Ep. 102: Cool Schools with Noble Academy

February 26, 2019

In this episode of Cool Schools, Director of National Research Mike McShane talks with Lauren Boros, principal of Noble Academy, about their founding and growth. Noble Academy is a public charter high school in Chicago that partners with Phillips Exeter Academy to break away from the traditional public school instruction model.

Mike McShane: Hello, and welcome to another episode of EdChoice Chats. This is the first episode in season two of the Cool Schools podcast. Thanks so much to all of you recurring listeners that came from the great season we had last year, where we profiled 14 different schools from across the country and the new and innovative things that they’re doing. We’re starting a new season that will be going all through the spring this year, profiling 10 outstanding, interesting, challenging, thought-provoking schools that exist across the country, and the interesting things that they’re doing. For those of you who may be new listeners, this podcast series has two goals. The first is simply celebration. Starting a new school or running a great existing school is really hard work, and too often, it’s a thankless job. This podcast exists to celebrate people who are trying something new and different, and also to kick the tires on their ventures, to uncover lessons that they’ve learned and can share with other educators across the country.

Now, the second goal is to try and stretch people’s minds about what’s possible in education. As educational choice supporters, we at EdChoice spend a healthy amount of our time trying to promote educational options that don’t exist yet. We push for states to pass laws that create the conditions for great new schools to open and scale, but many people still struggle to wrap their minds around exactly what that might look like. In this podcast series, we try to highlight some of those potentialities. With quality school-choice programs, innovative models like the ones we talk about here could be coming to a city near you.

But I want to reiterate, just like I did at the beginning of last series, the point of this podcast is not to try and adjudicate whether or not these are quote-unquote “good schools” or quote-unquote “bad schools.” We’re not going to examine their reading and math scores or ask them why their fourth graders aren’t up to snuff. We are going to ask them about mistakes that they’ve made, lessons they’ve learned, advice that they would give, and related questions that should be helpful for anyone listening, even if you’re skeptical of their educational model or pedagogical strategy.

So, we’re kicking off this season with Lauren Boros of the Noble Academy in Lincoln Park, Chicago. The Noble Academy is a really interesting school, because it is a public charter high school that works in collaboration with Phillips Exeter Academy of New Hampshire. They bring the pedagogical model of these very posh and exclusive boarding schools to a public charter environment in Chicago, to, I think, generally very interesting and positive results. So, without further ado, here’s my conversation with Lauren Boros of the Noble Academy.

So, maybe the best thing that we can do is start at the beginning. So, how did Noble Academy get started?

Lauren Boros: The Noble Academy was kind of this pipe dream, really, between a partnership with Phillips Exeter Academy and the Noble Network. And while I was an assistant principal at another Noble campus, one of our students was able to attend a summer program at Phillips Exeter Academy, and they came back, and multiple students went, through a very generous donation, and they came back after experiencing a very specific style of instruction and the programs there, with just a different set of skills. And this was a little bit of a light bulb, and we thought—

Mike McShane: I’m sorry to interrupt, but just so listeners understand, Phillips Exeter, one of the—I don’t know what word we want to use—one of the most prestigious, one of the poshest east coast boarding private schools.

Lauren Boros: Yes. I would use the work prestigious, absolutely. Phillips Exeter Academy is routinely rated the number one private school in the country. It is a prep school, so the majority of students do live on campus. And it is in Exeter, New Hampshire. So, our students from the Noble Network in Chicago, a public charter network, were going on this summer program at Phillips Exeter Academy through generous donations. And they were coming back with a very refined skill set and an academic confidence that we saw was propelling them into wonderful places in their academic careers. So, we started looking at their style of instruction at Phillips Exeter. It’s called Harkness. It was named after Edward Harkness, who provided the philanthropy for Exeter to develop this method of teaching about 80 years ago. And it is student-led, discussion-based learning. We said, what if we tried using that method of instruction, versus your typical high school classroom with rows of desks facing the teacher, and a game of ping-pong between teacher-student, teacher-student. What if we tried to implement that style of instruction?

