On a freezing winter day, Constance Jones walks purposefully through the busy hub of the Noble charter school network’s central office. That decisive stride conveys the approach Jones has taken since becoming CEO of the state’s largest charter network: Don’t hesitate.

“As leaders, we are bringing our values and our perspectives and experiences to our leadership,” Jones said. “As a new leader, I brought this value around diversity, equity and inclusion … particularly for our students of color.”

In the three months since she was named to the job, Jones, 37, has wasted no time in putting her mark on Noble Network’s 18 schools. She rolled back harsh discipline, opened her office doors to students and parents, and relaxed a restrictive dress code. She set to work rehabilitating a network image tarnished by founder Michael Milkie’s forced resignation in December for “improper conduct” with alumni.

The first African-American and woman to lead the network faces big challenges. While Noble, Chicago’s oldest and biggest charter, steadily opened schools over the past decade, its growth has faltered. Some of its schools are underenrolled, and it’s competing for students in a district facing historically low enrollment.

It also faces a restive student body, a teacher corps seeking to unionize, and now, political threats. Illinois’ new governor and Chicago’s next mayor are almost guaranteed to be far less friendly to charter schools than their predecessors were.

Will a dynamic new leader who looks like and sympathizes with her students, but who has little experience teaching or managing schools, be able to ensure the future of the high-profile network? 

Jones believes she’s the person for the job. The North Carolina-born daughter of a third-grade teacher and a statistician has seen her career move from sales and management at Hyatt Hotels Corp. and pharmaceutical rep for Johnson & Johnson to the Noble headquarters nestled into its packed downtown high school. In that time, Jones said, she’s learned both the importance of leading and of listening.

“Once you stop listening,” she said, “that is when you stop getting better, stop evolving, stop doing things to move you positively toward accomplishing your mission.”

Still, she can’t control many things. In its 20 years, Noble has thrived under charter-friendly administrations. But that’s about to change. On April 2, Chicago will elect a new mayor — the city’s first African-American woman to occupy City Hall — and regardless of whom voters choose, it’s certain to be someone who supports a freeze on charters. Both Toni Preckwinkle and Lori Lightfoot have also called for an elected school board, which would have the power to decide whether to renew a network’s charter authorization.  

“The things that keep me up at night are the things outside my locus of control,” Jones said, “like the next leader of my city.”

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With more than 900 students, Muchin College Prep is the crown jewel of Noble charter network’s high schools and regularly receives the district’s highest rating. It’s also an example of the tension between Noble’s interest in continuing to grow from its current 12,000 students, and its financial and physical constraints.

As the bell rings at Muchin on a freezing winter afternoon, students in khaki pants and navy blue sweaters flood into the hallways, their shoes squeaking on the linoleum floor as they rush past the lockers bearing the logos of universities around the country, and into their next classroom.

The single-story school in a Loop high rise is jammed. On a recent afternoon teachers are perched in chairs outside classrooms working furiously on their laptops, while student groups meet in hallways next to disused elevators.

Jones has promised to fight for more funding. “It’s a constant battle charters have to deal with,” Jones said. “I’m working very hard and it’s very personal to me.”

Charters in Illinois don’t receive public funding for facilities, so they have to scramble for funds to expand or refurbish. With the uncertain environment for charter schools, unsettled financiers asked for reassurance from Jones on a bondholders call last fall.

Besides Muchin, Noble’s Chicago Bulls College Prep on Chicago’s West Side and UIC College Prep in the Illinois Medical District area also are packed. But Noble campuses in other neighborhoods, such as DRW College Prep in Homan Square and Baker College Prep in South Chicago are both under-enrolled. This school year, DRW had dropped 44 percent to 357 students, and Baker had fallen by 132 students to 231.

After 15 years of consecutive drops, the number of students enrolled in Chicago’s public schools fell again this year. School data shows enrollment dropped 2.7 percent in one year, to just over 361,000 students. Noble’s enrollment has held steady.

But with predictions of a continued decline in student enrollment across the board in Chicago, administrators acknowledge that fewer students means less revenue from the state, and more financial stress. 

“We are not immune to the shrinking pipeline,” said Michael Madden, Noble’s chief operating officer.  

For charter schools like Noble, finding and keeping students means persuading families that its model has more to offer than district-run schools or other networks like Acero, which primarily serves Latino families on the Southwest side. Noble focuses on students in underserved communities. Its student body is more than 44 percent African-American and 53 percent Latino.

Noble’s ability to attract students also could be impacted by Chicago Public Schools’ investments, like a $85 million high school being built in Englewood that will focus on career-preparation and math, science and engineering education.

“That’s direct competition to a number of our schools on the South Side,” Madden said. “For these campuses, and all of our campuses, we need to do more to attract and keep our students.”

Up to now, Noble has distinguished itself by touting its record of college access: 90 percent of graduates are enrolled in college after leaving high school. Thirty-five percent of Noble alumni go on to earn a college degree.

At district schools, the proportion of students who enrolled in college after graduating high school was 64.6 percent in 2017. According to the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research, just under 20 percent were projected that year to finish.

