To keep and graduate freshmen, turn to charter schools for answers

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CPS' rising graduation rate may be inflated because of errors in counting students, according to a report. CPS and the Consortium on Chicago School Research defend the district's improvement.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

CPS' rising graduation rate may be inflated because of errors in counting students, according to a report. CPS and the Consortium on Chicago School Research defend the district's improvement.

Andrew Broy

Andrew Broy

In the Federalist Papers, John Adams famously quipped that “facts are stubborn things.” Chicago policymakers would do well to keep this in mind as they debate the current performance of Chicago charter schools.

For years, charter opponents have explained away charter school academic success by arguing that charter schools do well with students who stay, but that many leave and are therefore no longer counted in the performance data.  Now, for the first time, recently-released data prove that a very different story is true: Chicago charter schools actually keep and graduate a higher percentage of incoming ninth-graders than do district-run schools. In fact, the data from Chicago Public Schools reveal that charter schools are among the most successful schools at graduating the students that choose to enroll on the first day of high school.

We can all agree that a high-quality high school takes responsibility for the success of all the students who enter its doors the first day of freshman year. Until now, the public only had access to the official graduation rates for schools, which report how many of a school’s original ninth-graders ultimately graduate from any CPS school – even if they transfer to another school.

However, in a recent article, WBEZ examined this graduate rate and obtained data that has never before been disclosed: the number of freshmen who actually went on to earn a diploma from the school they first enrolled in.  This rate – the percent of original freshmen a school graduates – is referred to as the “freshman retention rate.”

Contrary to the claims of charter opponents, the results reveal that charter schools are graduating their original cohort of ninth-graders at substantially higher rates than their district counterparts. The average freshman retention rate for charter schools is nearly 10 percentage points higher than the average for district open enrollment schools. Although only a third of the open enrollment high schools are charter schools, charters make up six of the top 10 open enrollment schools with the highest freshman retention rates. Three of the charter schools in the top 10 are part of the Noble Network of Charter Schools. In fact, this new data reveals that Noble schools are graduating their original freshmen at very high rates: eight of the nine Noble campuses have freshman retention rates that exceed the average for district open-enrollment schools.

The average freshman retention rate is higher in charters than non-selective district schools.

The average freshman retention rate is higher in charters than non-selective district schools.

These data reveal another critical trend – the number of families who start high school in CPS, but leave the school district altogether during the high school years – a group referred to as “verified transfers.” We have long known that Chicago is a city with high mobility and a declining student population, but our analysis shows that 15 percent of students from district-run open-enrollment schools leave the system all-together (nearly 3,000 students), compared to only 3 percent of students who start their high school careers at charter schools. We can’t say where these students are going – private schools, parochial schools, suburban schools – but it does raise questions of why district-run high schools are unable to hold on to these students.

While charter critics often claim that charter schools are responsible for students leaving the traditional system, the data actually suggest that charter public schools keep more students from leaving CPS than their district counterparts. In short, charter public schools are keeping students in the district at a higher relative rate. For a district with a long-standing pattern of declining enrollment, this is a notably bright trend.

At the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, we commend WBEZ for bringing this data to the public. Not only does it provide a useful metric for families looking to better understand their high school options, it also raises important questions about how the city can better retain students and bring them to the finish line. Let’s just hope everyone working to increase graduation outcomes pays attention.

Photo: Graduation cap and diploma/

Andrew Broy is president of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools. Broy is a former civil rights attorney and public school teacher.


  • Don’t call it competition when we do not play by the same rules.

    There are twenty days left in the school year and across the
    city teachers and students are completing end of year projects and preparing
    for final exams – except if you are one of the two students that have just been
    told to report to a new school, their neighborhood high school, under the
    auspice of a so-called ‘charter school expulsion.’ These two students, one from
    the Noble Street Rauner Campus, and the other from a Chicago International
    Charter School campus, have just been kicked out of their schools with less
    than a month to the end of the year, are beginning again with all new schedules
    and teachers at Carl Schurz High School. Each had recently been involved in a
    disciplinary infraction at their charter school high school (one has made ‘threats’
    to another student, the other was involved in fight).

