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Chicago’s Mayoral Candidates Duke It Out on Education

December 20th, 2010 by jacqueline

Also printed in the Huffington Post

As Illinois has the proud distinction of ranking 49th for state education funding — second only to Nevada, a state heavily subsidized by the gaming industry — parents across Chicago rightfully want to know where Chicago’s mayoral candidates stand on education.

Yesterday, I joined a standing-room-only crowd at Walter Payton High School for the first Chicago Mayoral Forum on Education sponsored by Northside Democracy for America, the Illinois Policy Institute, and the less-than-a-year-old Raise Your Hand Coalition (RYH). In this case, the event sponsor was just as interesting as the event itself.

Thanks to RYH, parents have become a powerful force in Illinois politics. Last spring, when drastic budget cuts threatened to raise class sizes to 37 students, RYH helped mobilize over 175,000 Chicago residents to contact their legislators through the No to 37! Campaign. At the eleventh hour, lo and behold, CPS found enough money to keep class sizes at 28. A few months later, RYH successfully lobbied Mayor Daley and the city council to return a $90 million surplus from the city’s notorious TIF slush fund back to its rightful recipient, the public schools. These two rapid-fire, parent-driven bucket campaigns helped turn the four volunteer RYH leaders — Sonia Kwon, Amy Smolensky, Patricia O’Keefe and Wendy Katten — into urban folk heroes.

So, when these supermoms promised a forum to hear each of the candidates’ plans for educating the nearly half million CPS students who attend CPS schools everyday, including their own young children, the news traveled through cyberspace like a game of telephone on steroids. The event, which was live-streamed as well, sold out all 400 seats in less than 48 hours!

Since I was missing Top Chef All-Stars to attend the debate, the entertainment bar was set pretty high; and the evening didn’t disappoint. Andy Shaw, Executive Director of the Better Government Association and former ABC political reporter, moderated a “civilized and sensitive” discussion between Gery Chico, City Clerk Miguel Del Valle, Senator Carol Moseley Braun and State Senator Reverend James Meeks. Two noted absences: Representative Danny Davis and Rahm Emanuel. Davis was called back to the Capital for pending legislation, and Rahm was pulled away to testify at the legal proceedings over his residency, Illinois’ endlessly entertaining three-ring circus that is surely keeping the rest of the country in stitches.

Every candidate at the forum affirmed their personal allegiance to public education. “Everybody up here, we went to Chicago Public Schools,” Meeks said. “So there was a day when Chicago Public Schools used to work. Something happened along the way and we have to fix it.” But how?

Everyone hoped to find a equitable solution to the education funding crisis without raising property taxes. While Chico, Valle and Meeks said a state income tax hike was in the cards, Braun winced at the thought, “I don’t support a tax increase — I think we need to live within our means.” On finding more cash from TIFs, everyone urged more transparency. Braun said that the program has become so corrupt that a wholesale moratorium is in order. Meeks got the biggest applause of the night: “The TIF program is not intended to be the mayor’s private piggy bank, or the City Council’s private piggy bank!” Only Chico defended the program.

Kudos to RYH keeping everyone’s feet to the fire, but let’s pretend for a moment that Illinois actually pulled out of its 50-year nose-dive, and rose to the 47th or even the 42nd worst state in the union for state funding for education. What then? Ultimately, how many extra dollars per student would each school have after the pot was divvied-up across the state? More money will certainly help, but money alone is not the answer.

Every candidate argued that we need to radically change the way CPS does business, offering some version of the standard-issue reform pu-pu platter: more support for early childhood and after-school programming; lengthen the school day and extend the school year; restore art, music, sports and language to the classroom; improve school safety, infrastructure, science and technology; empower parents to play an active role in their child’s education; raise teaching standards; and demand more accountability. Gosh, who wouldn’t want all that?!?

