A demerit for not looking at the teacher after being reminded. A detention for drawing on a desk. An out-of-school suspension for dozing off instead of doing homework. Does penalizing students for a laundry list of common infractions—both minor and more serious—train students to be self-disciplined, or lead some to become disaffected from school?
At one Chicago charter school, the school community’s verdict is mixed.
The Noble Network of Charter Schools, which runs 12 schools in Chicago, says its mission is to “prepare low-income students with the scholarship, discipline, and honor necessary to succeed in college and lead exemplary lives, and serve as a catalyst for education reform in Chicago.”
Its academic record is impressive: Noble students’ average ACT score, 20.7, is more than 3 points higher than the average score for Chicago’s regular public schools. But the network has become a flashpoint of national discussion about whether charters should have unfettered ability to create their own disciplinary policies.
On one side of the divide is Ronda Coleman, whose daughter Janell, 17, is a senior at one of the network’s schools. She says that the rules create a safe environment, and that parents and students are well aware of what they’re signing up for.
But Donna Moore, whose son, Joshua, 17, left the Noble system after repeated disciplinary incidents, sees the same policies as petty and subjective. She says they make it more likely that some students will drop out of school.
Michael Milkie, the superintendent and a co-founder of the Noble charter school system, said he and his wife were inspired to create a school with a stricter code of conduct after teaching in the Chicago school system.
“One of the things we looked to implement right away was a structured, strong discipline code that teaches students proper behavior and allows teachers to teach and students to learn,” Mr. Milkie said. At Noble, students receive demerits for certain offenses, including dress-code violations or possessing a permanent marker. Racking up four demerits means serving detention for three hours on Friday and paying a $5 fee.
Mr. Milkie said in general, students get on board with the school’s policies.
“Students get an average of 12 detentions freshman year, and only two by senior year,” he said.
For Joshua Moore, however, following the rules did not get easier. Mr. Moore now attends Olive Harvey Middle College Campus, an alternative school. He spent two years as a freshman at Gary Comer High School, a Noble charter school, and, in that time, amassed hundreds of detentions—298 during the 2011-12 school year alone—and dozens of suspensions.
Noble employees said they could not comment on the case because of student-privacy concerns.
In his first month at Comer, Mr. Moore received demerits for having his shoes untied and for being less than a minute late to class, according to school records shared by his mother. Later records show him skipping required after-school periods and talking disrespectfully to teachers. Mr. Moore said that he began to feel he couldn’t break out of the cycle, and that some of the offenses for which he got demerits made him feel singled out.
“I just stopped caring,” he said. “Forget it, I’m tired, I’m not going to make it here.”
“I think if I was somewhere else, I might have been on track, in the right grade,” he said. Unlike in Chicago’s regular public schools, students at Noble schools must meet disciplinary as well as academic and fitness goals to be promoted.
Donna Moore, Joshua Moore’s mother, said that spending so much time out of class hurt his self-esteem and motivation.
But Ronda Coleman said Comer’s environment was a welcome change from the regular public school Janell’s sister had attended, where students’ behavior was often “wild.” While the rules are strict, Ms. Coleman said, the policies help students develop a sense of self-discipline and direction.
When her daughter received a detention for having a cellphone on school premises, the $5 charge came out of her daughter’s babysitting money. “When you don’t follow the rules, there’s a consequence,” Ms. Coleman said.
Ms. Moore said that she had been optimistic about the school at first, but she came to feel school officials’ attitude toward her son’s difficulties was “if you don’t like it, you can move.”
Mr. Milkie said that the school prioritizes retaining all students, but that charters should have as much freedom as possible to set their own policies.
“Some kids do leave because of the discipline code, but far more stay because they’ve learned the self-discipline that carries them through college and career success,” he said.
“I actually loved the school,” said Mr. Moore. “It was just the rules.”
Coverage of school climate and student behavior and engagement is supported in part by grants from the Atlantic Philanthropies, the NoVo Foundation, the Raikes Foundation, and the California Endowment.
A version of this article appeared in the February 20, 2013 edition of Education Week as ‘No Excuses': A Frontline View