Depending on the flow of politics and the day of the week in Chicago, at times it appears that Karen Lewis, the fiery president of the Chicago Teachers Union, commands more clout than Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Had she not fallen ill and called off her likely mayoral campaign, she might be sitting in Rahm’s seat today.
So how to explain that in 1996 the Illinois legislature passed a reasonably liberal charter law, allowing 45 charter schools: 15 in Chicago, 15 in the suburbs and 15 in downstate communities? (In later years, those caps would get expanded.)
The answer begins with a political quirk: The charter law passed during a two-year period when Illinois Republicans, thanks to Newt Gingrich’s political success at the time, held sway in both the state House and Senate.
(More: Former Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan on what’s impressed him most from 25 years of charter schools)
But if that were the only reason, the law would have been repealed by now. What actually happened during that two-year window was that Republicans were moderately interested in passing a charter law, but angry traditional Democrats (the rise of the “progressive” Democrats who dislike charters was years into the future) were intensely interested. They demanded better, less corrupt schools for their neighborhoods.
“There were a bunch of urban Democrats in Chicago upset at 15 years of Chicago schools being patronage shops,” said Andrew Broy, president of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools. “The schools were a total mess — nepotism, cronyism.” There’s a reason former Education Secretary William Bennett once pronounced Chicago schools to be the “worst in the nation.”
It’s remarkable to hear a Secretary of Education get that up close and insulting. But in fact, Bennett didn’t stop with the worst-in-the-nation comment. It would take a “man or woman of steel” to clean up Chicago’s school system, he helpfully elaborated.
“I’m not sure there’s a system as bad as the Chicago system.”
So that’s how the charter law got passed, a huge bipartisan event that was totally missed by Michael Milkie, who at the time was a high school math teacher at Chicago’s Wells Community Academy and soon to be married to Tonya Hernandez, a high school social studies teacher at Harper High School in West Englewood, one of Chicago’s toughest neighborhoods.
Two of Tonya’s teaching friends, Michelle Smith and Sarah Howard, however, were paying close attention to the new legislation and started one of the first charters in Chicago. That got Mike and Tonya’s attention. “They had to sit me down and explain it to me,” Milkie told me. “I actually spent many hours with them trying to learn what they were doing. They were instrumental in getting Tonya and me to apply for our charter.”
Milkie was looking for a change. He could see from his own teaching experience that new-generation schools were desperately needed in Chicago. “The appeal was to have charter freedoms such as control over budget, staffing and curriculum.”
Staffing was key. The “steps and lanes” personnel system settled upon by unions and superintendents made no sense to Milkie. There were many good teachers at his Chicago high school, but there were also many who were unprofessional: constantly calling in sick, exhibiting a poor work ethic, never assigning homework.
He wanted more freedom in choosing teachers and dismissing those who didn’t work out.
And then there was the discipline issue. “The students [at Wells] were allowed to be disruptive, and a lot of students felt unsafe. We wanted a school where students felt safe, supported and accountable for their behavior.”
For ideas on how to structure the first school, Milkie visited two Boston charters, Academy of the Pacific Rim (where Uncommon Schools’ Doug Lemov served as principal) and City on a Hill. Milkie admired the “orderly and positive” student culture at the Pacific Rim school, but it was an odd thing at City on a Hill that really caught his attention. “I remember they wouldn’t let the kids chew gum. And my reaction was: We can just tell them they can’t chew gum? Where I taught, gum was everywhere.”
Banning gum at the new charter would become part of a culture rooted in discipline and orderliness. “Not having gum stuck everywhere was a sign that the big things were being attended to as well.” Same with the school uniforms he saw — and adopted in the new school. “It sets the tone for discipline, to have people look professional. And it addresses gang issues.”
So the first charter opened in the fall of 1999, just a few months after he and Tonya married. That first school drew students from the mostly Latino West Town neighborhood and was named Noble Street, after its street address. From the first day, the school was oversubscribed, a pattern that would hold true during the following years of Noble’s expansion. “There were definitely many families who wanted other options.”
Today, despite the rapid expansion of Noble schools across Chicago (in 2016 Noble served 11,000 students on 17 campuses), Mike and Tonya maintain their original office at that first school, Room 207.
“We never changed offices because we didn’t want to lose touch with what we started our work for,” Milkie told one interviewer.
In the fall of 1999, Noble Street’s first year, Milkie taped a 60 Minutes segment on KIPP charters and played it back for his Noble students. “I wanted them to see that they weren’t the only kids in the country with strict dress codes, strict rules and high expectations. Up to that point, I think they believed they were.”
From the beginning, Noble became the Midwest touchstone in the developing web of high-performing charter networks located mostly on the East and West coasts. Milkie, for example, was invited to a Walton-sponsored Denver gathering in 2004 (profiled earlier) where he heard Aspire’s Don Shalvey advocate charter management organizations as the best vehicles for expanding.
“That was a watershed moment for a lot of us in terms of, yeah, we can have an organization that operates multiple schools.”
Noble used its $50,000 Walton grant to plan its expansion, a plan Milkie followed precisely: two new campuses per year for four years in a row.
Soon, Noble and KIPP became close allies, with KIPP placing one of its principal internship programs in a Noble school. Other close partners were Achievement First founders Dacia Toll and Doug McCurry and Norman Atkins from Uncommon Schools.
Some examples of those interweaving relationships: Two of Noble’s top administrators came from KIPP, and two former Noble school leaders now lead KIPP regions. Most interesting about Noble: One of Noble’s strongest principals ever, Oliver Sicat, left Noble to take over USC Hybrid High School in Los Angeles, which is now a CMO, Ednovate, overseeing three schools (profiled later). That’s how these high-performing networks spread.
Despite Chicago becoming, in Broy’s words, “an epicenter of charter opposition,” the city continues to grow high-performing charters, most of which, like Noble, are modest-size networks born in Chicago and operating only in Chicago. Others include LEARN charters and the Chicago International charter schools.
What makes Noble unique, both within Chicago and nationally, is its focus on high schools. Most of the national charter networks start with elementary school, adding one grade at a time, fearing that high school is too late to make up lost academic ground. “Noble,” said Broy, “demonstrates that you can take in kids well behind and in four structured years get students up to an ACT [score] that means they are prepared for college.”
In 2015, Noble won the $250,000 Broad Prize for Public Charter Schools. Noble’s schools — in which 95 percent of the students are African-American or Hispanic and 89 percent are low-income — ranked among the state’s top-performing school districts.
Said Paul Pastorek, a former Louisiana state superintendent of education and prize board member: “Noble is clearly onto something, because they’ve been able to scale and sustain their academic achievement.”
Download the book, read more about Uncommon Schools and USC Hybrid High and meet the other pioneering founders of America’s high-performing charter networks, at The74Million.org/TheFounders. Author Richard Whitmire, on what he learned while writing the book: