It’s almost 8:21 a.m. at Gary Comer College Prep Charter, nearly a minute after the morning bell. On this sunny day, Principal James Troupis stands in the gleaming foyer, watching several stragglers head to class.

“Hurry up,” he tells one young woman, as she shifts her backpack from one shoulder to the other. “Power-jog if you have to.” The student picks up her pace.

Behind her, two serious-looking students trickle into class. By 8:25, the foyer is empty.

The incentive for this last-minute hustle is Noble Street’s Code of Conduct, which calls for demerits any time a student is tardy. The later the student, the more demerits. Four demerits in two weeks equals a $5 fine and a three-hour detention.

The strict rules and tough consequences create an orderly vibe at the charter school, which is housed in a newly constructed building in Greater Grand Crossing. The calm environment–“it is tangible,” Troupis says—sets Comer and many other charters apart from traditional high schools, where it’s not uncommon to see students linger in the halls after the bell.

Noble Street and other charter schools emphasize calm and order as a prerequisite to learning. To accomplish this, many charters have discipline codes that are tougher than the CPS Student Code of Conduct.

But tougher rules are a double-edged sword. Charter critics say these schools routinely push out problem students, forcing neighborhood high schools to cope with more than their share of troublesome youth.

A joint investigation by Catalyst Chicago and WBEZ-Chicago found a complicated dynamic: A higher percentage of students transfer out and are expelled from charter schools than from traditional schools. Yet interviews with parents and students reveal support for tough rules, and do not support the notion that charters are inordinately “pushing out” children with behavior or academic problems.

The Catalyst / WBEZ investigation found that:

  • About one out of every 10 charter school students (2,700 out of 24,659) who were enrolled in 2009 either transferred to another school or otherwise failed to return in the fall of 2009, according to the Illinois State Board of Education Charter School Annual Report. (That number does not include students who left CPS.)
  • Traditional schools do not have comparable statistics. But an internal CPS memo provides evidence suggesting that students are more likely to leave charters: Between November 2008 and November 2009, 20 percent of students from traditional schools transferred out, compared to 26 percent of charter students, according to the memo. The memo also states that students who transferred were more likely to have lower test scores.
  • Charter schools expelled 146 students in 2009, or 5 of every 1,000—a higher rate of expulsion than traditional schools, which posted an expulsion rate of 1.5 for every 1,000 students. (See chart.) In 85 percent of charter school cases, students were expelled for less serious offenses that are not eligible for expulsion under CPS rules. Once expelled, charter students are sent back to their neighborhood school by the district’s Office of Adjudication.

Charter vs. magnet transfers

Magnet schools are comparable to charter schools, with lotteries for coveted seats and no attendance boundaries. Charter school operators often boast of long waiting lists; one school says it had a list of about 11,000 students this year. Yet a far higher percentage of students leave charter schools. As of yet, there’s no comprehensive study to explain the discrepancy.

 Charter schools  11%
 Magnet schools  6%

To date, there has been no comprehensive analysis by CPS of why students transfer from charter schools, despite anecdotal complaints from some parents and activists that charters push out students, especially struggling students. CEO Ron Huberman dismisses the accusations against charters as “more myth than reality.” He says data show that students who are forced out of charter schools are exceptions, but his office did not produce data to back up that claim.

At least one charter operator plans to ask students why they are leaving. Chicago International Charter Schools, the city’s largest operator, this year will have schools keep a ledger documenting transfers out, says Kate Floyd, the communications manager at CICS, where 3 percent of students transferred out in 2009.

Floyd says administrators hear that most students leave because they are moving out of the area. (On average, 85 percent of charter students live within 1.5 miles of the school, according to the CPS Charter School Annual Report.)

From interviews with charter school officials, students and parents, it’s clear that some students leave—or are counseled out—of charters because they can’t or won’t, get on board with the school’s rules and requirements. Neighborhood schools do not have the luxury to adopt their own discipline codes or force parents to sign agreements that students will comply.

At Noble Street, for instance, credit recovery costs $140 per class, nearly three times the cost at a traditional public school.

