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The Chicago Bulls

A Model for Other Teams?

By Anne Stein

(edited & augmented by David Trotman)        

Located just around the corner from the United Center, on West Adams near Damen, Chicago Bulls College Prep opened in August of 2009

What also makes the school unique, says Milkie, is that it's a model for how a professional sports team can interact with the community. "The United Center and the Chicago Bulls are right here, a few blocks away from the school, and I couldn't think of a better way to have maximum impact for their work than sponsor a school that improves the lives and college-attending possibilities of thousands of students."

Every detail matters at Chicago Bulls College Prep high school. The freshly painted white walls and beige metal lockers are spotless. The black-tiled floors reflecting the lights above couldn't be any brighter. College banners from around the country, along with the familiar Chicago Bulls red logo, hang neatly down each hallway above the lockers.

Starting with the inaugural class of some 225 boys and girls, everyone is dressed alike: light khaki pants, navy blue polo shirts with the school name and insignia on the front, black belt and black dress shoes. All shirts are tucked in.

"There are three pillars for us here," explains Tyson Kane, the principal who runs what has quickly becoming one of the best high schools in the Chicago Public school system. "Scholarship, discipline and honor. Our hallways and classrooms are sanctuaries."

As Kane keeps watch during the five minutes that students are allowed to get from one class to the next, six boys, one at a time, stop to shake his hand and say hello.

"My goal is that no kid is ever tardy," says Kane. "We're very stringent on time and focus." Kane looks at his watch, and within four and half minutes just four people remain in the hallway: two gym teachers on patrol and one student who stayed late at a previous class and who's gathering books at his locker, accompanied by a teacher who'll bring him to his next class. "We don't have hallway passes," explains Kane. "There are no students in the hallway during classes unless they're escorted by a teacher."

Located just around the corner from the United Center, on West Adams near Damen, Chicago Bulls College Prep opened in August of 2009. It's the result of a $2 million donation from CharitaBulls, the non-profit arm of the Chicago Bulls, and a dream of Bulls Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, whose goal was to fund a charter school for Chicago public school students.

"I've long believed that education is the single-most important thing that anyone can do to help people who are underprivileged, and that's why we got involved," explains Reinsdorf. "It was a long-time goal, and I wish we were able to do it years ago, but we ran into a lot of red tape. When we were about to give up, Noble found us."

The school is part of the Chicago Public School system, but it's run by the Noble Network of Charter Schools, which has eight other college prep high school campuses serving 3,700 high school students in the city, each with a slightly different emphasis.

"We chose Noble because of their stellar record of beginning and creating schools, and their ability to take kids and provide an incredible education that leads to college," says Dave Kurland, Chicago Bulls senior director of community relations. "We visited other Noble campuses, and that made our decision easy. Plus, Chicago Bulls College Prep is only about 100 yards from the James Jordan Boys and Girls Club that we created 15 years ago."

The school is tuition-free, and students who apply are chosen by lottery, rather than by academics. Current graduation rates at Noble Schools are about 85 percent, according to Noble officials, compared to the mid-50 percent average around the city.

Kane has even loftier goals for Chicago Bulls College Prep students, however: He's looking toward a graduation rate of 100 percent – from college.

Each of the nine Noble high school campuses is similar in emphasizing discipline, high achievement, and community service, all with the goal of preparing students to attend college. The schools serve healthy foods in their cafeterias, emphasizing fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and salad bars, with no soda allowed.

What makes Chicago Bulls College Prep different is the extra emphasis on fitness and its association with one of the best-known sports teams in the world. At a time when obesity rates among children are skyrocketing and schools are cutting physical education, each Bulls College Prep student will spend 80 minutes a day in gym class.

"We think the health of our students is one of the most important values we can have," explains Michael Milkie, Superintendent/COO, Noble Network of Charter Schools. "The Chicago Bulls have a great focus on fitness, and we do too."

Milkie's first job out of college was teaching at Chicago's Wells High School. He and his wife, also a former Chicago public school teacher, thought that students would achieve much more under the right conditions, so they applied to launch their first charter school in 1997 and were granted a charter in 1998.

As at every Noble school, kids must pass all classes, including physical education, to advance to the next grade. In addition to strict behavior standards, says Milkie, "the dress code is also strict, but it helps the social atmosphere. Kids don't have to worry about clothes or shoes getting stolen. You can't represent gangs. We're also able to attract a staff that's better able to serve the students. We reward teachers for performance, and we have ideal working conditions: Students are well-behaved."