    These students are far from the only two, this is happening across
    the city, all year long. At our school, we have received over fifteen of these
    so-called charter expulsions this year, and that number hides a much greater
    number of students that have been ‘counseled out,’; meaning the staff of a
    charter high school threatened an expulsion unless the parents acted to
    withdrawn the student on their own. These practices are often utilized by
    charters to decrease the documented number of expulsions.

    While the two students in this example have exhibited
    behaviors that not conducive to their success, nor the other students around
    them, the restorative practices in place in Chicago Public Schools would
    require that these students receive counseling to explore the issues as to why
    this behavior is occurring, and take actions to make amends, or ‘restore’ those
    impacted. Our children in Chicago often come from stress-filled neighborhoods, and
    that stress can follow them home and into schools, but as public schools, our
    role is help them overcome these adversities and find their pathway to success.
    Setting a high bar is an important part of this process, but not if it
    serves only to identify which students you keep and which you expel.

    The low threshold for these so-called charter school expulsions
    would never be permitted in a Chicago Public School. At Schurz, we have received students kicked out of charter schools for reasons as minor as they did not like their school uniform, another whose disciplinary record stated that he had kicked over a hallway trash can. There
    is rarely any communication from the charter school to the neighborhood school regarding
    the background on the students, no records on the attempts that may have been
    made to support the student. The most common communication neighborhood schools
    receive in the course of these so-called ‘charter-expulsions’ is when the charter
    school attempts to withhold the students’ transcripts because the family still
    owes the school student fees.

    The Noble Street Network and Urban Prep high schools are
    highly touted networks of Chicago charter schools success. Over the course of
    my tenure in leadership positions in Chicago, I have enjoyed the opportunity to
    know both Mike Milkie, founder of the Noble Street schools and Tim King, founder
    of the Urban Prep schools, and I respect them both as committed educators with
    a vision for bringing options to youth in Chicago. But the time is overdue for
    an honest accounting of the impact these charters are having on the district as
    whole, and in particular, on the neighborhood high schools who bear the responsibility
    to educate ALL of our students, not just those deemed ‘easiest’ to teach, and
    by law will enroll every student excluded through these so-called charter expulsions.

    If one of the central arguments in making the case for the
    expansion of charter schools is that they present a ‘healthy’ competition to
    our traditional neighborhood schools, then they need to play by the same rules.
    Charter schools should be required to follow the same discipline code and
    operate with the same due process and hearings as Chicago Public Schools.
    Charter school lotteries should be conducted by the Chicago Public Schools, not
    the school themselves, and written essays and special education status never be
    allowed as components of an application. ‘High standards’ where all those failing
    to meet them are kicked (or ‘counseled’) out are not genuine high standards, they
    are exclusionary policies that if charters choose to follow, they are effectively
    operating as private schools and should not receive public funding. The time
    has come for public review of all charter enrollment and an accounting over
    charter expulsions, and that the practices of charter schools be brought
    in-line with the Chicago Public Schools. If not, these schools should be denied
    public funding, or at the very least, be contained from additional expansion.

    Dan Kramer, Principal

    Carl Schurz High School, Chicago Public Schools

    • Babby

      I hope you had a mic near, because you needed to drop it after this. Charter schools, like most ‘disruptive’ products, are dependent on their ability to free ride on existing public goods.

    • newnodm

      It fairer to allow students the chance to attend a high school with high standards. Your way is more of the same, which resulted in neighborhood high schools where you would never send your own child.
      You don’t know how to to achieve academic success with some of your students. Neither does anyone else. Your way is to continue the decades long disaster of forcing all students into a high drama, low performing school.
      Noble is genuine opportunity for all. It doesn’t mean that all can or will take that opportunity. Failure should be removed from CPS to the greatest extent possible. Potential for failure should never be built out of all high school choices when serving a high need community. We have done that. That school system design does not work.