The only marketed difference seemed to be how each candidate handled hot-button issues, such as charters, unions, merit pay, vouchers and whether an educator or a business person should lead CPS (Rhee-0; Vallas-1). Meeks gave CPS a “D under Daley,” and plans to issue private school vouchers to the thousands of students who attend the worst performing schools until he can figure out how to fix the system. On further reflection, he gave the system an F. Chico, who led CPS from 1995 to 2001, gave it a C- (apparently everything tanked just after he left office), and also supports vouchers. Valle thoughtfully graded the system from A to C-, giving extra praise to the city’s elementary schools; “the day we give parents vouchers is the day we throw-up our hands, and give up.”

And, of course, there was the thorny issue of whether public schools are (or were) good enough for the candidates’ own children. Chico and Valle frequently reminded the audience that their own children attended CPS schools, a thinly-veiled slam on the other candidates whose children attend private or parochial schools. News flash: elected officials face the same frustrating public/private school gauntlet as the rest of us. In Chicago, the situation has become so dire that a thriving cottage industry of private consultants has sprung up to help parents navigate the complex public school admissions process. I have yet to meet a private school parent who wouldn’t choose public school if only it would chose them.

Braun was the only candidate who spoke to Chicago’s public/private school crush. Against the drumbeat for increased school choice, Braun tenaciously held on to the dowdy notion that we should just improve our neighborhood schools. “What makes Walter Payton a world class school?” she asked. It isn’t because it’s a magnet or a charter, or because its students have parents who love them more — Walter Payton succeeds because it has talented teachers, involved parents, visionary leadership and appropriate resources. “Why shouldn’t every neighborhood school be of this caliber?” The school podium read: “Curiosity, Character, Courage, Compassion.” Why not, indeed.

The weekend before the debate, Rahm unveiled his comprehensive education plan, which has already been endorsed by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, among others. In full disclosure, Rahm wrote the afterword to my book, How to Walk to School: Blueprint for a Neighborhood School Renaissance, but I’d be a fan regardless. He’s been a champion of my little public elementary school, Nettelhorst, for almost a decade — in fact, his very first act of congress was to cut the ribbon on our community Open House; 300 families came and 78 kids signed up for preschool that day! As ambitious as his plan is, it must be executed well to succeed, and in a hardscrabble town like Chicago, he better be prepared to fight.

All the mayoral candidates demanded parents to step-up to the plate, but parents, particularly in less advantaged neighborhoods, need help accessing existing resources and forging connections (see my post, Political Will). While Nettelhorst parent reformers didn’t necessary know which doors to knock on, we knew the people to ask to find the right ones and we had the audacity to keep knocking — and ringing, and calling, and cajoling, and asking, and asking — until the occupants relented or we found another way in. When people said “no,” we only heard, “not yet…”

Of course, change requires work. Reform is often messy and unpredictable. However, there’s simply no reason why highly energetic parents must keep reinventing the wheel over and over again. Our next mayor must be committed to empowering parent-led reform movements with the relatively simple tools they need to succeed.

If last night’s debate confirmed anything, it was this: Public schools belong to the public, and that’s all of us. Education reform will take leadership from the top, but ultimately it’s our collective responsibility to wrap our arms around our schools, and make them the heart of our communities. If we can’t do that, it won’t matter if we elect Jesus or Bo-Bo the Clown. If we hope to reform education, it’s only going to happen neighborhood by neighborhood, block by block, one school at a time.

What Teachers Really Want for Christmas

December 11th, 2010 by jacqueline

Also printed in the Huffington Post

Winter break is right around the corner, and as usual, all the ho-ho-holiday cheer has left me over-extended and cranky. I still don’t have gifts for my kids’ teachers. Surely they wouldn’t mind some re-gifted tchochkies; after all, it’s just a gesture, right? Turns out, they do mind. I asked some of our school’s award-winning teachers to tell us what they really want for Christmas.

