Discipline in high school is no easy task. Students in grades 9-12 are at a special time in life where independence and questions of authority reign on their minds at a near-constant rate. For parents, finding a school where the focus on academics and success is not thwarted by disciplinary issues is a challenge to say the least. Over the last decade, however, the rise of charter schools in several urban areas have allowed parents a choice. However, this is not without controversy as one option in the city of Chicago, the Nobel Street Charter Schools, has recently come under national scrutiny because of the methods they use in dealing with school discipline and classroom management. Earn a Detention, Pay a Fee Detention is a staple in high school. Break a rule, skip a class, and you end up “serving time” after hours as penance. For the active teen, the punishment of even more school should be enough. However, as the founder of Nobel Street Charter, Mike Milkie, observed that just earning detention seldom corrected behavior. Instead, all it did was cost the school money to staff the detention periods. His solution? Charge students a fee of $5 for each detention they earn and then use that money to off-set its costs. Plus, by hurting their pockets as well as their pride, students may be less likely to break a rule a second time. Last year, the 10 Nobel campuses generated over $200,000 from disciplinary fees. Though this was not nearly enough to cover the costs of running detention, and the associated disciplinary classes required for repeat offenders, it has made a difference. Nobel Street Charter Schools’ 10 College Prep campuses enjoy one of the highest graduation and retention ratings in the city and have been commended by Mayor Rahm Emanuel. This has not stopped the media, along with students and parents, from protesting the disciplinary policy claiming, among other things, that “It's nickel-and-diming kids for literally nothing that really matters.” A Culture of Misunderstanding In response to the national media attention, Noble Street Charters have publicly released their Student and Parent Handbook as well as an associated Press Release which endeavors to explain their policy. Many parents who complained to the media that detentions were given for “small” infractions such as untied shoes, failed to mention that the demerit system of Nobel Street Charter is far more complex – a student must earn 4 demerits in one two-week period to warrant a detention. An untied shoe, or a “bag of potato chips,” which is limited to “flaming” or “hot” chips, only generates one such demerit. Nobel Street’s founder and CEO/Superintendent Milkie explains, “The discipline code teaches many lessons to students including self-discipline, punctuality, organization, respect, and responsibility—all qualities that lead to college and life success.” The ultimate conclusion is that, although the disciplinary code at Nobel Street Charter is a bit harsh, “sweating the small stuff,” or so to speak, creates a culture of respect based on expectations. Classroom management, Milkie and this staff believe, starts with school culture, and making students literally pay for their misbehavior has a more lasting effect on temperamental teenage minds. Exceptions Exist Finally, there are clear exceptions to the disciplinary rules. Special education students, for example, are exempted from certain demerits depending on the details of their IEP’s. Parents who demonstrate an inability to pay the fee are also given a break. Students who attend detention or even the disciplinary class (which costs $140 and is only given after 12 detentions have been served) do not pay for all the costs associated with it, far from it. Instead, the $5 fee is simply and off-set and far more symbolic than necessary. Good Plan, Bad Press? It seems to me that the press for this plan has been radically skewed to make Nobel Street Charter look like a bad guy. Though clearly there are going to be students who feel badly about getting detention or otherwise good kids proverbially caught with their pants down, these are necessary spoils in the effort to develop a safe school environment. Effective classroom management gives teenagers structure and expectations in order to thrive and, as Milkie himself points out, “the fact that [Nobel Street Charter] had more than 8,000 applications for our incoming freshmen classes and long waiting lists for all our other classes demonstrates that families desperately want this safe, productive learning environment for their children.”
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