Noble Street and the Fight Against Charter Expansion

Bowen High School is a neighborhood high school in South Chicago.
Bowen is a neighborhood high school in South Chicago. (Catalyst Chicago)

By Lynda Lopez 

A few days ago, I visited Bowen High School in South Chicago for a meeting. As I walked from the bus stop to Bowen, I started to see Noble Street Charter School banners on street poles along the way. I was confused why all the Noble banners were there. “There can’t be a Noble school here,” I thought.

When I arrived at Bowen, I marveled at the building’s architecture and its emerald, green lawn. One of the biggest losses from school closings is seeing grand buildings like Bowen boarded up, losing their luster. With CPS’ attack on neighborhood schools, appreciating their beauty seems more important, as their future is precarious.

Once inside, I asked someone, “Is there a Noble school in the area?” Their reply was, “The Noble school is inside the building. They are on the other side.” A few years ago, CPS had contentiously decided to have Bowen and Noble share a building. After my meeting, I explored the grounds. Just to the east of Bowen’s main entrance, a huge marquee with Noble’s logo emerges that says “Baker College Prep.” Bowen has no such marquee. Opening in 2013, Noble’s Baker College Prep has over 400 students, most certainly taking potential students away from Bowen, which has a student body of about 350. I saw Noble’s presence as an insult to the efforts of the Bowen staff to revitalize their school, such as leading community walks in South Chicago and building support services promoting college access. It’s an all-too-familiar story. A neighborhood school tries to work with its limited resources, but can’t compete with nearby charter schools, funded by the likes of Bruce Rauner and Penny Pritzker. While Baker College Prep saw a $760,000 budget increase, Bowen lost close to $2 million this year.

All across the city, Noble has opened schools right next to neighborhood schools. Last year, Noble opened a school across from Prosser High School in the Belmont-Cragin community, despite projections of declining enrollment in the area. In 2013, Prosser lost over $1 million in funding. The charter school across the street from it saw a $2.4 million increase this year.

Currently, the southwest side is fighting to prevent a Noble school from opening just blocks away from Kelly High School. Kelly has suffered from budget cuts in the past few years and is suffering from a dilapidating infrastructure. A documentary called In the Game follows the girls’ soccer team and their obstacles to reach higher education. With no soccer field, they remain steadfast due to the support of their teammates and mentors. Another school in the area would undo any progress Kelly has made, taking away potential students and leading to even more budget cuts.

While neighborhood schools lose funding, CPS continues to approve new charter schools throughout the city. Two years ago, CPS used the argument of underutilization to close 49 elementary schools across the city, mostly in the south and west sides. Yesterday, CPS released its adjusted enrollment numbers for this year, which shows a drop in enrollment of more than 6,000 students from last year. In the midst of an unprecedented drop in students enrolled in CPS, the district wants to continue to open new schools.

When it comes to Noble, CPS often touts the success rate of their students and brings up the “school choice” argument, a theory only selectively applied (as we saw with the Dyett Hunger Strike). When it comes to the success of the students, I don’t dispute the impact it has on individual students. As a University of Chicago student, I would see a few Noble school graduates enroll every year with scholarships. My other friend at a selective college also saw a few Noble kids enroll every year and thought they were well-prepared. However, she is not a supporter of the system. To critique Noble, you have to go beyond individual stories and look at the bigger picture.

While Noble expands into communities across the city, our neighborhood high schools experience declining enrollment and debilitating budget cuts, making it even harder to provide a good education for their students. If that weren’t bad enough, Noble often pushes out students it doesn’t deem to meet its standards, often sending them to local neighborhood high schools suffering from budget cuts. Prizker College Prep pushouts often end up at Kelvyn Park, which lost over $2 million this year, including its college coach.

Regardless of the good Noble may bring to some individual students, you can’t support a model that leads to disinvestment from public schools, marginalizing other students. We have to be critical of the privatization of public education. We can’t continue to open more schools in the face of massive budget cuts and school closures. Earlier this week, it was announced that 42 aldermen have signed onto a resolution calling for a moratorium on new charter schools for the 2015-2016 school year in the city and across the state. Alderman Sawyer said, “The vast majority of aldermen oppose the opening of new charters this year, while we face a massive budget crisis and no path to adequately funding our neighborhood schools.” Here’s hoping we win this fight.

Note: Budget numbers are based on CPS’ preliminary spending plan and 10th day enrollment adjustment numbers