  • Mr. Broy,
    Isn’t it true that charter schools are credited with graduating students who left early and actually end up graduating from a regular public school? This even if student left charter in 9th or 10th grade.

    • Sophie Wharton

      Mike – until now, the only graduation rates available from CPS for all schools (not just charters) credited the original school even when a student ended up graduating elsewhere. But this new rate – “freshmen retention rate” – only counts students who graduate from the original school, and charters are still leading district-schools.

      • Sophie — Thanks for your quick response. It is most helpful. Yes, it appears that the graduation rate information available from CPS has been misleading. I mean, why in the world would you count a student as a graduate from a school they only attended in the 9th grade?

        But since you answered my question instead of Mr. Broy, i’m assuming you are involved somehow in this study. Can you tell me if this new rate is based on averages? That is comparing the average freshman retention rate of all charter schools with the average of all non-charter public schools? If so, do you think there’s any validity in such a measure.

        I mean, are all charters the same, ie. doing the same things to retain students? Are all neighborhood public schools? Is it valid to lump together selective-enrollment high schools like Payton and North Side Prep with regular neighborhood schools that take all students and average them together as all non-charters?

        And then again, are networks like Noble with its 46% freshman retention rate (as best I can discern from the information made available to us) considered to be one school or are the various Noble high schools considered individually?

        The way it looks to me is that Noble, which is trying to open new charter near 5 existing north-side high schools, has a lower freshman retention rate than any of the 5.

        Another reason it’s important is because of the high degree of racial segregation within the Noble network (something Mr. Broy neglected to mention) which makes it difficult to break down freshman retention numbers by race in order to compare their so-called “achievement gap” with that of public schools.

        I have so many more questions concerning the “data” Mr. Broy is throwing around. I hope to hear more from you on this.

        Thanks again for your response.

    • Confused About Charters

      @michaelklonsky:disqus – When you instantly attack an article with inflammatory questions that are clearly answered in the article it comes across as extremely biased. It hurts your credibility and makes me much less likely to read through your longer post below where you might have some valid points.

      All of this bluster makes it harder for a northside parent to have an actual informed opinion.

      • Dear confused (If that is indeed your real name). There’s no such thing as “inflammatory questions.” Read what you will. I will continue to ask them and to “bluster” in response to Mr. Broy’s silly propaganda.

        • Confused About Charters

          There is pro-charter propaganda (Broy). There is anti-charter propaganda (you). When you knee jerk reply with an attack to what you believe to be pro-charter propaganda without reading the article it hurts your credibility and lowers the level of discourse. Paragraphs 3&4 directly answer your attack.

          #ComeClean – Did you actually read the article before posting?

          • Dear confused. Sounds like you’re not as “confused” a northside parent as you pretended. “Knee jerk”? Not really. I’ve been debunking this stuff for 30 years. It’s not “anti-charter”. In fact, I helped start many of the early charters in Chicago when they were teacher-led and supportive of (not competing with) public education. The WBEZ article is NOT a valid study. It’s methodology is flawed. It compares apples and oranges and draws unsupported conclusions. My “inflammatory” questions were only meant to let Mr. Broy dig a deeper hole for himself which is probably why he enlisted others to respond.

            But even using their numbers, it’s easy to see that Noble has no claim to being better (more freshman retentive) that the five north side high schools near where they want to set up shop.

          • Confused About Charters

            I am relatively new to this debate and looking for the truth. My only connection to the issue is as a CPS parent.

            The only things that I *think* I know to be true are the following:
            * Charter schools are not a uniform group – Some are better than others
            * Neighborhood schools are not a uniform group – Some are better than others
            * Selective enrollment schools are hurting the neighborhood HS push by pulling away a lot of good/bright kids but don’t seem to face the same wrath that charter schools do
            * There is a lot of bluster (I think it is the right word) on both sides of the charter debate that makes it very hard to form an informed view

            I assure you that I am thoroughly confused.

