Noble Effort: College Prep + Community on Chicago’s South Side

Despite its name, the Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side is a tough place to grow up. Boarded up buildings are common, job prospects for young people are not.

In stark contrast to the tired mid-century bungalows and storefronts are two glass and colored panel buildings facing each other across a parking lot.

Gary Comer College Prep is a high school that meets in two modern buildings developed by the Comer Family Foundation. Founder of retail giant Lands’ End, Gary Comer grew up in the neighborhood.

For ten years the Gary Comer Youth Center (the red one) has been enriching the lives of young people from the South Side with academic and enrichment. The school uses the Youth Center until 3:20 pm and then it is open to the community.

In 2008, the high school (the green one) opened with the mission of being the best high school in the country at graduating low-income minority students from college. In 2012, the founding class of 101 seniors graduated with 100% college acceptance at four-year universities.

The high school, part of the Noble Network, had ten features we appreciated:

  1. The school and community center are safe caring places.
  2. Students create a four-year high school plan that charts their path to postsecondary success.
  3. College visits start freshman year. Sophomores meet with college counselors and juniors have college seminars and college nights.
  4. Students apply to an average of 12 colleges.
  5. Close to 90% of students are accepted to four-year colleges, and 86% of students are first-gen college attendees.
  6. Class ambassadors greet visitors and recap class objectives and activities.
  7. The talented and diverse staff reflects the student body and community.
  8. Tough current issues are discussed across the curriculum and an elective on gender, race and class promotes collegiate level reading, writing and argument.
  9. Rooftop gardens (below) and community gardens across the street (above). Seniors can also take a gardening elective.
  10. The productive partnership between the school and community center and the extended learning opportunities it provides.

A Noble Effort

Mike Milkie founded Noble Street College Prep in 1999. Early success led to replication efforts which were benefited by Renaissance 2010, an initiative to support 100 great new schools in Chicago.

Today the Noble Network operate 17 high schools serving over 11,000 students from more than 70 Chicago communities.

Noble was founded on many of the same entrepreneurial principles that have built successful businesses—strong leadership, meaningful use of data and a high degree of accountability. With longer class periods, a longer school day, and a longer school year, Noble provides students with substantially more instructional time than the traditional Chicago public high school. This extra time, combined with a disciplined, consistent school culture, high expectations and a team of dedicated teachers, results in dramatically improved academic performance.

We know the biggest predictor of our students’ academic success is the quality of the adults in the building. That’s why we work tirelessly to recruit, hire, and support the best educators in the country. And we know they work tirelessly to ensure that every student has the resources they need to be successful. We give our teachers the freedom to innovate in the classroom, access to transparent data so they can analyze their performance, and we compensate our teachers and school leaders for results. This is why our schools rank as the top performing high schools in Chicago on ACT scores and academic gains.

Noble’s Approach

Kyle Cole, in his ninth year as network CAO, has struck an interesting bargain with Noble schools: they share common academic goals and assessments but have thematic, content and tool autonomy (in contrast to many charter management organizations adopting a common curriculum and learning platform).

Noble schools share a culture of improvement according to Cole, who said, “Anything that works spreads like wildfire.” Cole believes in distributed innovation, and points to examples of site experiments becoming new network standards.

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Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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