In fact, visitors to Chicago Bulls College Prep can observe classes that are filled with kids focused on the lessons of the day – not texting or chatting with each other. Each classroom has a student "greeter," and, when a visitor knocks on a classroom door, the greeter opens the door, shakes the visitor's hand and introduces herself.

The student explains what's going on in the class (we're discussing a particular theme from "To Kill a Mockingbird," for example) and then asks each visitor a series of questions: What brings you to Chicago Bulls College Prep today? Would you like to enter the classroom? Do you have any questions for me?

All this from exceedingly polite 14-year-olds.

The students here are overwhelmingly low-income and come from the South Side, West Side, and Near West Side, close to the United Center. A new class of ninth-graders will be added each year for the next three years, until the school reaches capacity. The school day, which runs from 7:30 a.m. to 3:40 p.m., is packed with five classes daily that run 80 minutes each, and the school year runs several weeks longer than many schools, from mid-August to mid-June.

By the time they graduate, each student will have taken the equivalent of six years of English and math and four years of science. Students are also required to take music, drama, physics and composition. There's one computer for every three students, and the majority of kids stay after school, often until 5:00 or 6:00 p.m., for sports, glee club, dance team, honors math, computer literacy and other activities and clubs that change every eight weeks.

"It's a large load for many of our kids," says Kane. "They work harder here than they ever have." But that's exactly why students want to be here. "It's very focused on college graduation and for us to succeed," says Gabriella Santoyo. "At my school before this, half the students would goof off, and you had to work at home alone in order to get learning done."

Santoyo, who already knows that she wants to go to Harvard, University of California-Berkeley, or NYU, will be the first in her family to attend college. Her dad drives a taxi, and her mom is a home healthcare worker, and it was her mother's idea for Gabriella to come here.

"My mom had heard of Noble Street Charter School, and we thought the combination of the Chicago Bulls and Noble Street would be a good idea," she explains.

Roberto Alfaro loves technology and computers and plans on attending MIT or the University of Illinois-Chicago. He's also a huge hoops fan and admits with a smile that it's exciting to say he goes to a high school with Chicago Bulls in the name.

"It's a lot different from other schools," says Roberto. "From the start here, the rules are set, and kids know they have to act in a certain way to succeed and graduate. In my old school, teachers would try to get through the material, but they couldn't because kids would text and goof around during class. Here, the classes are smaller, and you get one-on-one help if you need it. And, if you want to get ahead, the teacher gives you extra material to study."

Over the coming years, Bulls involvement with the school will grow in a number of ways, explains Kurland. "We'll have players going to the school and kids and faculty coming to our games and events. Jerry Reinsdorf, Bulls GM Gar Forman, Bulls Executive VP Steve Schanwald, and former players Bob Love and Randy Brown attended the school's ribbon-cutting ceremony and met students back in September.

"We'll have players and ex-players there," says Reinsdorf. "Bob Love will tell his story about how he hit the depths and rebuilt his life. (Bulls Ambassador) Sidney Green will talk about growing up in his neighborhood in Brooklyn and going on to the NBA."

"We envision a lot of our staff tutoring or mentoring," Kurland says, "and we'll be enhancing their fitness facilities [the Bulls have already provided the new school with some fitness equipment]. We know this relationship will blossom into something special. Maybe a National Anthem singer or a halftime performer will come out of this school."

What makes the project particularly exciting to Reinsdorf and the team is that it fits in with a CharitaBulls goal: to create permanent, sustainable solutions, both recreational and educational, that help the community.

"Every single year, we'll be graduating 200-plus students from Chicago Bulls College Prep," explains Kurland. "Imagine eight years from now, when we can talk to the first kids to graduate from college."

Reinsdorf would like to figure out a way that students have the funds to go to college, he says. "We don't have anything specific in mind yet, but we want to be committed for a long time." The Chicago Bulls, explains Reinsdorf, operate under the theory that because they get so much support from the community, they're obligated to return that support. "They watch our games on television, they come to our games – the community has a lot of choices they can make with their dollars and their emotions," he says.

"The fan support at the United Center is phenomenal, and the players are idolized wherever they go. So we're supported by the community, and there's an obligation to give back."

"And doing this makes me feel good," he admits with a smile.

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