          • The reason that selective enrollment schools do not face the same wrath as charters is that they are transparent and open about the selective application process under which they operate, and as such are not held up in an ‘apples to apples’ comparison to neighborhood schools, as charters often are (Mr. Broy’s article here is a good example).

            One of the key elements in granting charters the license to open is that they be non-selective, and many would point to their self-conducted application lottery systems as proof that they are. The argument I am making here is that while there may be ‘open enrollment through the front door,’ a highly-selective system of dis-enrollment is happening out the back of many charters by way of these charter school expulsions, with no oversight from the Chicago Public Schools – and that these schools are in actuality, highly selective despite the legal definition that they not be.

            I speak for many leaders and teachers in neighborhood schools when I say that these practices in charter schools are greatly under-reported and are having a highly detrimental impact on our schools – and it is time that it be stopped.

          • To Confused About Charters – there is a lot of bluster, to be sure. The key recommendation I would make is to consider your local neighborhood high school as a choice – there are GREAT things happening in these schools everyday. Our school, for example, may be 100 years old, but we have learned a great deal along the way.

            We fully expect to be here for another 100 years – and the best is yet to come!

          • Confused About Charters


            There is a lot of positive talk/momentum around public high schools on the north side lately. I strongly support the neighborhood high school movement and I hope it is successful. I am a neighborhood CPS elementary parent.

            But, honestly, I don’t think there is a single non-magnet north side high school that I would send my kids to at present. And it seems to me that the neighborhood vs charter argument is a race to the bottom while a potentially bigger problem is the magnet system. They literally poach the brightest kids out of the neighborhood school.

            Is it just politically incorrect to attack the magnet schools because they are high performing on test scores (how can they not be)?

            Which do you think is more detrimental to the success of a neighborhood high school: magnets or charters?

    • By the way, where is this WBEZ study? Where can I get a copy?

    • Looking at the data from Noble Rowe Clarke, for example. They retain only 45% of their freshman. The highly touted Urban Prep charter retains only 35%. Other charters like Noble Munchin retain 63% (almost as high as neighborhood school North Grand at 64%). What does all this tell you about charters vs. public? Nothing. When you start averaging big groups of schools and comparing them as charters vs. regular, you get nothing but a mish-mash that can be spun any way you want.

      • newnodm

        Why do you think freshmen leave Noble? Where do you think they go?

  • Concerned Parent

    Thank you Daniel Kramer -you say truth. Charters select their students-they should be compared to selective schools. For charter admissions too, CPS

    should be there to monitor the interview process with parents to be selected to get in. Though CPS is biased in favor of charters. NO Chicago public neighborhood school can interview a parent to use for admission.
    BTW Mr. Charterman-what is your salary? is that not public record? Please include benefits. Remember that your high schools get students from the neighborhood public schools – a reason why they do so well in the first place.

    • Confused About Charters

      The debate around how much charter schools “select” their populace through interviews and expulsions is an important one that should be discussed and addressed in any statistics. But, to say that the proper comparison is to the selective enrollment schools is just silly. Selective enrollment is the top 1% or so. You can’t get anywhere close to that by weeding a random sample.

    • newnodm

      High schools should be compared to students with similiar entering test scores. How does Noble do with a student entering with an EPAS of 15? The answer is far better than any CTU high school.
      Noble has 70 minute classes, far more than the CTU contract allows. They have homework accountability. They have a school culture of calm, professional focus. Everyone in a Noble building works harder every day. They have earned their superb reputation.

      • Concerned Parent

        Not everyone is buying the kool aid your drinking. A number of north side school have similar numbers with EPAS gains, but we have more EL and sped students. We also have the students you throw away… I mean “counsel” out of your school. I’m a tax payer, where is the transparency with your organization??? You are using public money, the public should know how all of that money is spent. Don’t share those details do you?!

