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Feedback: Noble Charter Schools Story Hit A Nerve

Look familiar? The photo we ran with our first story about Noble featured the same teacher, Ann Baltzer, with her advisees, posing for the yearbook. It was a reshoot of this photo, in which one student's tattoos are visible. Baltzer says this photo was taken at the end of the day, after the student had removed her sweatshirt. No one at Noble (including teachers) is allowed to have visible tattoos.

Earlier this month, we posted a story about discipline practices inside Noble Network of Charter Schools, which educates approximately one out of 10 high school students in Chicago. One former teacher quoted in the piece described some of the schools’ policies as “dehumanizing.”
The story was shared widely on social media, and drew responses from Noble employees — both current and former — and other education advocates.

In an email to staff days after publication, Noble president Constance Jones Brewer wrote that unspecified parts of the story were “exaggerated or plainly false.” At least two principals sent messages encouraging their teachers to ignore the piece.

However, several teachers indicated the story aligned with their experiences. One current teacher reached out via an anonymous email, then agreed to talk if we protected their identity to avoid retaliation. The teacher related recent incidents of students receiving “unfair” detentions, including one case of a student punished for requesting makeup work.

The teacher echoed what others had told us: That Noble enforces its discipline policies by sending auditors to observe teachers interacting with their classes. The audits are focused purely on discipline. “We DO NOT get audited from Noble to assess our ability to teach, only on our ability to control and get our students to submit to authority,” the teacher told us.

The teacher, who works at a predominantly black campus, believes there’s a troubling disconnect between behavior required by Noble’s strict system and needs of students in the surrounding neighborhoods.

“Noble schools want all the submissive and compliant kids or those that are very impressionable,” this teacher texted. “But kids on the South & West Sides (of Chicago) aren’t like that. You don’t survive in those neighborhoods that way. So what do the kids do? They fight the system and act just the opposite of what Noble wants.

“One student says it best, ‘When you treat us like animals, what do you think we are gonna act like?’”

Through the teacher, several students also agreed to communicate by text message.

Several students, supported by two teachers at Noble’s Pritzker College Prep, led the initiative to change the dress code from khaki to black pants, in part to hide stains female students worry about when they’re menstruating. CREDIT SCREENSHOT: NOBLE NETWORK OF CHARTER SCHOOLS

One described an issue raised by others at some Noble campuses, regarding girls not having time to use the bathroom when they get their menstrual periods.

“We have (bathroom) escorts, and they rarely come so we end up walking out (of class) and that gets us in trouble,” she texted. “But who wants to walk around knowing there’s blood on them? It can still stain the seats. They just need to be more understanding.”

At certain campuses, teachers said administrators offer an accommodation: They allow girls to tie a Noble sweater around their waist, to hide the blood stains. The administrator then sends an email to staff announcing the name of the girl who has permission to wear her sweater tied around her waist, so that she doesn’t receive demerits for violating dress code.

Last year, two teachers at Noble’s Pritzker College Prep helped female students persuade administrators to change the dress code from khaki bottoms to black dress pants. Although their initiative was based in part on a survey showing that 58 percent of Pritzker students lack in-home laundry facilities, it remains a pilot program available only at the Pritzker campus.

Other readers commented on the story website. One of the first came from “alexP,” a self-described Noble alum who later said he returned to Noble as an employee. He described having to kick a student out of class for not wearing a belt. It “literally broke my heart,” he said.

“This said student had not been at school for a few days so that was his first day back. He told me ‘you have no idea the type of night I had but here I am at school but I get kicked out of class because of a belt.’ Those words broke me,” “alexP” wrote.

“That moment made me hate the discipline system,” he explained. “I felt powerless when all I wanted was to help this kid. This moment was a moment of anger as well as realization. I can sympathized (sic) with all of those fellow teachers speaking out after having worked at Noble.”

Several commenters defended Noble’s policies. Ashley J Dearborn, a Chicago-based actor, wrote on our Facebook page that she worked with Noble CEO and Superintendent Michael Milkie during the time he co-founded his first charter school, after having taught at a Chicago Public School.

“Mr. Milkie believed if given the right conditions, these Black and Brown kids could excel and compete with the best. They have. In order to achieve this, stringent rules and regulations were developed,” Dearborn wrote.

On the NPR Illinois website, Tori Skidori commented: “Charter schools are schools of choice, meaning families CHOOSE to go to the school instead of the regular public school. If it was so terrible they wouldn’t be there. It is their choice.”

Other families have said that choice slips away as CPS continues closing neighborhood schools.

The issue of discipline at Noble schools was also addressed during a recent meeting of the network’s board of directors. Union activists attended the quarterly meeting and signed up to speak during the public comment period. Some were teachers, some were former teachers or alums, and some read statements prepared by alums who couldn’t attend in person.

Noble officials have privately suggested that teachers are publicizing discipline stories as a way to promote their unionization efforts. Our story quoted teachers who already left Noble, making them unlikely to directly benefit from unionization.

At the board meeting, a statement from “Alfredo,” who graduated from Noble’s UIC College Prep in 2013, described the stress of the Noble curriculum and behavior expectations that he called “stifling.” His experiences contributed to depression and when he was 15, he said, he attempted suicide.

During his senior year, he wrote, he was sustained by the thought of rebelling against the Noble system.

“One of the only things that got me through the year was knowing that attending community college was going to be an affront to everyone who constantly prodded me with applying to schools that I couldn’t afford just so the school could have X percentage of students attending universities,” Alfredo wrote.

“Going into college, I was no more prepared for college and life in general after high school than I was when I started,” he continued. “With the way your schools are run, greed is causing you to hemorrhage great teachers who actually know what’s best for the development of young minds.”

Jesus Ayala Jr. also provided a statement. He said that he graduated from the original Noble campus in 2010 and now holds a master’s degree from Illinois Institute of Technology.

“My high school years were very demeaning. The less money my family made and the better my grades and test score were, the more valuable a statistic I became. This was a best case scenario,” he wrote.

“I fully understand that my success was built on the backs of the students at Wells High School one block west who did not have a say in a Noble opening up. It was built on the backs of my 50+ peers who started their high school career with me but were deemed not worthy enough to graduate with me from Noble. By creating a few winners, we are creating more losers.”

The board did not respond to these statements.

The teacher who was motivated to reach out by Brewer’s email is actively seeking employment elsewhere, and has continued texting information, despite the professional risks.

“I feel I’m potentially risking my entire career by sharing all this information with you,” the teacher wrote. “I feel like there’s nothing else I can do to try to change this.”

 Editor’s Note, 5/18/18: This story was updated to clarify in a caption why students pushed to change the Pritzker dress code, and to provide additional context for the Noble teacher who asked for anonymity for fear of retaliation.
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