“It was ridiculous,” says Rosalla Bernard, who took her son, Christopher, out of Noble Street’s Rowe-Clark Math and Science Academy in Humboldt Park. “$5 for coming late. $5 here and $5 there. It seemed like a lot of punishment.”

The final straw: A notice that her son failed three classes. The cost to recover those credits was too steep, and Bernard also thought that the school had not done enough to accommodate her son’s special learning needs. Bernard ackowledges that she didn’t talk about the matter to anyone at Noble Street—she just transferred her son to Orr the next year. (About 17 percent of Noble Street students transferred out in 2009, according to ISBE data.)

“It was really a big disappointment,” Bernard says.

Michael Milkie, founder and executive director of Noble Street, says he and his wife started the charter in 1999 in response to what they saw as a lack of discipline at Wells Academy, where they were teachers. Creating a place where students were held to a certain standard was of utmost importance.

Milkie’s philosophy: “If you sweat the small stuff, then you don’t have big issues. We don’t have big issues, maybe one fight a year.” 

Noble Street and other charters require parents and their children to sign contracts, pledges or compacts, committing to the school’s policies. Most of them, at least on the surface, seem benign.

At Providence Englewood, a charter elementary school on the South Side, parents must sign a contract agreeing to attend four parent-teacher conferences and eight parent enrichment classes during the school year. At Perspectives Charter Schools, a network of high schools, students must commit to a program called “A Disciplined Life.” Many of the elements are general—maintain a healthy lifestyle or have a good work ethic. But some of the requirements, like never eating junk food at school, can be difficult for teens to meet.

But this attention to discipline and school culture is critical to the success of charter schools, says David Whitman, author of the 2008 book Sweating the Small Stuff: Inner City Schools and the New Paternalism. Whitman notes that some of the most successful charter schools set out to teach traditional middle-class values by closely supervising student behavior and pushing high academic standards. 

“It is a benevolent paternalism, not a malevolent paternalism,” he says. “The thing that made the strictness work is that students had the sense that teachers cared about them.”

Milkie says Noble Street’s practices provide an important lesson for students: Misbehavior has consequences. He adds that 95 percent of students want discipline, abide by the rules and pay to make up classes. “A very, very small percent can’t or don’t,” he says.

Indeed, students and parents tend to be firm supporters of strong discipline and the calm, orderly environment it creates. Maxine Thompson says her daughter Lexis, a freshman at Gary Comer, has already gotten two demerits—one for being late and another for not raising her hand in class. Faced with the threat of having to pony up money,Thompson talked to her daughter about her behavior and told her that any charges will come straight out of her allowance.

“I love this school,” Thompson says. “There is more discipline here than at other schools. To me, at other schools, the teachers cannot teach. CPS has lost its focus on education.”

April Goble, executive director of KIPP Ascend Charter, says she has actively worked to eliminate some of the factors that might force students to leave. About 13 percent of students transferred out of KIPP in 2009. (KIPP, for Knowledge is Power Program, is a national network of college prep charter schools.)

Instead of having students and parents sign a contract, which might sound threatening, Goble has them sign a “pledge to excellence.” She has told KIPP’s staff to try their hardest not to suspend students, and to keep them in class so they don’t fall behind. She also lowered student fees to less than $50.

Yet some children still have difficulty adjusting to tougher rules.

Delilah Hollingworth loved KIPP Ascend, where she enrolled her son, Larry Davis, as a 4th-grader last year. The school offered longer days, and had nicer equipment and teachers who seemed like they cared about the children.

“I am not a perfect parent,” Hollingworth says. “But I want to get a good education for my children. This was Larry’s chance.”

But within four weeks, she was called into five parent-teacher conferences. Larry picked on girls. He had an attitude. He forged her signature on a note home.

Hollingworth admits Larry can be a handful. “You can’t tell him anything,” she says.

KIPP officials told her that they did not have a detention room to put him in and didn’t want to suspend him. Eventually, Hollingworth says, they told her that if she wanted him to continue attending the school, she would have to sit with him through a day in class.

