Noble Street: Solid Backing

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Michael Milkie, Noble Street student

Michael Milkie, Noble Street student

At the time, the settlement house was to provide space on its property but generally was in the background, says Executive Director Ron Mandersheid. The board’s selection committee wanted a stronger financial steward to handle management issues, so the settlement house role was expanded for the next round of applications.

The partnership got its charter in 1998, and Milkie and his wife, Tonya, a teacher at a Harper High small school, opened the doors in 1999 to one class of 9th-graders. In academics, the school focuses on reading and math; it also emphasizes community service and physical fitness. All students must pass fitness goals to graduate.

Milkie, 39, says he always wanted to be a principal. At a charter school, he says, the demanding job is more manageable because of freedoms in budgeting, curriculum and, especially, staffing. Milkie hand-picked his 18- member faculty after attending dozens of job fairs and placing ads in newspapers and on the Internet.

Noble Street pays teachers slightly less than what they would make in CPS, but they can earn an annual bonus up to $4,000. Teachers are rewarded if their students attend advisories and complete homework and if a high percentage of parents attend their conferences. Milkie can award a small amount based on his observations. However, if school goals are not met, no one earns a bonus.

Despite strong competition for teachers everywhere, Milkie has had little trouble attracting applicants: 300 teachers applied for English and social studies positions, and 30 applied for two science jobs, he says. Milkie even managed to hire two special education teachers, the most sought-after educators nationally.

One of them, Indra Rupners, 27, was offered a job at two regular CPS schools, but chose Noble Street after one visit.

“The kids were so respectful, and things were running so smoothly,” she says. Rupners, who recently earned a master’s degree at the University of Illinois, says Noble Street strongly practices inclusion, which means special ed students spend most of their class time with regular education students. Her students will perform better because of it, she says.

Rupners puts in long hours, typically nine a day. Speaking of her students, she says, “It’s their choice to stay with me until 5 or 6 p.m., until they get what needs to be done.”

With only 9th and 10th grades, Noble Street has the feeling of family. At a recent Town Hall, a student assembly held biweekly, students instantly recognized classmates whose baby pictures were shown on screen. To achieve a civil, mature environment, Noble requires students to wear dress shoes and polo shirts with the school name embroidered on the chest–no sneakers allowed. And like at private schools, students receive demerits for misbehavior.

Parent Mariah Davis acknowledges she took a risk by enrolling her son at Noble Street; she hadn’t even heard of it until Milkie visited his elementary school last year.

Davis says she was impressed with the school’s discipline, dress code, safety and academic focus. Her son, Theo Sanford, a member of Junior ROTC, was accepted at Whitney Young and Lane Tech high schools, but he chose Noble Street, Davis says.

She knew the school was new and untested, but says, “I figured if it was approved by the board, it was fine. I was willing to take a chance with it.”

Noble Street Charter High School draws so many visitors who are curious about this sparkling new school that it has devised a way for them to see classes but not interrupt them. Knock on any classroom door, and a student will answer, shake your hand and answer questions about the school. The teacher will keep teaching.

From across the country, businesses and charters want to find out mainly how Noble Street financed its new facilities. Connected by a walkway to the Northwestern University Settlement House, the $4.5 million, three-story building features Internet-ready, air-conditioned classrooms, a plush, multimedia auditorium and room to grow.

Without the settlement house, its credit rating and its access to a network of influential supporters, the teachers who first dreamed of this charter school likely would have been scraping by like a number of their colleagues. Instead, they were able to borrow $2.5 million in tax-free bonds and raise another $2 million in donations to complete a new building.

The century-old social service institution, located in the rapidly gentrifying area of West Town, also takes care of Noble Street’s accounting, payroll and budgeting, freeing the educators to focus on academic planning, discipline and teaching.

When Michael Milkie first applied for a charter in 1997, he had been teaching math at nearby Wells High School for eight years and had no management experience. Milkie sailed through the early application rounds, only to be rejected in the final, he says, because of his shaky grasp of day-to-day operational issues.