When Hector* first came to one of our 17 Noble Network charter high schools in Chicago, his goal in life was to pursue good, hard, honest work like his parents. As the son of undocumented immigrants, he aspired to a career as a restaurant server or, perhaps, an auto mechanic.
After scoring a 35 on his ACT, Hector is now a rising senior at an Ivy League university. His new goal: to become a high school AP History teacher. (*Hector’s name has been changed to protect his privacy.)
Hector may be exceptional, but he’s not an exception. Like 99 percent of Noble students, he is a student of color. And like 89 percent of Noble students, he comes from a low-income household. Yet 90 percent of Noble high school graduates enroll in college. Thirty-four percent of them finish college with bachelor’s degrees — twice as many as their peers who graduate from other Chicago Public School high schools, but not nearly enough. Our goal is to increase this number so that it is on par with the college persistence rates of more affluent students.
Undocumented Noble students like Hector are doing particularly well, with help from the Pritzker Access Scholarship program. An astounding 81 percent of the founding class of these Pritzker scholars have made it to their junior year in college, proving that with the right support structure, our students can become college graduates.
We expect each one of our students to earn acceptance to college and matriculate. And we work closely with them — both during their high school years and afterwards — to improve their chances for success.
Hard work on the part of our students and staff is the “secret sauce” to success. But there are things we have learned that can help increase the odds for kids with backgrounds and challenges like ours. I might categorize them as Noble’s version of the “3 Rs” — research, readiness, and remaining in touch.
Research: We have developed data tools that help our students determine the colleges that provide their best chance to graduate. The thousands of colleges across the U.S. have widely different outcomes relative to students of color and those from low-income families. Our predictive technology enables us to guide our graduates to choose the colleges with the best results for students like themselves.
We also use our data tools to track the historical affordability of these colleges. In other words, how much does each of these schools provide to students like ours in scholarships and financial aid? We want to make sure that each of our graduates has the financial support to succeed.
These efforts seem to be working. Last year’s Noble graduates were awarded $438 million in college scholarships — nearly a third of the amount received by all CPS high school graduates while representing less than 10 percent of CPS’s high school population.
All of the tools we’ve developed are open-source, meaning they are available for use by any high school — whether traditional district or charter. We have shared our tools with other charters and nonprofits and presented them upon request to the New York State Department of Education.
Readiness: Many of our students have never been on a college campus. A number of them have barely been out of their neighborhoods. Going away from home for four or more years is a foreign experience, which can lead to loneliness, alienation, and failure.
Part of our mission is to familiarize our students with college — not just the work that’s expected, but the reality of living on a campus and interacting with other students. The best way to do this is to expose our students to a real college environment as a sort of “dress rehearsal.”
We call this program Summer of a Lifetime. This past summer, 1,030 of our rising juniors participated in the program, studying at 97 colleges in 29 states and the District of Columbia. This amounted to a third of all the sophomores in the Noble Network. Not only does this exposure to college life whet their appetites for post–high school study, it increases their confidence that they can survive and prosper in a college environment — providing some of the life skills they’ll need to succeed.
Remaining in touch: Noble believes its mission is more than just getting our graduates into college. It extends to helping them succeed in both college and careers. We have chosen to allocate 23 full-time staff members to stay in touch with graduates after they leave Noble — coaching them to success in college and helping them find the best professional opportunities afterwards. We track their success, as well as their challenges, closely, constantly upgrading our data tools and sharing their experiences among staff.
Each of our students, like Hector, has tremendous potential, but they often start the race for college and careers at a disadvantage. Noble’s mission is to improve their odds of success by providing each student with the tools to chart their own future. We have come a long way, but we have a long way to go.
Michael Milkie is the CEO and superintendent of the Noble Network of Charter Schools.