Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Noble Street Charters Not Acting Noble At All

Recently, a new controversy about charter schools has erupted here in Chicago. Thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request, parent and community advocacy groups uncovered that Noble Street Charter Schools, often hailed as the highest performing charters in the city and a favorite of Mayor Emanuel, have charged nearly $400,000 in students fines over a two-year period. A majority of these fines were for minor infractions like having a shoelace untied or “not looking a teacher in the eye”. And-if you were wondering-we are talking about teenagers here, not kindergartners.

Now, as a teacher, I understand the need to have a controlled and safe teaching environment. Heck, I work as a teacher at a local psychiatric hospital. I appreciate good rules, clear expectations, and structure. Consequences can be effective tools for teaching students appropriate behavior.

But teaching kids better behavior is not what is happening at Noble. These fines are penalties, penalties directed at the students families. Many are families that simply cannot afford too many of these fines. This type of punishment is not going to change behavior and I don't think they ever intended it to. The real consequence of this policy is that students who “misbehave” too often, instead of being taught more appropriate behaviors, are forced to leave the school. This system ensures only the very best-behaved children will remain in the school. And this exclusion is on purpose. The school does not deny it, but rather prides itself on its tough discipline policy.

So whose responsibility is it to help kids who are struggling behaviorally? It seems easy to place the blame for bad behavior on the students or their parents. It’s also in vogue to point the finger at teachers themselves. Unfortunately, behavior is wildly more complicated.

As someone who works in a mental health facility, I see daily the many varied reasons which lead to negative behaviors, including learning disabilities, poor home environments,frequent disruption from multiple foster placements, anxiety, trauma, chemical dependency, food insecurity, homelessness, attachment issues, depression, ADHD, low self-esteem, gang influence, and even conduct disorders. These kids have often not been taught appropriate responses to anger, fear, or sadness. And nowadays many kids are suffering from extreme boredom due to ridiculously uninteresting test-prep curricula aimed solely at pushing up test scores. I'm not saying the kids are completely off the hook in terms of responsibility, but that behavior is a really complicated and environmental-dependent phenomenon. Punishing kids through fines does nothing to address the root causes of the negative behaviors. (I wrote about what my students need to succeed in this edweek post.)

The problem for me, is that charter schools are not magnet schools, they are not selective enrollment schools, and since they receive public funds, they are certainly not private schools. These are public schools with no entry requirement. What’s more, the very idea of charter schools, originally the brain child of former AFT Union president Albert Shanker, and first pinoneered in Minnesota, were supposed to be bastions of innovation designed to help the most at-risk, hardest-to-educate children--The exact kids Noble unapologetically punishes and then pushes out. Charters get to operate outside much of the red tape of traditional schools. They were to use the added flexibility to figure out creative ways to reach these tough kids which could then be replicated in all schools.

Charters are not doing that. Instead, they are competing for the strongest students of color in Chicago. I saw this first-hand when I attended the media bonanza called the CPS New Schools Expo in January. I left with all kinds of glossy brochures, free pens, bags and lots of smiles and assurances that everything was "great" at the schools. (Funny that charters complain of getting less funding, but have money for crazy amounts of marketing. I've certainly never seen an ad for the local neighborhood school. Why is that?) Regardless, this competition to get "better students" leaves those who can't "cut it--as Noble St schools like to say--to be thrown back into the local neighborhood schools. Oh, and let's not forget that the neighborhood schools are getting less and less funding as the money is skimmed away. (Nevermind that the charter school many times gets to keep the money from the kids who get sent back, often conveniently BEFORE the high-staking testing which will decide the school's fate.) And of course, those predictable poor test scores of the neighborhood schools are now a great reason to close the school. In it's place goes yet another charter school. And so the "bad" kids are pushed around yet again. It's a vicious cycle and it's not working.

So is this what choice really is then? The system has only so many selective enrollment seats, so are charters where the next tier of kids go? The "good" "well-behaved" kids from intact, involved families but who can't quite get the scores for Lane Tech or Whitney Young? If that's what they are, then THAT's what they should advertise. Charters should quit claiming that they have overcome the achievement gap. That all it took was a few overworked teachers and a longer day. My experience with charter schools is that they are not doing anything terribly special, they are simply less overwhelmed with major problems and thus their very average teaching and interventions work a little better. (And this only even applies to franchises like Noble which do get better results. A lot of the charters don't even do better, in terms of test scores at least.)

And then I start to think about the class and racial implications of these types of discipline policies. I imagine what ritzy North Shore parents from my alma mater, New Trier, might say about these fines. I think they'd be in an uproar, even when they have plenty of money to pay and even if their kid had in fact acted terribly. I can just see them rallying around "No one treats my child like an inmate in a prison!" Well, chances are, Trevian mother, your child will never have to find out what a prison is like. Wish that were true for all groups of people in this country. Why does urban education insist of treating children of color like criminals?

In all seriousness, what do we, as a society, propose to do with all these young people with behavior problems? So far, the only thing we've thought to do is lock more of them up for longer. A society where schools are starved but prisons thrive is not the kind of place I want America to be. Why does no one ever question WHY these kids are acting this way and address that?

Lastly, I know these kids who are getting pushed out personally. I have met too many of them from charter schools all around the city. These kids honestly believe they are, in fact, "bad kids". And they are not. I have loved every child under my care, and while I dislike some of their behaviors, I see great potential for change. I will not give up hope that these kids can still learn, if only we adults can figure out better, creative ways to make them engaged again and then back our ideas with actual resources. I think we'd better start by first correctly identifying the barriers to learning, and I'll tell you right now, they have little to do with bad teachers or teacher unions.

I haven't given up on these troubled kids. Too bad Noble Street has.

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