Noble Charter’s Battle for Brighton Park

Aracelli Escobedo stands in front of the proposed site of the new Noble high school in Brighton Park. She says she wants her two daughters to be able to attend the expansive campus outlined on the poster board.

By Kelan Lyons

For mothers Vicky Enciso and Araceli Escobedo, a proposal by the Noble Network of Charter Schools to build a new high school in their Brighton Park community is as much about getting their children into college as it is about constructing a new building.

“I am a parent with [few] resources. I am a parent who is an immigrant from Mexico. And I know there’s a lot of us around here,” said Enciso, mother of two Noble graduates now in college and another daughter whom she would like to send to the charter. “This is a great opportunity for our kids.”

“[Noble] prepares them for college,” Escobedo echoed. “They teach [kids] to keep going, to get a degree in something.”

The Noble Network’s proposal to build a new high school in Brighton Park, on an abandoned lot at the corner of 47th Street and California Avenue, is scheduled for a vote before the Chicago Board of Education on October 28. The Southwest Neighborhood Advisory Council, which represents the community’s interest in matters of charter expansions, recommended in a 3-2 vote that the Board not approve the proposal, citing a lack of community support.

In what has become a routine battle in Chicago in recent years, the Brighton Park community has fractured into charter expansion advocates vs. proponents of neighborhood public schools. A similar battle against Noble Street Charter took place earlier this year on the North Side, where Noble’s plans for new charters never materialized because of neighborhood opposition.

In Brighton Park, the battle has set neighbor against neighbor, as both sides attempt to protect those students they consider their own.

For Enciso and Escobedo, a Noble school will provide their own children with the tools to succeed in college. Meanwhile, other community members and advocates of neighborhood schools want to protect neighborhood children from the reduction in funding they predict will hit local schools if a new charter opens.

“It’s absurd”

Before moving to Iowa for college, 19-year-old Martin Enciso spent three hours each weekday on the CTA, traveling between his home in Brighton Park and his high school in a Northwest Side neighborhood.

Getting to Pritzker College Prep, a Noble charter school in the Hermosa neighborhood, meant an eight-mile trek on two bus routes from Enciso’s home on the Southwest Side.

“Some days I wouldn’t get home until midnight, and then I had to be up at 6 the next morning to do it again,” said Enciso, who frequently stayed after school because he played basketball and Ultimate Frisbee, and ran cross-country.

Martin was one of the 271 students, according to the Noble Network’s proposal, who both live in Brighton Park and attend one of the 16 Noble Network of Charter Schools throughout Chicago. Students like Martin, who have to spend hours getting to and from school each week because they live in a neighborhood in Southwest Chicago—where no Noble schools now exist—are a major reason that Noble wants to build the new school.

Proposed Noble site
The Noble Network intends to build their new high school in the abandoned lot on the corner of 47th Street and California Avenue. (Kelan Lyons/Medill)

But for Patrick Brosnan, executive director of the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, students and families like Martin’s choose to attend a school in the Noble Network, despite the distance. Their decision shouldn’t take money away from neighborhood schools just because students have a long morning and evening commute, he said.

“Your kid doesn’t have to travel that far. If your kid could test into Hancock (a selective enrollment school in the neighborhood), they would. If your kid could test into Back of the Yards IB (another neighborhood school with an International Baccalaureate program), they would go to Back of the Yards IB,” Brosnan said. “Why is your child’s convenience and your family’s convenience more important than [money for] sustainable and equitable education at Kelly High School or at Curie? It’s absurd.”

“I probably would have dropped out”

Alexa-Rae Bramwell is a senior at Kelly High School, a neighborhood school a few blocks from the proposed Noble site. She’s in Kelly’s band and choir, two parts of Kelly’s music department, which is one of the highest-ranked in the state.

“I would say the music program is probably the main reason I come to school,” said Bramwell. “If it wasn’t for the music program or the drama program, I probably would have dropped out.”

