Christopher Goins is the founding principal of Butler College Prep, a four-year-old charter high school on the far South Side of Chicago with a student population that is 95 percent low-income and Black.
Much like Goins, who is a bold and snazzy dresser, Butler stands out. Though surrounded by the blighted blocks of the Pullman community, Butler has fast become a model of what urban education should look like, particularly for African-American boys.
“I know Black kids,” Goins said. “I do.”
Last August, Chicago Magazine rated Butler the best charter high school in the city. The year before that, the Illinois Network of Charter Schools recognized Noble-Butler as the state’s highest-performing charter school for academic growth among African-American students. Chicago Public Schools (CPS) currently gives Butler the highest rating it can offer, a Level 1+. And though Butler is among 17 other schools in the city run by the Noble Network of Charter Schools, it is arguably the most culturally responsive to its community, as more than half of the staff are people of color.
Goins and I recently sat for a candid conversation specifically about how to best educate African-American boys. And he has some pointed advice for White school leaders—even those within his own Noble Network.
What data suggests that the Black boys at Butler are excelling beyond the norm?
The number of Black males from CPS and throughout the country that are actually graduating from high school going into college is somewhere around the 20 percent range and the ones that actually graduate from college is maybe like 13 or 14 percent. The fact is that in my senior class—granted it’s only 77 of them—100 percent of those males have been accepted into college and while we don’t know exactly how many of them are going to actually matriculate, you can look at their average ACT score and compare that with the rest of the nation.
What is the average ACT score of Butler’s Black male students?
It’s an average of 19.5 for our Black males, but nationally the average is 17 for Black students, both genders. Just the success that we’re seeing on that small scale is important to know.
When we talk about charter schools, the question always comes up of how many kids were “counseled out?” How many kids did you lose from freshman year to senior year?
When we started out our freshman year, we had 100 students in our founding class. Now it’s 77. If I look back on it, we did not lose a lot of kids based on “Oh, I just hate this school.” They moved. We’re not having that huge turnover. In four years, that’s roughly 23 kids? That’s pretty decent.
Low-income Black students in CPS have the highest mobility rate in the district, so 23 kids over four years is not bad at all. Were any of them expelled?
Of that class? Yes, actually 1…2…3…4 in that class, and [the misbehavior] was egregious.
Was it all one incident or separate incidents?
Three of them were from one incident alone. We had reason to believe that they all had a gun in the building. We never found it, but we had enough evidence to show that they brought a gun into the building. They were expelled for that. Then one was for a really egregious fight.
How do you balance restorative justice practices with your expulsions?
My Dean of Discipline Jasmine Robinson has become kind of the network’s restorative justice person…expelling a kid is the last resort. We are going to make sure we have all the interventions in place before we get to the point where we have to expel a kid; you have to do something repeatedly and egregiously in order to be expelled.
We try to show folks that we don’t have to be such a punitive, militaristic organization. But I never approached it, Marilyn, like being the militant Black man.
Your students took the Adverse Childhood Experiences or ACE survey, how did they score?
Ninety percent of the students who took the ACE survey last year experienced some type of traumatic event. That could have been rape; a parent that was incarcerated; a parent that had died or was murdered; or extreme verbal, physical, or emotional abuse.
We decided not to take the survey this year. We don’t have a full-time social worker anymore, and she had led that effort for the school. We are looking for one.
What role does the social worker play when you have a school with stats like that?
It was difficult for her to continue just providing social worker minutes because of the number of crises we had with students. She’s like the first responder to a lot of these things.
What is your breakdown demographically of the staffing here, racially and male and female?
Fifty-six staff members: 38 staff members are men and 34 are men of color—over half of the staff are men and men of color. Four of my black male teachers are members of Profound Gentlemen, a national black male teacher support organization.
Teachers that are directly in the classroom? Fourteen actual teachers are men of color: 1 Latino, 2 Asian and the rest are Black male teachers.
How is this environment set up to make Black boys successful?
It’s definitely about hiring. It’s definitely about challenging the status quo. That was my goal to recruit and retain more teachers who were men of color. I can relate to them. I’m a part of that struggle. We surround them with so much love and support. The staff buys into that. We don’t do as much time on instruction [in the beginning of the year] because the culture of our school is important to us.
If they don’t love the school and enjoy learning, then they are not going to learn. And it goes back to what research states. Those of us who grew up Black know that we respond to a supportive family-like environment, a place that understands who we are and appreciates who we are.
Noble is often criticized for being too strict and not validating kids’ ethnic culture or trying to make Black and Latino kids behave like White dominant culture. What do you think about that and are you actively resisting that?
Absolutely, I saw that when I first came to Noble. I had an opportunity to sit back and think about this like, “How am I going to approach this with my school?” I think the people, our campuses and the mission of Noble are well-intentioned. I don’t think anyone that started Noble or has been at Noble for years that is not Black, but is White, would sit and say “We are trying to make [the students of color] like us.”
But I know for a fact diversity and the way that we approached discipline was not a priority for the network. I have great respect for Noble and what Noble is doing, but there are some things Noble can do better, especially the way they address the Black male population and their African-American students.
Noble isn’t perfect, but it is an organization that has allowed me the platform to create this unique school and one that reflects the community that we are serving. For me, this has been the best place I’ve ever worked.
And this is something you’ve said to them publicly?
This is public. So I can safely say I know that Butler has done some things to cause Noble to think differently about Black kids. Number one, I was essentially Noble’s first diversity recruiter for teachers. I made it a point to attract teachers that reflected this community.
I also knew I needed people that were from Chicago, the South Side of Chicago, to help me because I wasn’t from here. I also started asking if I could go to some of the historically Black college (HBCU) education fairs and that was the first time Noble had ever reached out to historically Black colleges and tried to recruit teachers. Hence, we still do it and we now see the value in that.
Going to HBCUs is a Noble-wide recruiting strategy now?
Yes, and it started with me because I’m a product of an HBCU!
The second thing I would say is once Butler opened, my hiring decisions were questioned. I wasn’t hiring the typical. I did not hire one Teach For America (TFA) corps member or alum. My entire staff was all-Black and two Latinos. Then the second year, I hired two White people: one was a first-year TFA corps member and the other came about mid-year. And the results were off the roof.
People were asking, “What the world? What is going on over there?” So people started paying attention. But there were still questions. My success had earned me a partial seat at the table. People were asking me “Chris, how are you doing this?”
And the questions were coming from the Noble Network administrators?
So investing in more Black staff is Butler’s secret to success?
The ACT/Explore would send you disaggregated data based on subgroups and that’s when I first saw it, that our males outperform our females—which is unheard of in urban education with Black kids. We’re like “Wait a minute, something’s going on here!” And then 100 percent of that founding class grew academically.
So when people started asking, “Chris what are you guys doing? How are you building this culture? How are you getting these results out of your male students?”
Then my response was like, “You have to hire teachers that look like them. That has to be a priority.” And we can’t expect to turn around the population of Black males—that population that is struggling nationwide—when there’s no teachers in front of them that look like them.