On a bright Sunday morning in mid-November, Brandon Wilkins, his cousin Kaleb Autman and their parents joined thousands of other families at a massive high school fair at Navy Pier.
The two 8th-grade boys chatted with counselors from a variety of high schools: selective-enrollment, charter and neighborhood. Their dream school is Westinghouse College Prep, a selective-enrollment school in East Garfield Park. But Noble’s Chicago Bulls campus may just be their backup.
“We are definitely considering it,” says Brandon’s mother, Brittany Young.
She would be happy to move her son into the public school system, regardless of school type.
“My kids have been in private school all their lives so they could use a change,” she explains. “And I’m tired of paying tuition.”
As the Noble Network of Charter Schools continues to grow, schools in its network have become a fallback option for students who don’t make it into the city’s selective-enrollment high schools and whose families can’t or don’t want to pay private school tuition.
This is one of the enrollment trends that Catalyst identified from an analysis of Chicago Public Schools data and internal data supplied by the Noble Network of Charter Schools. Dozens of interviews supplemented the numbers.
A little over 10 percent of Noble freshmen did not attend a CPS school for 8th grade. The district codes these schools as “no prior.” That means that the students attended private schools or were recent transplants to the city.
Noble keeps its own records on where students attended 8th grade, based on forms families fill out when applying for admission. An analysis of that data found that just over 5 percent of freshmen attended private schools, mostly Catholic schools. The numbers could be higher, as not all families completed the forms.
Michael Milkie, Noble’s founder and superintendent, says 10 percent wouldn’t surprise him.
“I think there are definitely families that stay in Chicago because they believe that Noble provides their children a good high school education,” he says.
These numbers are in line with multiple studies that have found a correlation in other cities between the growth of charter schools and the decline in parochial-school enrollment. Several Chicago families told Catalyst they see Noble as a free alternative to private schools.
Selective-enrollment high schools draw slightly more freshmen — 13 percent — who did not attend a CPS school the previous year, with Payton College Prep topping the list at just under a third.
Other charter high schools in Chicago get about 8 percent of their freshmen from non-CPS elementary schools.
For neighborhood schools, the percentage of “no priors” is about 7.
Charter elementary schools
Like other charter high schools in the city, Noble benefits when CPS opens new charter elementary schools.
An analysis of enrollment data shows that students who attended charter schools in the elementary grades are more likely to pick charter high schools than are students who attended district-run elementary schools.
Often the charter 8th-graders choose Noble. Last year 12 percent of CPS 8th-graders attended charter schools, but this year a full 20 percent of Noble’s freshman class came from charter elementary schools.
Milkie says Noble campuses try to build relationships at all types of schools, but he acknowledges that charter elementaries can be more welcoming.
April Goble, executive director of the KIPP charter schools in Chicago, says her counselors encourage graduating 8th-graders to apply to high schools with a college-prep focus, which is what Noble is all about.
As a result, about 70 percent of last year’s 8th-graders from KIPP who stayed in CPS for 9th grade chose a charter, and the vast majority of those went to a Noble campus, district records show.
“Since Noble has some of the highest ACT scores and college matriculation rates in the city,” Goble wrote in an email, “our parents often choose to enroll their children at Noble schools.”
The same is true for the UNO Charter School Network, which educates more elementary charter school students than any other charter network in the city. More than 38 percent of that network’s 8th-graders who stayed in CPS for 9th grade chose a Noble campus.
UNO Charter School Network spokeswoman Blanca Jara says that 8th-graders are told to apply to five high schools, and staff encourages “high-performing schools.” Noble campuses are always on that list of high-performers.
West, Southwest sides
Noble attracts a disproportionately large share of its students from the West Side. More than one-third of all Noble students are zoned to attend West Side high schools, even though just a fifth of all CPS high school students live in that area. Orr, Clemente and Wells all attract fewer students from the neighborhood than do Noble campuses.
After the West Side, Noble draws a significant number of students from the Southwest Side, where it is now planning to build a high school in Brighton Park. About 20 percent of Noble students come from the Southwest Side, a bit lower than the portion of all CPS high school students who live there.
Another area that sends high numbers of students to Noble is South Chicago, where in 2013 Noble opened the Baker campus inside a building that has long been home to Bowen, a neighborhood high school.
Baker has fewer grades than Bowen but already enrolls more students. One out of every three Baker students lives within Bowen’s attendance zone. At Bowen, many teachers and students saw the co-location as a way to starve their school. “Students knew what Noble was and the reputation that we’re not as good,” one former Bowen teacher said.
A similar dynamic is playing out at Corliss High in the Pullman neighborhood, although that school has been more successful at attracting students from its catchment area than Butler, the Noble campus that’s co-located inside the building.
Meanwhile, Noble attracts a tiny number of students from the Far North Side. Just 2 percent of Noble’s students come from this area even though 14 percent of high schoolers live there. Attendance areas that send the fewest proportion of students to Noble include Taft in Norwood Park, Mather in West Ridge and Sullivan in Rogers Park.
Area families and politicians blocked a proposal last year to open a Noble campus in Rogers Park. The negligible demand for seats in Noble schools from the Far North Side helps explain why that effort was successful.
As Noble’s reputation outside of Chicago grows, some families living in nearby suburbs have fraudulently worked their way into Noble schools. (The school system’s Inspector General recently reported similar fraud at selective-enrollment high schools, and Chicago school officials have since adopted a policy to ban the return of any student who lied to get in.)
“I cried about it,” says a mother whose son is supposed to attend Morton High School District in Cicero but is using a relative’s address to attend a Noble campus. “I had mixed feelings about it, but at the end of the day, I will do whatever it takes for him to get a good education.”
During a visit to one Noble campus, a Catalyst reporter met a student who said she lives in a low-income suburb south of the city. Separately, a teacher said she routinely drives one student to her home in Elmwood Park — she says she didn’t know Elmwood Park isn’t part of Chicago.
Noble requires two forms of address proof for admission, but Milkie says, “We’re at the mercy of the integrity of those families.”
In some cases, the high numbers of non-CPS 8th-graders may reflect the constant movement of families across Chicago’s porous borders. Vince Gay, principal at Noble’s Baker campus in South Chicago, says his campus sometimes gets students who transfer in from cities in Indiana and the south suburbs, such as Calumet City and Dolton.
“They’ll move in and out of the neighborhood,” he says. “And they’ll move over in order to come to us.”
It’s unclear how many students fall into this category. CPS Inspector General Nick Schuler says his office has received only about a dozen complaints about residency fraud at charter schools in recent years. He declined to comment on the specifics of any one investigation, but notes that it’s a challenge to prioritize these cases given his office’s limited resources. Instead, he has concentrated recent efforts on fraud at selective-enrollment schools.
—Kalyn Belsha contributed to this report