Today’s press conference and march against Noble’s predatory discipline code

Today, PURE joined with the Washington, D. C.-based legal advocacy group Advancement Project and Voices of Youth in Chicago Education (VOYCE) in a press conference and march to protest the Noble Charter School Network’s predatory student discipline policy. Not only does Noble punish students for the smallest infractions of their dress and behavior codes, but they charge fees for these infractions that can add up to hundreds of dollars and result in the student having to repeat the entire school year regardless of their academic  progress.

A FOIA request to Noble from PURE showed that Noble has profited nearly $200,000 in just one year from their discipline system. A fact sheet we prepared provides details. Our full press release is here.

Here’s the statement I gave at the press conference:

We’re here today because parents and the public need to know what’s really going on in schools run by the Noble Network, a charter school management company that has been called “a miracle,” a model that all schools should copy. Noble is a private school management company that was just given contracts by the Chicago Public Schools to open four more schools and which hopes to double its number of campuses in another year, from 19 to 38.

Recently, in a video touting National School Choice Week, Mayor Emanuel praised Noble for having “the secret sauce.” Well, just like the fast food equivalent, people need to take a closer look at what’s in that secret sauce.

PURE has gotten complaints about Noble since the first school opened. Like parents at other charter schools, Noble parents call us because they have nowhere else to go to complain if there’s a problem. And one of the big concerns parents have had with Noble is its discipline policy, so we started to look into it. We filed a Freedom of Information Act request with Noble and learned from the data we received that the charter company is profiting to the tune of some $200,000 per year from a discipline code that can only be called predatory.

Students are fined $5 for any infraction on a list of prohibited conduct as long as my arm, a list that pretty much describes the full gamut of teen-age behavior including such minor issues as having a shirt button unbuttoned or being seen with a bag of chips or sharpie. In addition, Noble imposes the “Acting SMART” system in which students are supposed to:

S = Sit up straight in chair and ready to learn

M = Make eye contact when addressed

A = Articulate in standard English and speak in proper volume

R = Respond appropriately

T = Track the speaker

As the Fact Sheet we have provided shows, when students receive more than 12 detentions, they have to pay $140 to attend a “behavior class.” And if they receive more detentions, they have to take two discipline classes, costing a whopping $280.

Noble will not waive these fees, even for low-income families, and about 90% of Noble students are low-income. While Noble says they will set up payment plans for families who struggle to pay these exorbitant fees, ultimately, if a student fails to pay, they will be HELD BACK and forced to repeat the entire school year, regardless of their academic status.

We took this information to the Advancement Project and asked for their legal advice. Together we wrote a letter to Michael Milkie, CEO of the Noble Network, describing our concerns. We later met with him and several of his staff. They promised to consider the issues we raised and get back to us, but in the end they made no real changes in their policy.

Noble claims that they need the $5 from students to pay people to staff the discipline room (they call it the LsSalle Room, and a detention is called a “LaSalle). They say that they would not be able to afford their reading program otherwise. We wonder how they can run a 19-school network if they have to balance the budget on the back of low-income families like that.

Noble also claims that their discipline policy is the only way to keep students safe. Well, that sounds a lot like the excuse the dictator gives for imposing martial law or a totalitarian regime, where every aspect of a person’s behavior is monitored and punishable.

We say…

  • It isn’t “noble” to treat teenage students like two-year olds.
  • It isn’t “noble” to impose an arbitrary discipline system in which anyone can be punished and fined for almost anything.
  • It isn’t “noble” to pick the pockets of families who are already struggling with fees, fines and taxes that go higher and higher every day in Chicago.
  • It isn’t “noble” to treat your predominantly African-American and Latino students as though they are all potential criminals whose every movement must be harshly controlled.

All parents want safe schools that prepare their children for success in life. Parents overwhelmingly want those schools to be close to home. But when local neighborhood schools are starved for resources, closed or taken over, some parents feel they have to look around for alternatives, and the charter and turnaround schools are right there with glossy brochures and expensively-produced videos promising great things. The reality is not so rosy, as parents like Donna Moore, who is about to speak, found out. At Noble, the price of safety is a dehumanizing discipline system that looks a lot more like reform school than college prep. It’s not what parents want for their children, and it’s not a model for the way young people in Chicago ought to be educated. There is a better way.

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About the PURE Thoughts blogger
Julie Woestehoff is PURE's executive director. Julie's work has earned her a Ford Foundation award and recognition as one of the 100 Most Powerful Women in Chicago.