So, we did a little pilot program at another Noble Campus in the early 2010s, I’d say, maybe 2010, 2011. And we saw tremendous success with a very small group of students. So, that got the wheels turning, and we thought this could be an incredible thing to offer to more Chicago public school students. So, we approached Phillips Exeter—obviously this is a truncated version—we approached Phillips Exeter and asked them if they would be willing to partner with us to create a school that used Harkness instruction wall to wall, and ultimately serve as, hopefully, a proof of concept. That we can take Chicago public school students—so not the students that Phillips Exeter admits, which are the absolute 99.9th percentile—but we can do it in a public school setting, in a non-selective setting, and see tremendous results beyond the norm.

They agreed. So, in 2014, we opened our doors to about 200 freshmen. It was, you take the best private school in the country and then the Noble Network, which won the Broad Prize for the best charter system in the country, and put them together and that’s the Noble Academy. Opened our doors in 2014 with 200 students. We now serve about 450 students in grades 9 through 12. Our founding class, that first cohort that stepped onto college campuses as freshmen this past August or September, and we’re really excited to report that 97 percent of them stepped onto a college campus. That’s where it started, and where we’ve come.

Mike McShane: Wow. So, can you unpack the instructional model a little bit? So, it’s student led, discussion based. Ff we walk into a Noble Academy Harkness method classroom, what would we see?

Lauren Boros: You don’t even need that qualifier. It’s just, if you walk into a Noble Academy classroom. So, it is absolutely wall to wall at our school. And what you’ll see is that we don’t have desks in our classrooms. Instead, we have tables. It varies teacher by teacher. They have a lot of autonomy around the actual setup. Some teachers have tables of five or six, other teachers have tables of 12 or 13. They do what works for their content area, and the particular lesson, even. They can change day to day. And it would look like, you might even have a hard time finding the teacher because the students are leading the discussion and the students are driving their own learning. The students are asking the questions and answering the questions, and they’re talking to each other, not to only the teacher.

I should, there’s a little bit of an asterisk there, in that our 9th grade classrooms are a transition into this method. So, a thing that we learned along the way is, you can’t just take students in from 102 different elementary schools, throw them at some Harkness tables, and cross your fingers and hope for magic. It doesn’t work that way. We learned, maybe the hard way, that we have to train students in the skills that we need them to employ at the Harkness table so that it becomes the most efficient and effective method of learning. And their skills are things that I don’t think we focus on enough. They’re the soft skills, where you’re disagreeing respectfully, and when you’re really listening rather than thinking about what you’re going say next. When you point to something directly in the text, you wait for the entire table to get to the page that you’re talking about.

So, these are the types of skills that you’re going to see in a Noble Academy classroom that I think traditionally we haven’t focused on enough with students in high school before they go off to these small, seminar-style classes in small liberal arts colleges, where it’s a completely different setting. So, we’re really trying to replicate that collegiate experience in the classroom setting here.

Mike McShane: So, now talk to me about teachers. I imagine this is a bit of a shift from the traditional model of instruction within the Noble Network, or really, traditional schooling in general. Where do you source your teachers? Did you have to take teachers who are used to teaching in more traditional ways and provide some kind of professional development to get them to be able to teach in this method? So, yeah. How do you source and prepare your teachers?

Lauren Boros: We’ve very lucky that we’re part of the Noble Network, which draws a very big pool of candidates. People that want to teach in one of the highest performing networks in the country. So, we have the luxury to hire about, I believe the statistic this year was less than 5 percent of people that applied. So, we truly do get incredible talent here. And talent that usually has never taught using this method, let alone seen it. Some people haven’t even seen it. So, we have to be very intentional about our professional development. Through our partnership with Exeter, we’re able to send all of our new teachers to their conference over the summer. It’s called Exeter Humanities Institute. It’s a tremendous program. For our founding year, I went through the humanities program myself. It really shows you what, frankly, what I wish my education had looked more like. So, you as an adult immerse yourself as a student in the process and get meta about what you’re experiencing. So, after that week-long program over the summer, our teachers started doing development about a month before the students join us in the summer.

