Chicago Charter School Network Defies Expectation The Noble Network of Charter Schools takes poor and immigrant students who are often two to four years behind grade level. Through an intensive learning environment, nearly all the students graduate and some go on to the country's top colleges.
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Chicago Charter School Network Defies Expectation

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Chicago Charter School Network Defies Expectation

Chicago Charter School Network Defies Expectation

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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

Welcome back to All Things Considered from NPR News. I'm Andrea Seabrook. Imagine an inner-city public high school that takes mostly poor students, many of them immigrants, graduates nearly 100 percent of them, and sends them to some of the nation's top colleges. You might think it couldn't happen.

Well, it does in Chicago. Noble Street College Prep is a remarkable example of what a school can do for kids who have never known success, which makes a lot of people wonder, why can't more schools be like Noble? NPR's Claudio Sanchez has the story.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: If you want a successful school, you'll start by hiring the best people.

Principal BILL OLSEN (Noble Street College Prep, Chicago): My name is Bill Olsen. I'm the principal at Noble Street College Prep.

SANCHEZ: Short, muscular, with a shaved head, Olsen started as an English teacher at Noble Street Prep and quickly realized it was unlike any Catholic or public school he had ever worked in. He say the kids here rekindled his love of teaching.

Principal OLSEN: Teachers want to be in a place where they're going to be successful, and they want to be able to give their all to kids. 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 in Noble Street.

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

Principal OLSEN: Noble alumni at University of Cincinnati.

SANCHEZ: Class of 2003.

Principal OLSEN: Class of 2003. We've got DePaul, Northwestern, University of Chicago.

SANCHEZ: University of Chicago, yeah.

Principal OLSEN: Yolanda Verra (ph) just graduated from Bates College. Antoinette Flora (ph) has just graduated from Amherst.

SANCHEZ: Olsen and his staff have actually convinced kids here that long school days, lots of homework, and a grueling work ethic is good for them. Noble's curriculum requires twice as much math, twice as much reading and writing as what a regular high school requires. And when people here say failure isn't an option, they mean it.

Principal ERIC THOMAS (Rauner College Prep, Chicago): We have teachers who won't make excuses for kids, and we don't let students fall behind.

SANCHEZ: That's Eric Thomas. Like Olsen, he's another young principal in the Noble Charter School Network. He says, of course you need the right people to teach and motivate these students, who often arrive two to four years behind grade level. But you also need a solid education plan, like the one that all seven Noble high schools in Chicago share, built around discipline, honor, and scholarship with one goal in mind.

Principal THOMAS: Our promise to you and your families is we get you ready for college. But what it takes is we have a longer school day than a traditional high school. We have a longer school year. We have, you know, mandatory tutoring on the weekends. We have students who are staying till six and seven o'clock at night.

SANCHEZ: The result, a near zero dropout rate and an 80 percent college attendance rate. The class of 2008 alone received $2 million in college scholarships. Jason Suarez (ph), a senior, says there are rewards if you work hard and take the toughest courses.

Mr. JASON SUAREZ (Senior, Noble Street College Prep, Chicago): Like calculus, which I'm going to take this fall, also.

SANCHEZ: Jason 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. Here, that's all people talk about. Jason says Noble opened his eyes to possibilities he'd never considered.

Mr. SUAREZ: I will probably be going for a minor in business, and if I can, a surgeon, a brain surgeon.

SANCHEZ: Noble has created an educational template that works, says Casey Carter, a senior fellow with the Center for Education Reform in Washington, D.C.

Mr. CASEY CARTER (Senior Fellow, Center for Education Reform): We've been talking for 30 years about how do we replicate what works.

SANCHEZ: Carter has written extensively about high-achieving, high-poverty urban schools, where, unfortunately, he says, students' needs don't always come first.

Mr. CARTER: Typically, it's not the outcome of children learning that is driving the principal or driving their teachers, unfortunately. We need a system that rewards, encourages, and inspires what works.

SANCHEZ: Others say too many educators, deep down, still believe children growing up in poverty are damaged goods and can't learn.

Ms. AMY WILKINS (Principle Partner, Education Trust): Or certainly can't learn at high levels.

SANCHEZ: Amy Wilkins is with the Education Trust, a children's advocacy group.

Ms. WILKINS: While we are beginning to see lots of examples that there are schools that do get these kids to high level of achievement, the question is really for us adults, and do we have the will to give those kids the conditions they need to succeed.

SANCHEZ: Political leadership is crucial, says Wilkins. So it's no accident that bold reforms have taken root in cities where mayors have taken charge over school bureaucracy, New York City, Washington D.C., and, of course, Chicago. Here, the district's CEO, Arne Duncan, is intent on closing failing schools and cloning successful ones.

Mr. ARNE DUNCAN (Chief Executive Officer, Chicago Public Schools): I'm trying to build great schools, not for tomorrow, but for the next 50, 80, 100 years, and we only allow great players to come in where I have total confidence in the integrity of their commitment 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.

SANCHEZ: 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 and, inevitably, ends up with a long, long list of kids it didn't have room for. Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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