Kelly High School Students
Kelly High School students Alexa-Rae Bramwell and Juan Escobedo discuss their love of their school’s choir program. (Kelan Lyons/Medill)

Bramwell recalled that she wasn’t a good student in her first two years at Kelly. She decided school wasn’t for her in her junior year, but later, she said, “found motivation through music.” Now, with seven months to graduation, she wants to go to college and study business.

Juan Escobedo, a Kelly junior, said he’s worried how another local high school will affect his school’s beloved music program.

“If they do end up [opening the Noble], one of the things we’ll end up losing is funding for the music department,” said Escobedo.

CPS allocates funding on a per-student basis, so if one neighborhood school loses students because they choose to attend another school or a charter, that neighborhood school will lose money and, potentially, talented students. With nine neighborhood schools and three charters already in Brighton Park, it’s likely that local high schools like Gage Park, Back of the Yards and Kelly would lose money next year if the new Noble opens.

Jim Coughlin, principal at Kelly High School, doesn’t want to see his school lose “its character” as a community center. The school stays open on the weekend so children can swim in the pool and take English proficiency classes, Coughlin said, and parents can do taxes and file immigration paperwork there.

“We’ve got a fantastic extracurricular program,” Coughlin said, referring to the music program that students like Escobedo and Bramwell say they love. “These programs keep kids off the street.”

Brosnan, of the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, fears that competition between the schools “will cause irreparable damage to the neighborhood. We just do not need another school.”

Aldermen from across the city echoed Brosnan last month when 42 of them signed a moratorium on new charter schools in CPS and throughout the state. The vote, however, is only symbolic: aldermen have no control over CPS, which is overseen by charter advocate Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s hand-picked board.

Ald. Ed Burke of the 14th Ward, where the new Noble would be built, was one of the eight aldermen who did not sign on to the moratorium. Burke is the one of the three aldermen whose ward falls within Brighton Park’s boundaries. Ald. George Cardenas and Raymond Lopez of the 12th and 15th wards, respectively, are the others, and they have publicly spoken out against the neighborhood Noble proposal.

According to his website, Burke has served the 14th Ward for over 35 years. One of the last remaining remnants of the Chicago Democratic political machine, Burke is the chairman of the City Council’s Committee on Finance. Records on Burke’s campaign donations show his strong ties to the charter community,

According to the Illinois State Board of Elections website, various committees representing Burke have received $15,750 from Frank Clark, Chicago Board of Education member and co-founder of Noble’s Rowe-Clark Math & Science Academy; John Rowe, Noble Network board member and co-founder of Rowe-Clark; and Penny Pritzker, Noble donor and namesake of Noble’s Pritzker College Prep. In addition, John Rowe donated $16,500 to The Burnham Committee between 2002 and 2015, a political action committee controlled by Burke.

The same Noble affiliates have donated $6,000 to committees associated with the election of Dan Burke, Ed Burke’s brother and current Illinois congressman of the 23rd District; and $17,500 to committees associated with Anne Burke, the alderman’s wife and sitting member of the Illinois Supreme Court. Included within those contributions to Anne Burke is $10,000 in donations from Jerry Reinsdorf, Noble board member, and $5,000 from Jeanne Rowe, husband of John Rowe, and major donor to the Noble Network.

“I think this community will grow”

Adrian Segura, community organizer for Noble, says he’s eager to see how the board votes on Noble’s Brighton Park proposal.

“It would bring a school that is solely focused on college graduation,” he says. “Our one goal is to be the absolute best in not only helping students get to, but through college.”

According to their Illinois State Report Card, the Noble Network overall has a 90 percent graduation rate, compared to Kelly’s 86 percent. College readiness, however, is where the Noble Network stands out.

According to the same state report card, almost half of Noble students are “ready for college coursework,” compared to about one-fifth percent of Kelly’s students, and just over a quarter of CPS students overall. Almost 4 out of every 5 students in the Noble Network are enrolled in college before a year after graduation, compared to around 58 percent of Kelly students, and 62 percent of CPS students.

