Chicago Public Schools, the nation’s third largest school district, has received a great deal of attention because of its spike in high school graduation rates. Between the 2010-2011 and 2012-2013 school years, graduation rates rose from 58% to 65.4%—a rise of 7% in three years and an increase of more than 20% from a decade ago.
And while those are impressive gains, within Chicago’s borders there is another success story. The Noble Network of Charter Schools serves 9,000 city students, with 98% African-American and Latino and with more than 89% qualifying for federal free or reduced price meals. And fully 90% of Noble alumni not only graduate, but enroll in college—mostly four-year institutions. That free- or reduced-price lunch qualifier is important, says Dr. Garland Thomas-McDavid, principal of Johnson College Prep, only 11% of those students are, statistically speaking, likely to graduate from college.
Then, again, statistics are routinely disproven at Noble Schools. Thirty-six percent of its students graduate—more than triple the national average for economically disadvantaged students. And through rigorous, hands-on programs, the goal is to increase the number to 75%.
How have they done it? Three principals within the 16-school Noble Network have banded together to get those numbers up. Thomas-McDavid, a Brooklyn native who became a mother at 16, uses her own story to motivate her students. She began her college career at a community college, then continued working hard and achieving more academically until she earned her Ph.D. from DePaul University in Chicago.
"I love school. I love learning," she says. "So, I want to push myself and that’s something I still strive to do, just to make sure I’m continuously pushing myself and taking advantage of opportunities to be more and do more."
She says she talks to students about her own experience and shows them by example that it’s possible to achieve their degrees, no matter what the obstacles. But it’s not just talk. Her new alumni coordinator travels around the country visiting students and financial aid departments, making sure that Noble graduates have what they need to graduate.
"If there’s an emotional crisis, if there is something they need from their professor, just helping them navigate those environments as new college students, she’s there to help," Thomas-McDavid says.
Lauryn Fullerton is principal of Hansberry College Prep, which launched in 2012. She is a native of Chicago’s South Side who benefitted from her school’s International baccalaureate program before attending Johns Hopkins University. She brought the program to her school to help students, especially in science, math, and technology (STEM) education. The program is rigorous, exposing her students to the level of study that will be required of them while they’re still in the supportive Noble community. Teachers have office hours to get students used to seeking out help at specific times, mimicking a college environment. Students are also assigned to groups of 15 or 20 that are led by a faculty advisor. The advisor shepherds them through their school years, stepping in and offering support and guidance if they begin to struggle.
Nikki Grier, principal of Gary Comer College Prep, was the first African-American student from her high school to attend Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. She went on to earn her master’s degree in engineering with a concentration in biomedical engineering. She was a biomedical engineer at Emory University for five years before she decided to become a teacher. While working for Teach for America, she moved to Chicago and ultimately joined the Noble school network. Her focus is on holistic teaching—taking care of the students social and emotional needs as well as academic and behavioral instruction on which so many school focus.
That’s important for many of the kids in the Noble network, says Thomas-McDavid. The women continually examine the factors that lead to the long-term success of their students and work on integrating them into their programs and the network at large.
"These standards are now interwoven throughout our students’ experiences from freshman year. Some of them are skills around just knowing what college is. What can I expect when I get there? Understanding finances better. Developing certain character traits, like grit. Understanding what it means not to give up, and giving them opportunities to develop these things throughout the four years that they’re with us," she says.
Through a combination of education, acclimation, support, and "suck it up" tough love, Noble and these principals in particular are working hard to more than double the college graduation rate of their alumni.