Chicago School Nets $190,000 in Student Fines

PHOTO: Noble Street College Prep CEO Mike Milke talks with student Gabriela Cervantes during school in Chicago, Feb. 16, 2012.PlayM. Spencer Green/AP Photo
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Forget watching the clock, chewing gum, or slouching. At the Noble Network of Charter Schools' 10 Chicago campuses students are on their best behavior-- otherwise it will cost them.

"Students tell us by and large they don't like the whole system as most teenagers would, but the proof is in the pudding," said Michael Milkie, CEO and superintendant of the Noble Network of Charter Schools.

Last year, the schools collected an estimated $190,000 to help defray the cost of having teachers stay after school to supervise detention. Students earn demerits for everything from having flaming hot chips, which Milkie said have been shown to being addictive, to having their shirts untucked.

After earning four demerits, the student is sent to a three hour detention. Admission fee: $5.

"These are schools of choice. We have thousands on the wait list and we do communicate [this policy] really well with parents," Milkie said.

But Noble's unique approach, which it has relied on for the past 13 years, has drawn scrutiny from some parents and eduction advocacy groups who said it's being used to push out students.

"These extremely punitive, nitpicky programs are not the ones that really work," said Julie Woestehoff, executive director of the Chicago-based advocacy group Parents United For Responsible Education. "The students need to feel they're not like dogs or 2 year olds. They're actually maturing human beings who need some guidance and not someone to jump on top of them."

Donna Moore said her son, who is a second year freshman, has been hounded at the school for everything from not having his eyes on the teacher at a given moment to having his shoe untied.

"He was retained because of detention. He was told his first year that at that time he had hit 33 detentions and had to retake his freshman year," Moore said, adding that it was impossible for students to keep up on school work when they keep being punished.

But Milkie said the school's unique system of fees-- he doesn't call them fines-- has yielded dividends.

Not only is more money now spent on education and less on paying teachers overtime to supervise detention, but test scores have also improved.

The average ACT score across Noble's 10 campuses last year was 20.3. Chicago Public Schools students scored an average of 17.2. The school's scores have consistently climbed since 2003.

Even though Donna Moore isn't happy with the way her son has been treated, she said she plans to keep him in the Noble school system.

"I send him there because there are not really many choices," she said. "It's the decision to deal with the devil I didn't know versus the devil I did know. Now I want to stay and make it better for all students."