Coffee Break: This Charter Leader Says You Have to Love Students Enough to Hold High Expectations

Mar 1, 2018 12:00:00 AM


In January, Constance Brewer was named president of the Noble Network of Charter Schools, which serves more than 12,000 students on 18 high school campuses throughout Chicago. Noble has earned national recognition for its strong track record of supporting low-income, first-generation students to and through college. Brewer comes to her passion for education thanks to her parents, a lifelong public school teacher and a mathematician. Though she has lived in Chicago for the last decade, her love of her North Carolina roots—including Tar Heels basketball—remains deep. After graduating from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she went on to a distinguished business career and an MBA from Harvard. She then heard the call to put her passion for education at the center of her working life, and spent six years in leadership with the KIPP Foundation before joining Noble as chief of external affairs. Brewer speaks about diversity, loving students enough to have high expectations for them and the Carolina roots of her love for black coffee. Do you drink tea or coffee, and how do you take it? Oh, I drink coffee, and I typically take it as black as possible. Growing up in North Carolina, I used to go out to my grandma’s house. I remember drinking coffee when I was 5 or 6 years old. I wasn’t much of a black coffee drinker then, but I remember the coffee being very tar-ish. So we did put a lot of cream and sugar in it, but I remember it originated as black, dark coffee. My days are very long. So, the darker, the better. The key is to drink good coffee. If you have good coffee, then anybody could drink it black. I guarantee it. What’s your vision for the Noble network? First and foremost, I want to make sure that we’re continuing our success in getting our students to and through college. You know, high school is challenging. It’s particularly challenging when we’re taking students who come from communities across the city that have traditionally been underserved and getting them caught up, so that in three-and-a-half years, [pullquote position="right"]they’re applying to colleges. They’re getting accepted.[/pullquote] They’re getting hundreds of millions of dollars in scholarships collectively across all of our 18 campuses. I’m also really excited about our efforts with diversity, equity and inclusion. In February, we launched a Diverse Leaders Scholarship. We’re particularly targeting leaders in our network who reflect the communities we serve. We want to provide them with opportunities to collaborate, to get exposure to people in leadership at Noble, and just broaden their network and their perspective. All this is in hope of being able to expose them to different opportunities throughout the organization with an eye to retain them for the long haul. So that’s really exciting. How do you plan to incorporate the needs of your students, families and the communities that you serve into your vision? For the past three years at Noble, I had the opportunity to work very closely with our parents and students, because part of the work I did leading the external affairs team included the advocacy and community engagement piece. So, I’m very fortunate to work with a team of people who are incredibly dedicated to this work and working really hard to ensure that our parents are informed, that they’re engaged, and that their voices are heard. I bring that perspective to my role as president. Oftentimes it makes sense that our focus is on our teachers, and our principals, and our support team staff, but I’m also thinking about parents and parent voices. It involves making sure that when I’m out here doing listening tours, that I am engaging with them. My challenge in this role is balancing the proactive, planned, intentional work with the reactive, this-just-bubbled-up work. There’s always something that you’re going to have to respond to, but it’s important nevertheless to make sure my ears and eyes are always open. When all the advocacy stuff happened in Springfield around funding, our parents stepped up. Our parents are not as concerned about "charter school versus traditional public school." All they care about is, is my child going to a great school that’s going to prepare them for college, prepare them for life success? Similarly, when funding was getting cut, it wasn’t like, oh, charter funding is getting cut. It was everyone's funding getting cut. We all need funding. So our parents were right there alongside traditional high school parents advocating to get this funding passed in Springfield. Our parents are amazing. How are you working to dispel the common myths and misconceptions around Noble, like people thinking that families have to pay tuition, students must test in, and Noble only accepts students who are the "cream of the crop"? People think that we’re private schools, and you hear this privatization thing. A lot of people don’t think we’re serving the highest-need kids. It doesn't make any sense. We are free, open-enrollment public schools. That means anyone and everyone can go to our school. [pullquote position="right"]I mean, literally, we take everyone.[/pullquote] That’s our mission, serving kids from under-resourced communities. The vast majority of our students come from under-resourced communities. You know, 98 percent are Black or Brown, and 17 percent of our students have special needs. We exceed the district in all those areas. Talk to me about Noble’s expectations for students. The network has a reputation for very strict discipline. Yes, Noble has very high expectations. There is this culture of discipline and making sure that our schools are safe, and I don’t mean just physically safe, but you’re safe to take risks, and push yourself and not be made fun of. As someone who was made fun of in high school, that means a lot to be able to come to school and be safe. When people hear the word discipline, they think overly strict. They think unloving, but I could tell you, you could walk into any classroom, and you can feel the love. Our kids are loved. That [myth] probably bothers me the most because I think about my parents. My parents had a household where they didn't play. There were high expectations, but I could not have been loved more. I can’t, other than God, think of a greater love than what my parents showed their children. Because they loved me so much, I never wanted to let them down, and I worked really hard, too. A lot of my accomplishments are because of them. It’s a testament to them. I never want to let them down. I just feel like love is so important, which is why I get frustrated when people hone in on this one component of our model, the high expectations discipline piece and they don’t acknowledge the love. I get upset when I don’t see high expectations, because if you lower your expectations, it’s because you think our kids aren’t capable. I’m here to tell you that our kids are absolutely positively capable of anything and everything. It makes me angry. I believe our kids can hit the bar when we set the bar high, and they deserve to have someone believe in them.
Photo courtesy of Noble Network of Charter Schools.

Tanesha Peeples

Tanesha Peeples is driven by one question in her work—“If not me, then who?” As the former Deputy Director of Activist Development for brightbeam, Tanesha merges the worlds of communications and grassroots activism to push for change in the public education system. Her passion for community and relentless mission for justice and liberation drive her in uplifting and amplifying the voices and advocacy of those that are often ignored. Tanesha wholeheartedly believes that education is the foundation for success. Her grand vision is one where everyone—regardless of ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender or ZIP code—can have access to a comfortable quality of life and enjoy the freedoms and liberties promised to all Americans. And that's what she works towards every day.

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