Newly installed Noble Network CEO Constance Jones wanted to make a splash with teachers and students while rolling out her changes last month to the charter schools’ notoriously strict dress code policy.
So she showed up at schools citywide with her hair dyed purple.
“It felt like showing up at a Halloween party where you’re the only one in costume,” Jones said. “I just wanted to model to people that it’s OK.”
For years, Noble’s policy against anything other than “a natural human hair color,” as well as visible tattoos and piercings, had drawn protests from students and groans from teachers who asserted it unfairly punished styles popular with African-American students.
Easing those restrictions in a network noted for its tough discipline — and a 12,000-plus student population consisting overwhelmingly of students of color — was Jones’ first order of business when she took over Noble in December.
“It’s important that we’re continually evolving. We’re in a different place now than we were 20 years ago.”
At 37, she’s one of the youngest ever to head a charter network in the Chicago area, and she becomes the first African-American woman to serve as Noble’s CEO.
But Jones’ colorful rollout of the new dress code wasn’t the only thing to stick out during her introductory tour as CEO. It was also the first time in Noble’s nearly 20-year history that someone other than founder Michael Milkie was in charge of the network.
Jones was promoted from president to CEO as Noble was mired in controversy last fall in the wake of Milkie’s abrupt retirement due to “inappropriate behavior” described as “including hand-holding and an instance of slow-dancing with an alumna.”
Jones and Noble head of schools Ellen Metz were key in prompting Milkie’s departure, according to the network’s official statement at the time, voicing a “lack of confidence” that led to his retirement.
Jones declined to elaborate on Milkie’s alleged behavior, citing an ongoing internal investigation and a probe by the Chicago Public Schools inspector general’s office.
“There is no place for any type of misconduct that happened. It should’ve never happened,” Jones said.
“The last quarter of the year quite frankly was the toughest in my life. I’d never been in this situation before, but I knew that something needed to be done, and I don’t regret doing the right thing.”
Milkie — who acknowledged and apologized for his “inappropriate interactions” — did not receive a severance package, Jones said.
The scandal did not prevent Noble from renewing its charter for five additional years with the Chicago Board of Education. District officials have not disclosed the list of “terms and conditions” the network had to agree to as part of their renewal, though a district lawyer said they had to agree to share sexual misconduct allegations with CPS.
Jones said Noble staff went through sexual abuse training provided by CPS last fall in the wake of the district-wide crisis, and, she added, they’ve implemented a policy of sending allegations against senior leaders to an outside investigator.
“I want people to feel comfortable that if there is some allegation against a senior leader, we are not given special treatment,” she said.
Jones, a North Carolina native, earned a Harvard MBA and worked as a corporate officer for Johnson & Johnson and Hyatt before joining Noble’s administration in 2015.
When her father died in 2016, she wanted to get a tattoo in remembrance but realized it wouldn’t fly in a school system that also issues “demerits” to students for chewing gum, getting caught with an untucked uniform shirt or standing up without permission during lunch.
Those demerits add up to detentions, for which Noble used to charge students $5 per session — a tactic that netted hundreds of thousands of dollars from mostly low-income students. The practice was ended in 2014 after an outcry from parents and students.
“I knew I could get the tattoo today and show up and still be the same person and do the same great work and nothing has changed. That just felt like a tension in me,” Jones said.
Mansueto High School junior Diego Garcia, part of the Noble group “Students 4 Change,” lauded the eased restrictions in an email.
“Although our movement was suppressed by Noble’s administration, Students 4 Change is one step closer to a system that suits the student body’s needs, but we still have a lot more to fight for,” Garcia said.
Jones said teachers and staff have been happy with the change as well.
“We want to make sure we’re not putting up unnecessary barriers for talent,” she said.
Jones hasn’t pulled the trigger on that tattoo just yet. But as for her next hair color? Maybe a nice baby-blue in honor of her alma mater, the University of North Carolina.
“I’ll wear it for March Madness,” she said.