by Michael Wille
Chicago’s charter schools are transforming public education for students throughout the city. A report released in September documents that among the city’s non-selective, open-enrollment high schools, 9 out of the top ten rankings belong to charter schools (as measured by ACT scores). Today, I was honored to visit one of these high schools with my colleagues Ted Dabrowski and Daniel Anthony. Noble Street Rauner College Prep is one of ten campuses of the Noble Street Network, a system of charter schools in Chicago started in 1999. In a system where the graduation rate is at 56 percent and a paltry 18 percent of CPS freshmen are expected to enroll in college, Rauner teachers, parents and staff are committed to reversing this trend and to sending 100 percent of their students to a university.
Immediately upon entering the school, the college readiness culture is on display and readily experienced. Banners of different universities line the staircases, hallways and classrooms to remind students of their ultimate goal. Acceptance letters for seniors are exhibited to reinforce student success and achievement. One class we had the privilege of attending was dedicated solely to college prep: assisting students with financial aid, letters of recommendation and applications. The students in this classroom were focused on learning as much as they possibly could about the best path for their futures. Our tour guides, Mindy Sjoblom, the school’s principal, and her colleague Shea Coughlin, the school’s manager of government affairs, reinforced the ideas surrounding the school’s culture, noting that a Noble-founded group called Right Angle provides the resources and talent for the class.
We ventured on to a senior level Stats class to see the learning process in action. As with all classrooms at Noble, when someone knocks on the door, a designated student answers and introduces him or herself to those present. We were greeted by a young Hispanic girl who discussed her enthusiasm for the school, the great Stats teacher who kept everyone motivated and the number of colleges she had been accepted to and was considering. The students in the classroom all wear designated uniforms: dress slacks and dress shirts. Our student guide was wearing a yellow polo under her shirt, an honor bestowed upon those students who have been accepted to college. The leadership at the school refers to this practice as rewarding their scholars with a “golden ticket.”
Following the classroom visit, we moved onto a junior level Social Studies class. Just as before, we were greeted at the door by a Noble scholar. Our student guide this time was an African-American male who discussed his current coursework. The class was writing about their “World View,” recalling what they had learned over the past semester with regards to the local community, its geography and culture. We talked with a few boys in the classroom about the project along with their college plans. After learning about our work with policy and the law, they were more concerned with what we could do to push back the city’s curfew (an unnecessary burden on their travails) than with education plans. The scholars worked individually on their projects and then the teacher began a group discussion just as we were leaving.
Noble Street Rauner College Prep is a successful charter school that serves as a model to other institutions of learning across the city and the state. With a school population of 592 and an instructional time of 7.13 hours, Noble students spend 10.6 more months in the classroom than a traditional Chicago public high school over a four year period. Of the city’s 116 non-selective high schools, Rauner is ranked #4 in composite, average ACT scores. They offer AP courses, collegiate seminars and college visits to a student body that is demographically reflective of the city as a whole: 98% of their students are minorities compared with 91% in CPS; 87% are low-income compared with 88% in CPS; and 12% are special needs students compared with 14% in CPS. The educational model they have implemented focuses on putting the students first, holding teachers and administrators accountable, rewarding those who perform well, and improving based on rigorous data analysis.
The best part is that Rauner has accomplished everything with less per-pupil funding than the traditional public high school. As Noble Street’s organization expands campuses across the city, CPS officials, state representatives and community leaders should use Rauner’s model as a template for reform.