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Chicago Charter School Network Defies Expectation

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Chicago Charter School Network Defies Expectation

Education

Chicago Charter School Network Defies Expectation

Chicago Charter School Network Defies Expectation

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Principal Eric Thomas lectures a group of freshmen at Rauner College Prep, a high school in the Noble Network of Charter Schools in Chicago, during the first week of school. Courtesy of Noble Network of Charter Schools hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy of Noble Network of Charter Schools

Principal Eric Thomas lectures a group of freshmen at Rauner College Prep, a high school in the Noble Network of Charter Schools in Chicago, during the first week of school.

Courtesy of Noble Network of Charter Schools

Students at a Noble Network charter school look through a microscope. Courtesy of Noble Network of Charter Schools hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy of Noble Network of Charter Schools

Students at a Noble Network charter school look through a microscope.

Courtesy of Noble Network of Charter Schools

Noble Street College Prep is a remarkable example of what a school can do for kids who've never known success. The public high school in Chicago takes mostly poor and immigrant students. A hundred percent of the students graduate, and almost all go to some of the nation's top colleges.

Committed Students

Principal Bill Olsen started as an English teacher at Noble Street College Prep, and he quickly realized that it was unlike any Catholic or public school that he ever worked in. He says the kids at the school rekindled his love of teaching.

"Teachers want to be in a place where they can be successful, and they want to be able to give their all to kids," Olsen says. "It's phenomenal when you get a student who comes to you and says 'I know I have a long way to go, but I will do anything to get there. Just help me; teach me; I will do the work.' And that happens all the time here at Noble Street."

One measure of students' hard work is pinned on a wall right outside of Olsen's tiny office: a U.S. map peppered with little cards stamped with the names of former students.

Olsen points at the map, showing where some Noble alumni have gone: University of Cincinnati, DePaul University, Southern Illinois University, Northwestern University, University of Chicago, Bates College and Amherst College.

Olsen and his staff have actually convinced kids that long school days, lots of homework and a grueling work ethic is good for them.

The curriculum requires twice as much math and twice as much reading and writing than what a regular high school requires. And when people here say, "Failure isn't an option," they mean it.

Grueling Hours For College Prep

Eric Thomas is another young principal in the Noble Charter School Network. He says many of his students come to the school two to four years behind grade level. It's crucial to have the right teachers to motivate these students, but a solid education plan is also necessary, he says. All seven Noble high schools in Chicago espouse the values — discipline, honor, scholarship — in order to reach one goal.

Thomas says a longer school day, a longer school year and mandatory weekend tutoring prepare the students for college.

"Students have to pass every class they take and some are taking nine to 10 classes a school year," Thomas says. "We have students who are staying till 6 and 7 o'clock at night."

As a result, there's a zero dropout rate and an 80 percent college attendance rate.

The class of 2008 alone received $2 million in college scholarships. Jason Suarez, a high school senior, says there are rewards if you work hard and take the toughest courses, such as calculus.

Suarez says he's finally learned how to write well and compose a good college essay. In middle school, he says, nobody talked about working hard or going to college. At his high school, people talk about college constantly. Suarez says Noble opened his eyes to possibilities he'd never considered.

"I will probably be going for a minor in business, and if I can [I'll become] a surgeon — a brain surgeon," Suarez says.

Creating An Educational Model

Casey Carter, a senior fellow with the Center for Education Reform, says Noble has created an educational template that works.

"We've been talking for 30 years about how do we replicate what works," Carter says.

Carter has written extensively about high-achieving, high-poverty urban schools. Unfortunately, he says, most inner-city public schools don't put the students' needs first.

"Typically, it's not the outcome of children learning that's driving the principal or teachers, unfortunately," Carter says. "We need a system that rewards, encourages and inspires."

Others say too many educators, deep down, still believe that children growing up in poverty are damaged goods and can't learn — or certainly not at high levels.

Amy Wilkins, of the children's advocacy group Education Trust, says she's seen lots of examples where schools get those kids to learn at high levels.

"The question is really for us adults," she says, "and do we have the will to give those kids the conditions they need to succeed?"

Political leadership is the last crucial piece, Wilkins says. It's no accident, she says, that bold reforms have taken root in cities where mayors have taken over the school bureaucracy — New York City, Washington, D.C., and Chicago, where the district's CEO Arnie Duncan is intent on closing failing schools and cloning successful ones.

"We're trying to build great schools, not for tomorrow, but for the next 50, 80, 100 years," Duncan says. "We only allow great players to come in where I have total confidence in their integrity and what they're about. So if these new schools don't do a good job — students don't show up — I'll close them down."

Duncan's biggest frustration is that there still aren't enough schools like Noble. None of the seven campuses in Noble's network of charter schools can accommodate more than 500 students, so it's forced to select students by lottery. The school inevitably ends up with a long, long list of kids it cannot accommodate.

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