But Hollingworth, an hourly worker at a fast-food restaurant, says she didn’t have the option to miss time from work. As she recalls the meeting, the principal and counselor had his transcript in hand and papers for her to transfer him out.

She signed them, and walked away from the school crying. “It was like I failed,” she says. Ironically, Larry now attends Penn Elementary School, housed in the same building with KIPP Ascend.

Goble says she wasn’t in the meetings with Hollingworth, but, according to the paperwork she has seen, Larry’s mother decided on her own to remove her son. She says staff often suggest to parents that they sit through a school day with their child, especially if he or she is having problems complying with the rules.

“But it is just a suggestion, not mandatory,” Goble says. She would like to see Larry re-enroll and, when she sees him on the playground, tells him to talk to his mother about it. 

It is clear that Larry has gotten the message that his behavior was unacceptable. One day last spring, Larry sat quietly, listening to his mother talk about her disappointment and her feeling that he wasted his chance at a good education.

Eventually he speaks up, saying that he was not used to the strict environment at KIPP and felt like he was being “picked on” by students and teachers. But he says he’s learned his lesson and would like to go back to KIPP.

“I am trying to do better,” Larry says.

Shown the door

Only 16 percent of students expelled from charter schools are sent to an alternative school, where students from traditional Chicago public schools are sent upon expulsion. The rest of the students kicked out of charters are sent to regular neighborhood schools. The reason? Charter school discipline codes are tougher than the districts, and many of the offenses that get students expelled from charter schools aren’t severe enough to warrant expulsion from CPS.

Type of school  All
Expulsion rate
(per 1,000)
Traditional  378,943  531 1.4
 Charter  29,012  145  5

The story of Maria Soto and her sons, Darnell and Yentl Grigler, illustrates what can happen when students run up against rules that are, by design, tougher than those in traditional schools.

Soto thought the University of Chicago’s charter high school in Woodlawn was the answer to her prayers. Her oldest son, Yentl, has epilepsy and she didn’t want to send him to a neighborhood school—and the University of Chicago name was synonymous with good education.

But Soto says her boys ran into trouble with neighborhood children who were jealous of the laptops the charter school students received. Soto says she and other parents complained to school officials and said that they needed to have security out after school. But she says officials told her that once the students left the school, they were on their own.

“Our kids were easy prey because they were naive,” Soto says.

Darnell and Yentl admit that eventually, they started fighting back. Once they got caught up in a snowball fight that escalated into a brawl. In a more serious incident, Yentl was threatened with an expulsion hearing—it would have been his second at the school—after an off-duty police officer working as a security guard at the school accused him of having a gun. Yentl denies it.

Linda Wing, director of schools and community engagement at the University of Chicago Charter Schools, declined to give details about the case but said that “the Griglers elected to transfer when the student discipline policy was invoked with respect to their actions.”

Wing explains that the charter network adopted its own discipline code in 2007 after parents told administrators that they wanted a stricter environment.

“Our parents were concerned that the standards reflected in the CPS Student Code of Conduct were tolerant of behaviors that they did not consider to be conducive to safety, respect, peace, teaching and learning,” Wing says.

Some offenses, like battery to a staff member or volunteer, automatically result in an expulsion hearing at the U of C charter schools—but not at a CPS school.

Wing stresses that the U of C charters do not regularly force students out. The transfer rate is about 3 percent, she says, and in some years it is exaggerated by the departure of students who have earned enough credits to graduate early from a traditional Chicago public school. (State data shows that in 2009, 12 percent of students transfered out of the University of Chicago Charter Schools). The U of C charter network requires more credits for graduation.

Wing says the charter expelled seven students last year, two of whom wouldn’t have been expelled if they had gone through the school’s restorative justice program.

Soto enrolled both young men at Hyde Park High. Darnell just started his junior year there.Yentl only lasted three weeks. Soto says she pulled Yentl out after he had a seizure and she didn’t get an immediate call from the school. She enrolled him in GED classes at Kennedy King College. But he has yet to pass the GED exam.

“Now that I know how hard the GED is, I wish I would have never left,” says Yentl, a soft-spoken young man. “I should have just done my work and ignored everything else.

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.