        • newnodm

          Yes, several north side schools do have EPAS growth like Noble. Those schools are Payton, Young, and Northside. Elite high school students can get high growth in schools based on a modest school day. The typical CPS high school student can only get high growth in schools like Noble and Urban Prep.

          A student entering Amundsen with an EPAS score of 15 will get half the growth of a student entering Noble with the same score. That is why the Amundsen principal doesn’t want Noble in her area. She knows that many families looking for rigorous college prep will choose Noble. She doesn’t have the school structure, instructional hours, or expertise to come even close to matching Noble.

          It in the interest of students and families to expand Noble. The politicos supporting the CTU Job Preservation Society should be ashamed of themselves.

          • Another Concerned Parent

            You certainly paint with a wide brush. Other schools are
            better. My son goes to Senn and they had better gains than selective
            enrollment. Public school should remain free of corporate interests. Educated Northside parents can clearly see
            through the fog of the carter school movement. If there is such a demand for
            your service why is it that you have so many open seats? 13,000+ open seats in
            charter schools. 1700 open seats at Noble. 241 at silver, 94 at comer 406 at
            crimson and 973 at Orange. Seems that
            you are also underutilized…why should you expand????

          • newnodm

            Ask Lofton what the expected ACT is for a student entering Senn with an Explore of 15.
            Lofton doesn’t have the school structure, instructional hours, or demonstrated expertise to turn low growth students into high growth students.
            There are reported open seats in charter schools because seats are seldom fungible.
            Charters that are chronically underutilized, or chronically under performing relative to their student group, should be closed.

          • RealityCheck

            Elite high schools get high growth not because of the modest school day, but because of the highly motivated, highly tested students who attend. Their families are also highly motivated to be sure their children get into elite colleges, and invest heavily to ensure that happens.

            Is there an algorithm you’re using to calculate the rate of growth that occurs at a school like Amundsen? Or is just the fact that Noble is using the buzzword of the day: rigor. I’ll bet Noble’s teachers (and students) have grit, too. There would be absolutely no competition between a charter and a well resourced public school, if in fact our city believed in well-resourced public schools.

            The CTU is not the Job Preservation Society, but is a progressive organization who would like to engage our tone deaf mayor and elected school board on the issues of school equity and retaining qualified professionals in the classroom. Last I checked, many charter teachers burn out quickly and move on to greener (corporate) pastures.

          • There’s no evidence for any of this. Don’t know why Catalyst allows people hiding behind phony names to spout such nonsense.

          • newnodm

            Again, if you are sincere, go talk to a leader at Noble. There is a enormous amount of empirical evidence of Nobles superior student growth that is well know to the CPS board and many leaders both locally and nationally.
            I don’t use my full name because of my teacher children and other teacher relatives, three of whom are either CTU or at Noble. You use your full name because you enjoy the notoriety.
            If Catalyst wants to know who I am, I will be glad to tell them. In the old catalyst forum system I always used a short name but a real email address when making a post. I also successfully complained to Catalyst when forum posts contrary to CTU positions were being deleted from discussion threads.

            You and the CTU don’t want a substantive debate because you have no realistic path to significant academic improvement in CPS.

          • Confused About Charters

            @michaelklonsky:disqus & @newnodm:disqus – For the record, I use a phony name because I am afraid of potential retribution paid to my children at their CPS primary school. This is a very real fear for anyone who dare question the neighborhood HS movement or the CTU.

            I am still undecided as to whether I think Noble to uptown is a good thing.

      • You claim: “How does Noble do with a student entering with an EPAS of 15? The answer is far better than any CTU high school. ”

        Evidence please?

        • newnodm

          If you are sincere about understanding student growth at Noble, sit down with a principal or AP and go over the details. They carefully evaluate what they do.

  • Concerned Parent

    I’m shocked the CPS would have a new metric you try to destabilize neighborhood highschools. If charters are so fantastic where are they in the ranks of all schools in Illinois?? They are not in the top 5 or 10. If fact they are not even in the top 20. Noble I think is 25?! The public no longer believes the lies your corporate bosses keep trying to sell.
    Btw stay out of the north side. We are doing very fine without you. Find your money someplace else!!

