$5 Fines

Laura is an MTR alum who teaches in the Noble Charter School network in Chicago. They've been in the news recently, for a $5 fine controversy. From the Chicago Tribune:

There are a lot of reasons for Noble's success. One is its strict disciplinary policy. A student caught chewing gum earns a demerit. Late to class—that's not tolerated. Untucked shirts and untied shoes—not allowed. You don't shout or throw things in the lunchroom. And so on. It's a matter of respectful personal conduct.

A student who gets four demerits within two weeks must attend a three-hour detention class and pay a $5 fee for the class. Get more than 12 detentions — you really have to work at that — and you land in a discipline class that carries a hefty $140 fee. Rack up 25 to 36 detentions in one school year and you have to attend two discipline classes. Fee: $280.

Why is this in the news? According to an Associated Press story:

Critics say Noble is nickel-and-diming its mostly low-income students over insignificant, made-up infractions that force out students administrators don’t want.

“We think this just goes over the line. . . . Fining someone for having their shoelaces untied [or] a button unbuttoned goes to harassment, not discipline,’’ said Julie Woestehoff, executive director of the Chicago advocacy group Parents United for Responsible Education, which staged protests last week over the policy after Woestehoff said she was approached by an upset parent.

Last year the fines totaled almost $190,000 across several campuses.

PURE, along with a group called VOYCE (I'm guessing this isn't what Gates Foundation had in mind when funding them), organized some protests and called the local TV news stations. As an insurgency effort, I have to give them props -- they got a ton of attention.

What does the Tribune editorial board think?

There's a wearying little game going on in Chicago. As the Chicago Public Schools and the Illinois Legislature grow less tolerant of failure in education, as they push for status-quo-shaking change in schools, the defenders of the old ways of education get more nervous. They try to undermine reform in nickel-and-dime fashion, picking targets here and there. This is a case of that.

Nothing poses a greater threat to the status quo than charter schools. So charter schools get targeted with nonsensical claims like this, that Noble Network is "dehumanizing" students.

If these schools are dehumanizing students, why are students lining up to go to them?

What does Woestehoff dismiss as "nothing that really matters"? Crucial keys to personal success. Focus. Discipline. Respect for others.

All those little violations — gum chewing and rowdiness and tardiness — matter. They matter because good conduct creates an atmosphere of responsibility and accountability in a school.

I asked Laura for her view, as a teacher in the Noble network. She says:

Why do I support the $5 fine for a detention? It’s simple: investment -- and not the financial kind. Some parents don’t have the time or energy to be concerned that their child is earning detentions. They’re happy letting the school do the disciplining and letting the students serve the time. As soon as it costs money, the parents start caring. Not only that, but the students start caring as well. Suddenly, families and schools are working on the same team to help students become responsible, respectful, professional, and disciplined.

And it works. But don’t take an adult’s word for it. For us, it’s too often biased and political. All you have to do is ask a Noble student. The vast majority of my students vehemently defend their school and its policies because they realize that everything we do is for them and their future. And if $5 is a real financial burden, then these kids are lucky that they attend a school where their teachers care so much that we would give it to them if they asked.

If you don’t believe it, check out the Be Noble group on Facebook or come on in to one of our schools. I can guarantee our students will impress you.

I showed my 21 junior advisees this interview, and they were outraged. They want to post comments, take photos, and maybe even make a video to tell everyone how amazing Pritzker is. If they put something together this week, I'll be sure to share it.

Per Laura, I did check out the Be Noble facebook page. It is a stream of Noble alums and students supporting the strict policy.

I enjoyed this one in particular.

Jesus Villalba wrote:

I was not the smartest, popular, or the most athletic when I attended Noble Street. I was a procrastinator, but what I learned from Noble is to be determined.

....I attended Noble, not with the best state of mind. Spending multiple fridays in detention, some saturdays, alongside Mr. Tobin talking about our discipline troubles among many other students. There was a point where I had a detention-free friday, and I did not even know what to do.

After all these detentions, Mr. Tobin finally got in my head. That you got to earn everything in life, and prove everyone wrong. That you only have yourself in life, but that's all you need in order to overcome.

I also appreciate that Noble Staff never gave up on me, especially Ms. Angelica Alfaro. They gave an opportunity of a life time and have college expirience in high school.

I did not take full advantage, and I am regretful for that.

After I graduated, with a cps average GPA, I had no intentions to attend college (MG note: cps = chicago public school, i think -- this may imply that he transferred and didn't graduate from Noble).

