining students for demerits after the fees received intense criticism.

According to Chicago Public Radio, “Since 2007, Noble’s flagship campus has become somewhat obsessed with holding on to its students. The numbers for the Class of 2013 show Noble’s flagship campus kept almost 80 percent of the original freshmen. That’s better than all but 12 other Chicago public high schools.”

McCabe mentioned the difference between perception and reality and how people think that they’ll see stringent discipline if they visit one of their campuses with students in rows, for example.  Instead, he says, “There are small groups, students smiling engaged in learning.”

Some critics claim that Noble Street’s high ACT scores, right below the city’s top Selective Enrollment schools, are due to students taking that test “like 17 times,” one person told me.

McCabe says that never happened in his classroom.  “Until colleges get into looking at something else [for admissions], that’s what we’ll focus on.”

In his previous role, McCabe advised Noble Street graduates in college.  He kept in touch with them by phone and social media to offer guidance and encouragement.  Forty to fifty percent of Noble Street’s graduates earn a college degree in six years, compared to about 14% of CPS graduates.

McCabe is well versed in telling Noble Street’s success stories quantitatively and qualitatively.  Noble Street’s Web site prominently highlights students’ achievements, garnering the attention of many philanthropic donors—and securing Noble Street’s reputation as well as lots of criticism.

McCabe recognizes that Noble Street is not where it wants to be with community conversations.  “Noble is a lean organization,” he said, where teachers focus on their classrooms, principals on the school, and their equivalent of central office staff focuses on clearing barriers so students can learn.  This limited the interactions, McCabe explained, with Southwest side community members critical of or unfamiliar with Noble Street.

While Noble Street works on responding to criticism about the two proposals for schools in Brighton Park and Garfield Ridge, neighborhood high schools face a new responsibility in unchartered territory—they must prove their schools are good enough.

Public relations and marketing worked well for schools like Noble Street.  Word of mouth stories about neighborhood high schools with poor facilities, unsafe hallways, uncaring staff, and low-achieving students, however, travel fast in neighborhoods.  That’s a challenging situation for a neighborhood high school that’s been around for generations.

In the 1980s, Kelly High School had a reputation for fights and gangs and graffiti. Staff tell me they’re still fighting to change that negative image.

Charter schools start their reputation from scratch.  Neighborhood schools start with their history.

At today’s meeting, one Southwest principal shared stories about his school’s graduates attending Harvard, University of Chicago, and Northwestern on full scholarships.

But the only people who heard this were in an auditorium with students who where mostly enrolled at Kelly and people who already believe neighborhood schools are good places to be.

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