‘Flaming hot' chips, gum, other ‘infractions' costly at some schools

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Julie Woestehoff, Executive Director at Parents United for Responsible Education speaks at a rally and march to call for an end to what they claim are “appalling” disciplinary policies at neighborhood and charter schools with a press confrence at School Board Headquaters 125 S. Clark. Monday, February 13, 2012 | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

A Chicago charter school franchise often touted by Mayor Rahm Emanuel has pocketed some $387,000 in fees over three years by issuing demerits for “minor infractions” ranging from not sitting up straight to openly carrying “flaming hot” chips, parents and students charged Monday.

The list of forbidden conduct at the Noble Street Charter Network is “as long as my arm” but adds up to a “dehumanizing discipline system that looks a lot more like a reform school than a college prep,” Julie Woestehoff of Parents United for Responsible Education charged at a news conference Monday.

At Noble Street schools, four demerits within two weeks triggers a three-hour detention costing $5. More than 12 detentions lands students in a behavior modification class costing $140.

Twenty-five to 36 detentions in one school year: two discipline classes, carrying a $280 pricetag. More than 36 detentions? Kids have to repeat the grade.

The stringent disciplinary code that Noble Street officials say many parents find attractive netted up to 10 Noble campuses $386,745 over the last three school years, according to documents obtained under a Freedom of Information Act by Parents United, the Advancement Project civil rights group and a student group called VOYCE.

The biggest windfall, the FOIA showed, was garnered at Noble’s Rowe-Clark Campus, which raked in $28,935 last school year alone amid an enrollment of 538.

Noble Street officials said they merely charge a “fee” – not a “fine” – to partially cover the cost of supervising detention or behavior classes.

Detention classes go back decades and in some Catholic schools were referred to as JUG, or Justice Under God. However, the Chicago Archdiocese doesn’t charge for them, said a spokesman for its Office of Catholic Schools.

The Advancement Project has been researching student disciplinary policies for more than 10 years, and worked with dozens of districts on them but has never seen “financial penalties for day-to-day disciplinary issues,” said Advancement attorney Alexi Freeman. She called the policy “pernicious and harmful” to youth.

Chicago neighborhood schools for years have seen resources for all students diverted to programs for those who misbehave, Noble CEO Michael Milkie said. Noble’s policy ensures that “those who generate the costs are the ones who end up paying the fees,” Milkie said.

Payment plans are available for the truly needy and in some rare cases, fees are waived, Milkie said.

“Far more students stay because of our discipline policy than leave,” Milkie said. “And far more students leave neighborhood high schools because they are not strict enough.”

“It isn’t ‘noble’ to pick the pockets of families who are already struggling with fees, fines and taxes that go higher and higher every day in Chicago,” countered Woestehoff. “If you’re going to penny-ante students for every little thing that happens then, yes, you’ll have to pay staff. But that’s their choice.”

Donna Moore labeled the fees a “hidden tax.” She said her son was forced to repeat freshmen year at one Noble Street high school based mostly on minor infractions – like running a pencil along the edge of a desk and not “tracking the teacher” with this eyes — that did not endanger school safety or disrupt class.

Moore said her son has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and a stress syndrome that make some Noble rules oppressive. Especially unrealistic, she said, are Noble demerits for violating its SMART policy, which stands for “Sit” up straight, “Make” eye contact when addressed, “Articulate” in standard English, “Respond” appropriately and “Track” the speaker with your eyes.

Milkie said SMART and other disciplinary policies merely promote “basic, common-sense citizenship things, which you know teenagers need.” Noble – which is allowed tougher disciplinary policies than Chicago Public Schools because it is a charter – sets high promotion standards both academically and behaviorally to prepare students for the world after high school, he said.

Noble Street was the only Chicago charter franchise last year to produce higher test scores than the Chicago average at each campus. Emanuel recently hailed it as having the “secret sauce” to success.

Noble’s disciplinary policy is “not a secret, but it’s part of our sauce,” Milkie said Monday.

VOYCE students, meanwhile, donned chefs caps to poke fun at Emanuel’s comments, chanting during the news conference that “Zero tolerance should not be allowed. Oooh, that’s not the right sauce.”

Carrying signs reading “It isn’t Noble to push out students,” they then marched on City Hall, demanding a fairer disciplinary policy from Noble Street and Chicago Public Schools.

– Contributing Art Golab

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