However, Ms. Angelica Alfaro was presistent to at least attend community college until I gave in. I cherish and will always be grateful for her persistance. I started off at a Chicago Community College and worked my way up to an university, and only have around twenty credit hours in order to obtain my Bachelor's Degree in Graphic Design for studio art/commercial and advertisement. And for someone with my struggles, we do not have many options in a corrupt world that benefits the rich and enrages the poor.

Today, I still continue to work, continue to study, in order to become the person I had the opportunity to be at Noble. From trash to class. From "slang" to being articulate. From a boy to a man.

I'm a working progress, and only getting better. I will be a somebody! Somebody that my mom would be proud of! Somebody that my little brother could look up to! And someone that is Noble status!

And an alum named Jasmine Hernandez, who seems to be at Cornell College studying to be a vet, wrote:

One of the members from PURE referred to the Noble discipline system as “dehumanizing." The term 'dehumanizing' is to deprive someone of human qualities and is associated with a negative connotation. That is a very strong word and incredibly inaccurate.

Receiving demerits for things like eating Hot Cheetos and chewing gum is far from dehumanizing anyone. It is to show students that there is a place and a time to do certain things and even more that instead of filling their bodies with junk food, try something that is way healthier and better for them.

I remember going on a college trip with Mr. Milkie my junior year at Pritzker and we stopped at a gas station for a break. I came to the counter to check out with a bottle of soda, a bag of chips and gum. He suggested that I try getting something a bit more nutritious and he even offered to pay for whatever I wanted, while jokingly adding “I’ll let you keep the gum”. That very situation made me mindful of what I was unconsciously putting into my body. His rules and even little suggestions on our health show he truly cares for his students both inside and outside the class room.

Such an uproar is happening toward this “issue”, yet a lot of this energy should be put into trying to alter the CPS schools where graduation rates are appallingly low and the college entrance rates are even lower. Everyone is entitled to state their opinion, and have rights, but there is not one rule in the Noble handbook that deprives students of those rights.

As I previously asked on a different post, I must ask every one of PURE and even current Noble Network students who are encountering these situations now: what will you rather have (be enrolled in)? A school that is filled with thriving students who are well on their way to graduating from a prestigious high school, attending college, know how to conduct themselves and are very educated individuals, or a school that has little discipline, with students that are satisfied because it is what is easiest at that moment, but not being as prepared for college or perhaps not even having the opportunity to attend college.

Good question, Jasmine.

I'd add another observation. Just as anti-deficit hawks within the Democratic and Republican party do not seem to be able to join together, anti-misbehavior hawks within "ed-reform" and "veteran district teacher" camps are similarly unable to find common cause.

That is, the cry for better school culture comes from many savvy urban teachers. Here's a recent very popular EdWeek essay:

But they refuse to talk about the elephant in the room because it has become politically incorrect to do so.

And that elephant is this: bad behavior, student apathy, and absenteeism are the real reasons schools "fail."

If every child listened in class and did their schoolwork, most would be successful learners....

When teachers attempt to discuss disruptive, violent, mean kids, they walk a razor-sharp line between professional discourse and whining. One wrong step and their careers are in shreds. They know this.

So they don't talk about it. And thus no one acknowledges -- least of all the corporate reformers who create education policy in this country -- that Johnny is hyped on caffeine, strung out on drugs, glassy-eyed from video-gaming, has no self-control, talks back, uses foul language, neglects to bring materials to class, refuses to do schoolwork, or is rude beyond belief. No one acknowledges that as a society we are not only at a loss as to how to discipline kids, we often enable their bad behavior.

The writer, Kelly Flynn, would not describe herself as a charter advocate nor hater.

In my view, the real opportunity is a sort of "bi-partisan" effort on school culture, uniting everyone who "Gets It" on the challenges and opportunities of establishing positive school culture.

This alliance would omit traditional allies for "each side": progressives who tend to oppose all meaningful discipline policies, and choice advocates who are uninterested in other aspects of district reform. My commenter John Thompson, who has long taught in tough Oklahoma schools, has sometimes called for this sort of unity.

Charter critics tend to argue that impressive charters, like Noble, which build a strong school culture, achieve that entirely through student selection and de-selection. Not through teacher effort. The numbers cut against that claim: about 91% of Noble kids return each year, which is higher than the Chicago district schools.

Our teachers don't issue $5 fines. But I wonder if we should. Maybe on the optics side, simply have all $5 fines go to student council for travel and such.