The report card numbers are the average of all 16 Noble campuses in Chicago. The numbers likely vary widely at each individual school; for instance, the CPS Report Card rates Noble schools like Pritzker, Noble and Muchin higher than Johnson, Golder and DRW.

Most of all, Segura, who is from the community, says the new Noble would give families a choice where to send their children to high school.

“[In the past,] your zip code determined where you could go to school, unless your parents had the money to send you to private school,” said Segura, who added that a new Noble would mean a high quality option for Brighton Park families who want their children to attend a high school with a college prep focus.

Vicky Enciso, Martin’s mother, hopes the new school opens so her 13-year-old daughter, Maya, can be spared the hours of travel on public transportation to and from school.

“I think this community will grow. All those wonderful kids can stop traveling, because they have a lot of stuff to do to prepare for college,” said Enciso.

Kelly hall
Flags hanging above student lockers promote a college-going culture in the halls of Kelly High School. (Kelan Lyons/Medill)

Araceli Escobedo, mother of two students who attend University of Illinois at Chicago College Prep, likes the discipline taught by Noble schools.

“[The kids] know they are safe in there,” Escobedo said. “They don’t have to worry about people bringing knives or guns. [Noble doesn’t] have metal detectors.”

Noble schools are known for their strict discipline, for which students receive detentions for minor infractions like forgetting homework or getting out of their seats without asking permission from their teacher. Until last year, students had been charged $5 each time they got a detention, which, with such minor offenses, could add up quickly. Noble stopped the fines in April 2014 shortly after a Chicago Tribune story mentioned the fines. The school’s fee “has attracted attention and, as a result been a distraction,” Noble Superintendent Michael Milkie said in a letter to parents.

Noble doesn’t track how many students they expel (CPS doesn’t require them to do so). but Jim Coughlin says Noble “only wants to take a certain type of kid who will go along with the program immediately and who does not need a lot of support.”

But Segura disputes this claim.

“There’s no logic to that,” Segura said.

Martin Enciso, now studying social work and sociology at Luther College, said discipline was strictly enforced, but ultimately beneficial.

“The discipline is way above CPS… [But] the discipline got me discipline [in college],” Enciso said.

Noble has shown strong support for its proposal in public forums, busing students and their families 20 minutes from the proposed school site to Daley Community College on August 10 and filling seats at the September 30 CPS charter meeting in the Loop, arriving before many Brighton Park residents.

Noble’s early filling of the meeting rooms forced some community members against the proposal to hear the results of hearings involving their own neighborhoods from the other side of a locked door.

Coughlin and Brosnan maintain that Noble has unfairly treated neighborhood schools like Kelly at these public forums. At the charter hearing September 30, a Noble student said she would have become pregnant had she gone to Kelly.

Brosnan says statements like these are “feeding into the class divide we have in this city.”

Segura called the student’s comment “unfortunate” and said, “We always try to tell our students to remain positive.”

Until October 28, Brosnan and the BPNC are organizing community meetings and calling on Frank Clark to recuse himself from the vote because of his status as co-founder of a Noble school.

“I am all for that every school should be funded, whether it’s charter or public,” said Enciso. “I think every school is an opportunity. There’s a school for everybody.”

For Kelly Principal Coughlin, charter expansions were a good idea at one point.

“As a veteran of over 30 years in CPS, I see and I saw that we needed competition,” Coughlin said. “I favored the charter movement when it started because I thought we needed a push as a public schools system.”

But Coughlin says it is “overkill” at this point. With so many schools in his neighborhood already, he says charter schools are becoming counterproductive.

“It’s just becoming parasitical,” said Coughlin. “You’re cannibalizing each other.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Noble was still fining students $5 for detentions. Noble stopped that practice in April, 2014.

Photo at top: Araceli Escobedo stands with her two children, Karina and Giselle, in front of the abandoned lot they hope will contain the proposed Noble high school, on 47th Street and California Avenue. (Kelan Lyons/Medill)