And we have a three-pronged approach to teacher support. The first is we work directly with Exeter. We are developing relationships with master teachers there so they can jump on phone calls or share Google Docs, or they come and observe here, we go and observe there. So, we have some external prong there of support. The second is direct manager. So our managers are observing teachers biweekly, and they are looking at data at well, so it’s not just the soft skills. And then the third is what we call an internal Harkness mentor. That is a peer support system where one woman, Becky [inaudible], and another, Aida Conroy, they support STEM teachers and the humanities teachers, respectively, in implementing Harkness in their classrooms.

In doing so, they’re focusing on four tenets of Harkness. The first is the culture, so the culture of trust at the table. We found that we have to be very explicit about creating that culture at the table, where kids are willing to be vulnerable and take risks, and be wrong. And say, “I really did not get the reading at all. This sentence, I don’t even know what this word means.” It’s in those moments of vulnerability when kids learn most. So, it’s creating that culture. The second is prep. What prep work are kids doing that are going to lead to a fruitful discussion, where the kids are getting what you need them to get? We talk a lot about what sources you’re using, primary sources for history teachers, word problems for math teachers, etc. and what kind of lab is really conducive to the style of instruction.

The third is accountability. Our professional development is a lot around, how are we holding kids accountable for the discussion, and for the learning during and after the discussion? So, thinking about different ways to hold kids accountable to their targets there. The fourth is reflection. So, how are we deliberately creating the space for kids to reflect on what they just did at the table so that tomorrow is better? It’s those four tenets that our support is, all three—the internal Harkness mentors, the direct supervisors and our Exeter mentors—are working with our teachers to continue to develop.

Mike McShane: So, does Exeter have these types of partnerships with any other schools?

Lauren Boros: It’s in Exeter’s original charter that they want to give back to communities, and they want to expose people to what they have. So, from my understanding, they have done these pockets of outreach. I know that originally, when we were at another Noble school, we had two Exeter teachers come and teach our students at that Noble school over a summer period. And I believe that Exeter does that in different places, New York City and rural Appalachia. That was kind of where we got the idea that, hey, why don’t you consolidate your efforts and work with us? So, the partnership that we have here is the most robust and very unique in that way. But Exeter is very open and welcoming, they have lots of visitors coming. We have lots of visitors here that go to Exeter and come here, but this is a unique partnership between the Noble Network and the Noble Academy, and Exeter.

Mike McShane: So, you’re trying to do something different, and yet, as a public charter school, you still have to participate in state accountability systems and the traditional— I don’t know if you want to call it regulation or oversight—that our public charter schools see. How does that work? Is it an uneasy fit? Is it difficult when you’re trying to do something different, to fit into these models? Have you found it to be, because the students are taking to this particular pedagogical approach, the test scores come with it? Age, grades, all of that. I’m just interested in how you all intersect with the public policy of public education.

Lauren Boros: I think that Chicago has a pretty impressive school quality rating policy, SQRP. It’s very comprehensive. It includes test score achievement and test score growth, and growth by subgroups, as well as attendance, as well as, how well is your bookkeeping done? Data quality index. So, I think we as public charter schools participate in that quality rating, as well. And the heaviest weighted factor is your SAT growth. So, that is the test that, in Chicago, all high schools are required to take. And the 9th and 10th graders take the PSAT, so there’s accountability there as well.

And I’ll say that Harkness is a means to an end. Harkness is not the end. So you can have a conversation, a discussion, but if kids are not getting the learning target, if they are not accomplishing the objectives, then it’s all for naught. And what I think Harkness does is develop these critical thinking skills beyond that which you can teach with drill and kill, that makes kids successful on a test like the SAT, which is a pretty great test. It’s not one you can game. It’s pretty high level rigorous, and what we saw last year is that the Noble Academy, out of every single high school in the city of Chicago, had the number one SAT growth. And it’s because we use Harkness with fidelity. I think our kids are used to, or comfortable with, that level of rigor or the unknown or approaching something and diving in when they’re not sure. Which, on tests like that, is a skill which is really necessary.

Mike McShane: So, is that the primary metric used? A question I always like to ask is how do you measure success, how do you know if what you’re doing is working? Is that, SAT and PSAT, are those the primary benchmarks that you use?

