Posted on March 18, 2021

Top Chicago Charter School Network Admits a Racist Past

Sarah Karp, WBEZ, March 13, 2021

Chicago’s largest charter school network sent a letter to alumni this week admitting that its past discipline and promotion policies were racist and apologizing for them. The apology is notable not just as an acknowledgment of misguided policies, but as a repudiation of the “no-excuses” philosophy adopted by many charter schools during the 2000s.

For years, Noble Charter Network had an ultra-strict approach in which students, for example, got demerits for small offenses, such as not wearing a belt, not following a teacher with their eyes and failing to sit up straight or wear black dress shoes. After a certain number of demerits, students had to pay for behavior classes. If they continued to get demerits, they could be forced to repeat a grade, which led many to transfer out.

The email calls the discipline and promotion policies “assimilationist, patriarchal, white supremacist and anti-black,” according to the email sent to alumni on Monday. “We were disguising punishment as accountability and high expectations. We did not fulfill our mission to ALL students,” the email continues.

The letter set off a firestorm among former students, some of whom feel vindicated and others who say they think it was disingenuous. Some alumni point out the email did not explain what changes have been made, offer any type of reparations or ask for their feedback. Instead, the email includes a survey about whether they would want to participate in alumni events.

“I felt like it was too late,” said Monyea Collins, who attended Hansberry College Prep, a Noble campus in Auburn Gresham on the South Side. “I cannot go back and redo high school. They knew the policies were wrong and they could have redid them.”

But Noble officials say they have made and are making fundamental changes, and that the apology is just the beginning of the work they intend to do to repair harm.

With about 13,000 mostly Black and Latino students, more than one in 10 Chicago public high school students goes to a Noble campus. For years, Noble’s “no-excuses, sweat the small stuff” philosophy was well-known and embraced by the school district and by some of the most prominent Chicagoans.

Its founder and chief executive officer Michael Milkie saw this approach as fundamental to the network’s success. He highlighted the fact that his schools, which don’t require a test for admission, out-performed neighborhood high schools. The Noble campuses are consistently highly rated with impressive high school graduation and college-going rates. Charter schools are largely publicly funded but privately managed.

Mayors touted Noble’s success and big donors such as former governor Bruce Rauner and the former U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker and her husband Bryan Traubert lined up to support them financially. {snip}

But Noble’s campuses also had high student suspension and expulsion rates. {snip}


Noble is one of a number of charter school networks across the country, opened in the 2000s, that touted strict discipline and high expectations. Like Noble, these schools serve mostly low-income Black and Latino students. Facing criticism, many of them have backed away from the rhetoric of no-excuses.

Noble might be the first to ask forgiveness from alumni.

Jennifer Reid Davis, chief equity officer for Noble, said it is part of an initiative by the network to become anti-racist.

“It’s important to own it,” she said. “I think you have to say it, I think you have to be honest. Part of what it truly means to be anti-racist is to be honest about the circumstances in which you are in and or created.”

Davis said the network has been making changes to its policies over the past few years, including letting students go to the bathroom without an escort, letting students attend school with dyed hair and it’s stopped charging students $140 for behavior classes. Noble is in the process of reviewing all policies through an anti-racist lens. She also said the network is now rejecting this “no excuses,” approach.

Milkie insisted that by paying attention to small infractions, discipline issues did not snowball. Milkie who had taught at a neighborhood high school often said he wanted to provide an alternative to what he saw as a chaotic environment.

Milkie held this view until he was forced out in 2018 after allegations of impropriety came to light. At the time, Chicago Public Schools said it was launching an investigation into what was going on at Noble. The school district says its investigation into Noble is still “ongoing.”

Davis said the current Noble administration, which is led by a Black woman, does not believe that the only way to get good results with Black and Latino students is to have them in a super-strict environment. That belief, she said, is racist. She also doesn’t think that discipline is key to the schools’ outcomes.