As the Noble Network of Charter Schools celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, I’m looking forward and back. Back, because I was a member of the very first class at the original Noble Street Charter School. Forward, because I now serve as principal of Noble’s Rowe-Clark Math and Science Academy.
My odds were long. I grew up in the impoverished Hermosa neighborhood on Chicago’s Northwest Side. I lived in a one-room apartment with a brother and sister. While we were very poor, we didn’t know it at the time. I witnessed the societal ills that sometimes come with poverty: drugs, abuse and a lack of resources that many take for granted.
Neither of my parents finished high school, but my mother supported our family through multiple jobs, including shipping and receiving, working at a laundromat and doing maintenance work. I often watched my mother make a meal for our family from a cup of rice and an egg. She would refuse to eat, to make sure we had enough.
I Needed A New Kind of School, And I Got It at Noble
My mother always insisted that we pursue a good education. My brother was able to test into a selective enrollment high school. My sister went to the neighborhood public high school, where she often was bullied. After my sister’s experience, the local high school was not an option for me. I wanted to go to a selective enrollment school, but my test scores weren’t high enough.
One day, a former Chicago Public Schools (CPS) teacher named Michael Milkie came to my elementary school and talked about a new charter high school he was starting—one that would focus intensely on the needs of each student, with the discipline and academic rigor needed to set them up for success. I came home from school that day and told my mom I wanted to go there. Later, she met with Noble’s founders and liked what she heard.
I loved Noble Street School from the day I started. There were only 126 students in that first class, and that gave me the opportunity to get to know my teachers on a deeper level. Each of these educators came to know the story of my family. So when my niece was born during my first year of high school and had a bad case of colic, my teachers understood my challenge and were there to support me.
I always knew that I wanted to go to college to help lift my family out of poverty. But because nobody in my family had ever navigated that process, I could have given up on applying, or later, entering college.
Luckily, Noble required every senior to take a college seminar class. This course helped us identify our “safe” schools, our “reach” schools, and discover which ones might offer financial support. College reps came to speak to us, and we visited many campuses. Noble made college possible for me because it saw a need and supplied a resource.
Noble Supported Me Through College and Beyond
I ended up choosing Grinnell College in Iowa, but my first year was very difficult. There weren’t many students in the school who looked like me. When Mr. Milkie called to see how I was doing, he invited me to send him my college papers so he could look them over. One of the Noble board members even came to visit me at Grinnell to make sure I was OK. Those close relationships continue to this day.
As I approached my college graduation, I received a call from my Noble Street AP World History teacher and rugby coach. He was now the principal of a new Noble school—the Rowe-Clark Math and Science Academy—and wanted to know if I would come and work for him. He would not take no for an answer! He asked me to come visit his school.
I found a school full of students who were just like me. They shared their stories and told me how much they wanted to go to college to help their families.
I was glad I took him up on the invitation to visit, and agreed to work for a year in operations. That turned into six years as dean of students. Then, in 2014, at the age of 28, I became the principal at Rowe-Clark and one of the youngest principals in the Noble network.
Because My Mother Had A Choice, I’m a College Grad
Looking back after 20 years, I am grateful for the way things turned out both for me and for the Noble Network. Noble now has 17 high schools and one middle school. All are public charter schools, open to any CPS student without having to take a test. Noble set me on the road to and through college and continues to do so for its graduates: 99 percent of Noble seniors are accepted to college and 80 percent go on to a four-year college or university.
Because my mother had a choice, she had the chance to send me to the school that was best for me. Without that choice, my story might have turned out much differently. And thanks to the choice she had, I am a proud college graduate paving the way for more first-generation college students to escape poverty, too.