Monday, February 20, 2012


Noble Network raised nearly $200,000 last year from discipline penalties, protesters say

Students and parents protest the system of disciplinary fines at the Noble Network of Charter Schools on Monday outside CPS headquarters.

Students and parents protest the system of disciplinary fines at the Noble… (Nancy Stone, Chicago Tribune)

By Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah, Chicago Tribune reporter |

February 14, 2012  |  A charter network praised by Mayor Rahm Emanuel for its academically competitive schools is charging students $5 for minor disciplinary infractions like having untied shoelaces, bringing chips to school or dozing off in class. Critics say the network is using the fines to push out troubled students so it can boost graduation rates, but school leaders say tougher discipline has led to a safer school environment.

The Noble Network of Charter Schools, which runs 10 high schools in the city, has raised nearly $200,000 from the disciplinary fees last year and almost $400,000 since the 2008-09 school year, according to three parent and student advocacy groups who held a joint news conference Monday at Chicago Public Schools headquarters.

"It's nickel-and-diming kids for literally nothing that really matters," said Julie Woestehoff, executive director of Parents United for Responsible Education.

But Noble Network CEO Michael Milkie said by sweating the smaller disciplinary issues, the charter operator manages to keep a lid on school violence.

"If you have rules, you have to enforce them," Milkie said. "We maybe have one fight per year, per campus. It's an incredibly safe environment from a physical and emotional standpoint, and part of it comes from sweating the small things."

And he said students who behave poorly should be forced to pay.

"For far too long in the city, students who behave well have had their education diverted to address students who behave improperly," Milkie said. "We have set that fee to offset the cost to administer detention."

Students with Voices of Youth in Chicago Education, who have called for a new student disciplinary policy across the district, called Noble's rules draconian and totalitarian. They marched to City Hall carrying signs like "Secret Sauce Shouldn't Cost $200,000." The mayor has said the Noble Network, with its 86.2 percent graduation rate, has the "secret sauce" to providing a high-quality urban education.

At the Noble Network, which will be adding another four campuses in the next two years, that "secret sauce" includes a strict student code that issues a detention for infractions such as chewing gum, possessing soft drinks or energy drinks like Red Bull, eating chips, not tucking in a shirt after being warned and carrying a permanent marker. The three-hour after-school detention comes with a $5 fee and can include silent study period, behavior improvement work or cleaning and maintenance chores.

The costs rise if the behavior doesn't change. More than 12 detentions lands students in a discipline class priced at $140.

Critics are also concerned that the behavioral problems of students with disabilities are not being taken into consideration when doling out discipline.

"It's exploiting the parents," said Joan Blackwell, who said she has had to pay for night behavior school for her son, a student at Gary Comer College Prep who has been punished for things such as declining to shake a visitor's hand. "I don't see how it has anything to do with discipline. (Her son) was not disciplined for hurting or kicking anyone, or cursing or doing drugs. These were minor things that could've been dealt with."

Charter schools are public schools run by private groups and often have their own rules and enforcement policies.

Milkie said the network takes disabilities into account when deciding whether to discipline students and offers waivers and payment plans for low-income students. Still, last year the network lost 473 students — more than double the previous year. Milkie said the higher number takes into account more students — two new schools opened, and additional grades were added. He said the network's 91.3 percent retention rate is better than the district's. CPS could not provide its retention rate.

CPS said it's working on revamping the district's student code with input from student groups like those at VOYCE.

Some Noble parents, though, have seen the discipline policy work.

After paying more than $300 for behavior classes and detention fees, Kimberly Davis said her daughter is now on track to graduate from Comer.

"You have to buy into the program," Davis said. "For (her daughter), it worked."


THE NOBLE RULES: Why discipline matters

Chicago Tribune Editorial :

Parent, student groups criticize charter schools' student fines Parent, student groups criticize charter schools' student fines

February 16, 2012  ::  Thousands of kids line up every year for a chance to attend one of the excellent high schools run by Chicago's Noble Network of Charter Schools. There's a long waiting list for those schools because they have dedicated teachers and safe, orderly environments and they prepare their students to go to college.

There are a lot of reasons for Noble's success. One is its strict disciplinary policy. A student caught chewing gum earns a demerit. Late to class—that's not tolerated. Untucked shirts and untied shoes—not allowed. You don't shout or throw things in the lunchroom. And so on. It's a matter of respectful personal conduct.

A student who gets four demerits within two weeks must attend a three-hour detention class and pay a $5 fee for the class. Get more than 12 detentions — you really have to work at that — and you land in a discipline class that carries a hefty $140 fee. Rack up 25 to 36 detentions in one school year and you have to attend two discipline classes. Fee: $280.

All of that is "dehumanizing" to students, says Julie Woestehoff, executive director of Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE). "It's nickel-and-diming kids for literally nothing that really matters."