“We really pride ourselves on the fact that we send so many of our students to college,” Jones said. “We also work really hard to find money for them, pointing to $484 million in college scholarships in 2018. ”

Another selling point is Noble’s “College Bot,” an algorithm its chief college officer developed to help students find colleges they’re more likely to complete. In its first five years, the bot has spurred Noble students to select colleges whose graduation rates are 10 percentage points higher than they were selecting previously.

Parent Tina Williams lauded her son’s experience at Noble’s Johnson College Prep. He entered the school as a shy ninth grader four years ago, and now he’s talkative and excited about the future, Williams said. “He is talking about college,” she said. “This school has been nothing but supportive.”

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In the face of competition for students, Jones has quickly honed in on another aspect of Noble culture: dialing back its no-excuses discipline.

She eased the dress code that limited students to “natural” hair color and rescinded a mandate that they cover up tattoos and piercings. Those decisions, she explained later, were a way to speak directly to those students.

“I was really excited to eliminate those restrictions and stand in solidarity with those students and teachers,” she said, taking care to note, too, that there was no strong evidence of a student’s hair color or piercings affecting academic performance.

On the day the restrictions were lifted, she visited three schools wearing her hair partially dyed purple, a nod to a newfound freedom that students and teachers would have under the new policy.

Jones’ decision signaled a shift in responsiveness to student demands. And while students and teachers have applauded the changes at Noble, they don’t give Jones all the credit.

Cara Ladd, a 10th grade teacher at DRW College Prep, told Chalkbeat that she was happy for the changes to Noble’s student code of conduct, but credits mostly students and teachers who pushed for change. “This is a win for the students,” she said.

The change also reflects a broader national movement away from “no excuses” discipline in charter schools and toward a policy that is reducing expulsions and suspensions in favor of alternative forms of discipline. In 2013-14, 22 percent of newly approved charters were “no-excuses,” but by 2017-18 that number had fallen to just 7 percent.

Jones says the changes wouldn’t have been possible without her unique approach to governance. She began her career at Noble as its chief external affairs officer in 2015. Before that she worked in development at the KIPP Foundation, which trains leaders to run KIPP charter schools. She also took part in prestigious fellowships such as at the Aspen Global Leadership Network.

Her former colleagues laud her ability to deftly navigate corporate spaces. “She was really known for her ability to build authentic relationships,” said Rachel Goldklang, a senior director at the KIPP Foundation. “She really was just uniquely gifted in being able to … bring her background and full life experience into the work.”  

Jones said she grew used to being in corporate environments with few other people of color, experiences that reinforced the importance of taking representation seriously.

“I’ve really been honing in on our values around diversity and inclusion from a very personal place,” said Jones. “I am a leader in spaces where I am often the only person [of color] with a seat at the table.”

That’s still somewhat true. At a recent board meeting in a glass and steel high-rise in Chicago’s Loop, only a handful of people of color, among them Jones, sat around a U-shaped conference table. The majority of Noble’s board remains white, and has not changed since Jones took her new role.

Nonetheless, Jones said she hopes that, for students, seeing a woman of color making decisions about their schools and their education is empowering.

She knows it was for her as a middle school student in Durham, North Carolina. “As a woman of color who was once a student of color, being able to see black and brown teachers in the classroom was incredibly important to me,” Jones said. One teacher, Mrs. Brown, had a particular impact. “She was this incredibly smart and beautiful African-American woman and it just inspired me in so many ways. I wanted to be like her when I grew up.”

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In the past four months, Chicago has experienced two charter strikes, and the union has been threatening a third at a contract school. Noble teachers have not unionized, despite two years of attempts.

On that subject, Jones said that she wanted to make clear that staff had the right to unionize, or not. But she warned that when she was in Springfield fighting for resources for charters, she often found teachers unions arguing against her position. “I don’t think it would be in our best interest to unionize, but that is up to our teachers to decide,” she said. 

Jones has promised to listen to faculty voices. “I’m blocking off time in my calendar several days a month to be at campuses talking to our staff,” Jones said.

Those conversations will involve students, too, she pledged. The activist group Students 4 Change has demanded that Noble end what students describe as random searches. At Mansueto High School, junior Diego Garcia describes the dean of discipline coming into his classroom, ordering everyone to put their hands on their desk, and checking people’s pencil bags or lifting their sweatshirts.

Jones said she hasn’t heard of any mandated searches at Noble schools, but promised to look into the issue.

Students also have asked for a seat at the table when it comes to high-level decision-making. Garcia said he feels that students have yet to see whether Jones is more receptive than former CEO Milkie. He says students should have a place at every board meeting. He suggested changing the time of the board meetings, to make them more accessible to both students and parents.

Jones said she is careful to retain a connection with the communities she serves. “It’s so important that we stay proximate to the communities we’re serving, and that gets harder and harder as you ascend in leadership,” she said.

She sounds a bit like two other prominent Chicago women who are vying for mayor. Both Toni Preckwinkle and Lori Lightfoot have pledged to solicit community voices before making big education decisions, such as what to do with the city’s 233 under-enrolled schools.

Jones said recently she hadn’t talked to them yet, but added, “We hope the next leader is supportive of our work.”