Parent Donna Moore says Noble Network of Charter Schools' strict discipline code caused her son, a student at Gary Comer College Prep, to rack up more than 30 detentions during the 2010-11 school year. As a result, he is currently repeating his freshman year.

The civil rights advocacy group Advancement Project is considering a legal challenge to the discipline policy of Noble Street Charter School campuses, which charge students $5 each time they are issued a detention.

“As civil rights lawyers, we are exploring our options to challenge this practice,” said Advancement Project staff attorney Alexi Nunn Freeman.

Critics of the Noble Street schools – which include Voices of Youth in Chicago Education and Parents United for Responsible Education – said at a Monday news conference that the practices push students out of school and asserted that Noble does not accommodate families that can’t pay.

They also announced the results of a Freedom of Information Act request showing that the Noble Network of Charter Schools, which is a nonprofit organization, collected more than $188,000 in detention and behavior-class fees during the 2010-11 school year — and nearly $387,000 since 2008-09.

Detention rates were highest at Rowe-Clark Math and Science Academy, which averaged 16 detentions per student in 2010-11 and collected nearly $29,000 from detention fees — or more than $80 per student, according to an analysis of data provided by Advancement Project. They were lowest at Gary Comer College Prep, where fees averaged less than $4 per student.

Catalyst Chicago and WBEZ reported in fall 2010 that charter schools hold on to fewer students than non-selective magnet schools, and have an expulsion rate three times higher than neighborhood schools. Though some parents appreciate the strict discipline, others feel their children have been pushed out of charters. (CPS policy allows charters to write their own discipline codes.)

The Noble Network, which runs Noble Street Charter School campuses, is one of the district’s biggest charter networks, with 10 campuses serving 6,543 students.

Donna Moore, a parent whose son is in his second year at Gary Comer College Prep, said he racked up more than 30 detentions last year, sometimes being issued one detention – or even a suspension – for falling asleep during a previous detention. Moore says none of the detentions were related to her son being disruptive or threatening school safety.

In addition to receiving detention (and, thus, having to pay a fee) for violating rules like having their shoes untied and bringing potato chips to school, Noble Street students can rack up demerits for failing to sit up, make eye contact, articulate clearly when talking or track a speaker with their eyes.

“My son began to spiral [down] both emotionally and academically,” Moore said, after learning that he would have to repeat freshman year because he had garnered so many detentions.

VOYCE members dressed in chef’s hats to poke fun at Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s promotion of Noble schools as having a “secret sauce” for student success.

“Just like the fast-food equivalent, people need to take a closer look at what’s in that secret sauce,” PURE director Julie Woestehoff said. She called the school’s methods “a dehumanizing discipline system that looks a lot more like reform school than college prep.”

Waivers, payment plans for families in need

However, Noble Network officials – including Kimberly Neal, the principal at Muchin College Prep in the Loop – say their schools make accommodations for families who can’t afford the fees. In all, 82 percent of the students at Muchin, and 89 percent of Noble Network students citywide, were eligible for free lunches during the 2011-12 school year, according to CPS data.

“It’s very few, because most of our parents can pay,” Neal says, even if they can’t do it right away. “Throughout the year, most of our parents are working or have some source of income.”

Neal says that the fees are a necessary part of the school’s focus on student success.

“An example we always give our parents is, if you’re late every day to work, would you still have a job?” she says. “We want to teach our scholars the skills needed to be successful in the workforce.”

Michael Milkie, superintendent of the Noble Network, says the group does not keep data on how many parents receive accommodations for the fees and that the network has no specific cutoff for when a family qualifies for a waiver.

He says hundreds of families received payment plans every year. However, only a few receive fee waivers for detentions.

“It’s not many families that have an issue with a nominal fee like that,” Milkie says, though he added that the waivers were more common among students with more than 12 detentions who are required to enroll in a $140 summer behavior class.

 “We don’t have students who are not promoted for inability to pay,” Milkie says.

He estimates that at most 1 percent of the network’s students are retained each year after hitting a set number of detentions (which was 33, and has now been changed to 36).

“We have high expectations for students in terms of academics, in terms of fitness, in terms of behavior. We believe what we’re doing is legal,” Milkie says. “For too long in this city, the students who behaved well have had educational dollars diverted from them to address the behavior of students who behaved poorly. We are diverting fewer dollars from those students who behave well. And therefore, you have very high performance in terms of test scores, attendance.”

A revamp of student discipline?

Several speakers at the press conference said there is a district-wide problem with harsh discipline, and called on CPS to rewrite its discipline code. (CPS says it does not have jurisdiction over charter school discipline rules.)

“Noble schools, like all of CPS, are still in the dark ages when it comes to how they treat students,” the Advancement Project’s Freeman said. “CPS, it is time for a change for all your schools, charter and neighborhood alike.”

VOYCE has been working with CPS in an effort to get changes to the student code of conduct, but organizer Emma Tai said the group was disappointed with the district’s response.

In an email, Chief Family and Community Engagement Officer Jamiko Rose told VOYCE that the goals of the policy revision would be to improve its “readability and accessibility” and increase schools’ “preventive and proactive options” for dealing with low-level violations.

Rose also indicated that the district would try to make changes “at all levels of the organization” to decrease reliance on suspensions, expulsions, and law enforcement and increase the use of restorative justice and skill-building interventions. (Despite being one of the first cities to include restorative justice officially in its discipline code, the district has long struggled with implementing such programs.)

Tai notes that the code already includes significant language about restorative justice for low-level behavior problems. VOYCE had hoped for more substantial changes, such as shortening the length of suspensions prescribed for each offense.

“CPS wants a student code of conduct that is both fair and just and is currently working to revamp its policy with the input of student voices,” the district said in a statement. “As part of that process, we have convened a working group to assist us in the development of a new student code of conduct policy that will ensure consistent district-wide expectations, positive reinforcement of appropriate behavior, and tiered supports for students that are struggling with behavior issues.”

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