There's a wearying little game going on in Chicago. As the Chicago Public Schools and the Illinois Legislature grow less tolerant of failure in education, as they push for status-quo-shaking change in schools, the defenders of the old ways of education get more nervous. They try to undermine reform in nickel-and-dime fashion, picking targets here and there. This is a case of that.

Nothing poses a greater threat to the status quo than charter schools. So charter schools get targeted with nonsensical claims like this, that Noble Network is "dehumanizing" students.

If these schools are dehumanizing students, why are students lining up to go to them?

What does Woestehoff dismiss as "nothing that really matters"? Crucial keys to personal success. Focus. Discipline. Respect for others.

All those little violations — gum chewing and rowdiness and tardiness — matter. They matter because good conduct creates an atmosphere of responsibility and accountability in a school.

"Kids learn punctuality, dependability, and that there are consequences for behavior," says Michael Milkie, the former teacher who founded and runs Noble. "If kids feel they're going to be safe, if they're in a protected environment, they are more likely to develop the habits that make them successful in class."

Schools that let the small things slip can find themselves with a chaotic school environment. What do kids learn in those kinds of schools? They learn to duck.

PURE and other critics claim the Noble Network gouges students to raise cash. Last year, the 10 campuses of Noble raised nearly $200,000 from disciplinary fees. But those fees cover only part of the expense of staffing those classes and detention periods, Milkie says. "If we didn't have the fees, we would divert dollars from everyone's education to staff these classes and detentions."

Noble's tight discipline and demanding academics aren't for everyone. Last year, 473 of Noble's 5,000 students left for other schools.

Look at the kids who stay. Last year, all of the Noble schools beat the Chicago Public Schools' average in math, science and reading scores. Noble sent 91 percent of its graduates to college.

Kids and parents have a choice of schools. If the Noble rules are onerous, a student can transfer to another school. (As long as he can talk his parents into it.)

But most students and parents know that Noble's leaders are right: Discipline helps create a safe school atmosphere. It helps create success.

Ms. Woestehoff, check the name of your organization. A responsible education is exactly what Noble delivers.


Update: Voice of the People

letters to the editor of the Chicago Tribune |

February 20, 2012


Fining students. (Michael Osbun / February 17, 2012)


Fining students

This is in response to "Parent, student groups criticize charter schools' student fines; Noble Network raised nearly $200,000 last year from discipline penalties, protesters say" (News, Feb. 14), and your Feb. 16 editorial "The Noble rules; Why discipline matters." While I applaud the novel efforts to fund schools, the fines in the disciplinary program of the school run by Chicago's Noble Network of Charter Schools are a bridge too far.

I find fining students for disciplinary infractions wrong in principle. Critics who call the program draconian are absolutely on target. It is not the list of ridiculous infractions alone; the fines truly set this reprehensible disciplinary scheme apart.

Though the Noble Network does allow waivers for low-income students, the fines are inherently unfair. Five dollars, or a multiplication thereof, means much more to families driving Camrys than families with BMWs.

The Noble Network defends the program, citing its results. For argument's sake, let us take Noble's word that the program produces a well-behaved student body. However, is it the fines that are doing it, or is it the detention? What is really keeping the students in line? Are the students just too terrified? Fear is not the proper way to keep order. Students should behave because they respect their teachers and administrators, not because they fear crossing the line.

The fines give teachers and administrators a perverse incentive to discipline students. Every can of soda, bag of chips, untied shoe or untucked shirt is an extra five bucks in the disciplinary coffers. The infractions are so minuscule, they provide a huge opportunity for abuse. Disciplinarians can easily find an infraction on a student they would like to target; they just have to wait for the student to slip up.

Jerry Bauer, Chicago

Noble rules

The Noble Network does a good job. So do the Catholics, Lutherans and many other private schools. By definition these folks do things differently.

The arguments of the public-school advocates are not that these folks are not doing a good job. The real argument is that these are not public schools.

Public schools must take everyone. As demonstrated by many other groups: If we take a selected population, change the rules, give them money and facilities, outcomes increase.

Remember that these are not public schools taking all young people. This is not merely school choice but a wholesale change in public education.

Patrick Beach, Palatine

School discipline

The Tribune editorial got it right! The Chicago Noble Network of Charter Schools needs to continue to enforce its school rules. Learning cannot take place in schools without discipline. It is the one element that must always exist in a successful school. Without discipline failure will inevitably occur.

Dennis Skinder, Chicago

Earned respect

I graduated from Lane Technical High School, a Chicago Public Schools facility, in 1964. Like Noble, students were lining up to get into the school. Unlike Noble, no one was charged for breaking the rules.

Lane was a school of more than 4,000 teenage boys. There were no food fights in the large lunchroom; no fights between classes; no one ever, ever walked on the grass. If you didn't wear a belt, you were sent to the counselors' office and got a piece of rope to wear. Shirts were tucked in and disciple maintained by very competent teachers and counselors.

We weren't perfect (teenage boys rarely are), but we had respect for our teachers and parents. Respect is earned, not charged for.

Neal S. Mehr, Deerfield

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