Lauren Boros: We have three big goals around our vision. We’re always talking about the culture, and being a safe and supportive school. We’re talking about accountability, meaning kids are here and they are happy and they want to be here; this is the best place to attend high school. And then we’re also talking about results. So, what’s it all worth? When we think about those three things, our goals are aligned to those buckets. So, we have an internal audit system, looking at the culture in our classrooms and in our hallways and in our bathrooms and in our cafeterias, to make sure that we are creating a safe and supportive environment for students. So, one of our goals is around that audit. Another goal for us is student attendance. I think that attendance, and research has shown, is indicative of how kids feel about school and also indicative of how they’re going to perform. So, we have a goal around attendance. And then our third goal is around SAT growth. So, point growth on the SAT. Those are our three big goals that we have as a school, that we measure pretty closely.

Mike McShane: Now, how did you get involved in this school?

Lauren Boros: I did Teach for America after going to Columbia University in New York. I did Teach for America in Gary, Indiana. I taught 7th grade math. Then after my Teach for America commitment, I wound up joining the Noble Network at Pritzker College Prep, another Noble school. I taught 9th grade algebra there and led the 9th grade team and then became the assistant principal. When this idea was coming to fruition, really, I had the honor of opening this campus in 2014.

Mike McShane: So, now, if you could hop in a time machine and go back to 2014 and give yourself one piece of advice or one lesson that you’ve learned in the time hence, what would you say to yourself?

Lauren Boros: I would say that we needed to nail the foundation first. I alluded to this earlier, that you can’t just throw kids around the table and watch magic happen. It needs to be so much more deliberate. And we learned that the hard way, as I mentioned. We were able to, our second year, be really purposeful about that rollout and saw much more success than we did our first year. I think what I would tell myself is, focus on the basics, nail the foundation and then build from there. I think I tried to build off of something that, perhaps, had cracks on it below me.

Mike McShane: Sure. So, one last question as we look to the future. What do you see the next year holding, the next five years, the next ten years? The short, medium and long-term future of the school?

Lauren Boros: I think that we’re continuing to refine our college approach and our strategy. Noble, I think, is now becoming more well known for our college philosophy and approach, and in our first year of sending seniors through that college process, we have the highest predicted college graduation rate in Noble’s history. So, I hope to continue that, to best ourselves, even, so that our students are headed to college and to live lives rich with option. So, in the short term, I want to continue to get better at having an upper school. We were five years old. We’ve only had, this is our second year of seniors. So, we need to figure out what course selection looks like, we need to figure out, how does our model grow with kids? How are we supporting freshmen, and how does that look different from our support for seniors, so we’re setting kids up for that collegiate experience? So, we need to refine that, and that needs to be in our goals for the next year.

I think in five years’ time, we need to start talking about, more so, probably the athletic experiences and the enrichment experience, and really continue to create this stake that we have in the community. So, being in Lincoln Park in the city of Chicago, we have so many resources right around us. And over the next five years, I really hope to deepen those partnerships with community members here.

And then the, I guess the grand long term, would be to ultimately serve as many students as we can. We’re a school right now of about 450 students, and I hope that word gets out about our success—number one SAT growth in Chicago public schools. That we have more and more demand, and that we can actually supply that supply as well.

Mike McShane: Well, I wish you nothing but luck in all of your endeavors. Lauren Boros of Noble Academy, thank you so much for joining the Cool Schools podcast.

Lauren Boros: Absolutely. Thanks for having me.

Mike McShane: What a wonderful conversation that was. I actually, to be perfectly honest with you, knew very little about the Harkness method, and I will probably be doing some more Googling and reading about it afterwards. It’s great to see these collaborations between different schools, sharing information, crossing sectors between public sector, private sector, New England and the Midwest. Hopefully we’re going to see more of that sort of stuff happening all across the country.

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And as always, I close these, if you know of a cool school near you. Or, the cool school doesn’t even have to be near you. It can be far away from you. But if you know of a cool school that you think should be profiled on this podcast, please give me a shout. You can tweet at me at @mq_mcshane, or you can email me, or reach out to the folks at EdChoice and get that to me. Thanks so much for joining us, and I look forward to chatting with you again about another cool school.