How Chicago’s Noble Network Pioneered High School Innovation at Scale

If you set foot on campus at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, the Land of Lincoln’s flagship four-year school, 1 of every 5 Black and Latino students you meet will have graduated from a single network of public schools: the Noble Network of Charter Schools. Their alumni earn college diplomas at triple the national rate for low-income, first-generation college students. In The Founders, Richard Whitmire tells the story of how Noble’s Mike Milkie and Tonya Hernandez launched a head-turning success of a high school and scaled it to 17 campuses across Chicago. Whitmire also notes that few leading national charter networks share Noble’s singular focus on high school. What he doesn’t tell you is that from the beginning, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) pushed for high school charters.

How It All Began

After the Illinois legislature passed a charter law in 1996, then-CPS CEO Paul Vallas made the unusual decision to embrace charters. But [pullquote position="left"]he did so with a deliberate strategy in mind: improving high schools. At the time, Chicago’s public high school students only had a 50-50 chance of earning a diploma. While trying to reform high schools from within, Vallas also encouraged applicants for high school charters. Essentially, he wanted charters to become the district’s R&D department, creating new high school approaches. Chicago also possessed a wealth of talent for the mission—high school educators who had already been experimenting within the district’s traditional confines and were eager to innovate more boldly. Many had been involved with the small schools movement. For example, it was Hernandez’s former colleagues, Michelle Smith and Sarah Howard, who were among the first applicants to win a high school charter and who explained the nuts and bolts of the process to Milkie. Small school leaders Kim Day and Diana Shulla-Cose also turned one successful high school into a network: Perspectives Charter Schools. Personally, I found it interesting that at the same time Milkie was attending a snowy 2004 Denver conference where a group of national charter leaders were planning expansion, I was making the decision to leave Chicago’s North Side and buy a house in Back of the Yards, a neighborhood that had been fighting for a new high school for the previous 20 years. Not long after, Milkie’s expansion plans would coincide with my efforts to play high school admissions counselor for the young people on my block. Eventually, nine of my neighbors would attend Noble high schools between 2006 and 2014. For my neighbors who would almost certainly have graduated from high school no matter where they went, Noble offered college opportunities they probably would not have had otherwise. Three of those neighbors attended small liberal arts colleges they likely never would have known about without Noble’s college counseling program. Although Noble definitely made a difference in the graduation—and life chances—of one of my young male neighbors, Noble schools didn’t have as much success graduating the young men of my block as they did the women. This is a national problem, which Whitmire wrote about in his earlier book, Why Boys Fail.

Learning New Tricks

In recent years especially, Noble has shown itself willing to adapt and change. Expansion has brought network schools into some of Chicago’s far-flung, majority-Black neighborhoods, a world away from its first wave of centrally located schools, which have long drawn higher-achieving students from across the city. As Catalyst Chicago recently reported, Noble has had to step up recruitment and direct additional resources to these new schools. Noble has also made changes to its controversial “no excuses” discipline policies to respond to community concerns. More change is likely in the works, thanks to the passage of SB 100, a state law intended to reduce suspensions and expulsions and encourage the use of restorative justice practices in school discipline. Thanks to Noble’s strong emphasis on school leader autonomy, principals don’t have to wait for the network to innovate. This fall, South Chicago’s Baker College Prep campus is working to build stronger community connections and explore with their new partners what a trauma-informed approach to learning might look like. While Whitmire rightly points to Noble school leader alum Oliver Sicat and his Ednovate network as an example of next-generation learning, I’m hopeful that even the charters 2.0—like Noble—can keep learning new tricks.
Maureen Kelleher
Maureen Kelleher is Editorial Partner at Ed Post. She is a veteran education reporter, a former high school English teacher, and also the proud mom of an elementary student in Chicago Public Schools. Her work has been published across the education world, from Education Week to the Center for American Progress. Between 1998 and 2006 she was an associate editor at Catalyst Chicago, the go-to ...

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