    • newnodm

      Noble student are the typical CPS student, entering high school with a EPAS score of about 15. Their students are usually two or more years below grade level. I don’t need to look at your top ten list to know the schools on the list have freshman entering that are above, not below, grade level.
      The quality of a high school is first judged by growth, not junior year ACT. Noble does a fantastic job of taking previously low growth students turning them into high growth students. That is why 10% of freshmen now attend Noble. Noble is a fantastic option for families, and a great benefit to the city.
      You are going to be seeing even more students entering Noble, because that is what parents want.

      • RealityCheck

        Does Noble have some *secret sauce* they put in their food to turn low growth students into high growth students? As a teacher for 12 years in both private and public schools, I’ve never observed this magical phenomenon where students simply “turn” into high performers. The students I’ve seen who make real gains usually have relatively stable families, freedom from generational poverty, and the intellectual stamina to engage in a variety of academic pursuits.

        Noble has the luxury of redirecting students to their neighborhood schools as soon as it becomes apparent a student cannot abide by their rules. Those same students often have diverse learning needs, social or emotional needs, and families who can’t provide the variety supports necessary for academic perseverance.

        The benefit of Noble to our city remains to be seen as the arrival of Noble is at the expense of neighborhood school that could be better resourced. The claim it’s a “fantastic option for parents” because it’s “what parents want.” is also unproven. Families in Uptown don’t want a Noble in their neighborhood and are letting everyone else know about it.

        • newnodm

          “Does Noble have some *secret sauce* they put in their food to turn low growth students into high growth students?”

          Yes. Academic rigor with a supporting school culture.

          If Noble students are such a select group, why are they two to four grades behind when entering? Why are their students typically reading at a fifth grade level? If they are a select group, why didn’t they grow more in their neighborhood primary school?

          You not making a case against Noble, you are pointing out the failure of neighborhood primary schools to adequately educate students from supportive families.

          My children didn’t need a Noble high school. But a great many children do.

      • L Shea

        Some other facts to keep in mind about Noble charters are: 1. 35% fewer ELL students than CPS 2. 22% fewer SpEd students than CPS 3. 51% of students suspended at least once during the school year. Another interesting fact is Noble’s ban on the student group called Gay Straight Alliance.

  • mrcantor

    I wonder how much of this data is explained by the self selection effect. Our district has a very high mobility rate… I see students at my school who are homeless, or who move from apartment to apartment a several times per year. Isn’t it the most stable of our families who have the ability to apply to selectives and charters? Isn’t it the most stable families who can transport their kids to schools outside their neighborhood even if they move across town? The families that are going through the most chaos in their lives and living situations are the ones who attend their default neighborhood school. When these families move a couple of miles away, they’re more likely to attend the school that’s most accessible even if they’d rather not leave their original school.

    I’d like to see the percentage of homeless and housing insecure students at selectives and charters compared to the neighborhood schools with the lowest freshmen retention rates. I’m afraid this data has more to do with the economic realities of families who end up in the “lowest” tier of a 3 tiered education system rather than anything about how charter schools educate children.

  • Concerned Parent

    charter schools shoudl only take students with the lowest MAP scores – see where they go from there.

  • BDH

    The “facts are stubborn things quote” does not, as Broy claims, come from the Federalist papers, and John Adams was probably not its original author. So much for facts.

  • Timothy Meegan

    The arguments Mr. Broy consistently lays out have holes big enough to drive a truck through. Of course you will have higher retention rates when your school requires new parents to attend 5 manditory meetings and students need to submit a written statement to gain admission. Those are filters designed to exclude poor and unstable families. Once again the ends justify the means. The fact remains that neighborhood high schools accept anyone, and schools like Schurz, Steinmetz, Roosevelt and others graduate more Noble street push outs than Noble street graduates neighborhood High school students. Wake me when mr Broy has something substantive to add to the debate.