So long as we’re all being honest, teachers would like us to know, very sweetly mind you, that they don’t need another “World’s Best Teacher!” coffee mug, fragranced bath set or carbon-dated potpourri–no, they’d like cash, cleverly disguised as a gift card or a heartfelt expression of gratitude. In a perfect Candide world, they’d like both, lovingly wrapped with a great big bow.

Teachers Want Cash

Ever-shrinking school budgets leave precious little for classroom supplies. According to a national survey conducted by Kelton Research, 97% of all teachers pay for classroom supplies out of their own pockets, to the tune of $350 on average. Many Nettelhorst teachers report spending double or triple this amount.

Across the board, teachers asked for gift cards to big box-stores like Staples, Office Max and Best Buy or online retailers like Amazon. Gift cards to bookstores, especially local independents, got double stars as everyone hoped to add to their classroom library. Check to see if your school already has a fundraising gift card program in place, like Scrip, which allows you to shop for everyday purchases like food, clothing, and entertainment while earning rebates back to your school. As an extra bonus, many retailers, like Target, give back a percentage of sales to local schools, so don’t forget to ask if you can designate a school when you buy a gift card or use a store credit card.

Feel inspired to do some legwork? Before running out to buy classroom supplies on your teachers behalf, know that the variety of scissors, lined-paper, and so forth is downright staggering. Do some reconnaissance or get advice from the principal or room parent first.

In all likelihood, your teacher has already posted a wish list for a classroom project on DonorsChoose. Oprah recently named the website one of her favorite things for 2010, and it’s ours, too. Right now, Bing is offering a $5 donation code for any DonorsChoose donation, and lots of other companies are following suit. Want a slam-dunk group gift? Make your teacher’s pie-in-the-sky project come true in a click. While you’re at it, consider making a second donation to a teacher working at an underprivileged school. All donations are tax-deductible and loaded with good karma.

Selfless to their core, every teacher ranked gift cards for classroom support over personal indulgence, but it was pretty easy to crack that one. “Caribou and Starbucks cards also go a long way,” admited third grade teacher Michelle Gunderson. “Seems the longer I’m teaching kids, the more I need coffee.” With a bit of prodding, teachers admitted liking lots more than caffeine. In hushed whispers, teachers say they love, love, l-o-v-e gift cards to local restaurants, theaters, department stores, beauty salons and spas. Raves for any amount to spend at the Apple store.

If trekking-out to buy gift cards seems like too much trouble, cash in an envelope also does the trick.

Teachers Want Love

All our teachers love homemade gifts from baked goods to creative keepsakes. Fourth grade teacher Michele Herro treasures the countless handmade gifts she’s received over the years, including beaded jewelry, knitted scarves and student artwork. “One family gave me a compilation of all their favorite Christmas songs, and I listen to that CD every year during the holidays.” she said. “I love homemade gifts because they’re completely from the heart, and remind me of my students all year long.”

“All in all, my favorite gifts each year are ones that I know the student has a vested interest in, and the ones that they’re personally excited to give to me,” says fifth grade teacher Nikki Konicek. One student makes her a pair of kooky earrings every year. “I can’t wait until I open the little box in front of her and watch her eyes light up!” Preschool teacher Zio Perez cherishes the albums of classroom pictures parents have made her over the years, be they professional books made by Shutterfly.com or simple laminated home projects.

Most teachers only hear from parents when things are going wrong. Hearing that we appreciate them–and hearing that our kids appreciate them–was hands down the most desired gift of all. First grade teacher Stacy Holzwarth treasures a handwritten note from a student that reads, “You are a god teacher” instead of “You are a good teacher.” My son was in Ms. Holzwarth’s class three years ago, and just for the record, yes, she is a god.

Give Big

Enjoying a recession staycation like the rest of us lucky ducks this holiday season? Consider recruiting some other families to paint your teacher’s classroom for a homegrown version of the inspirational television show School Pride. Winter break is rarely a break for most public school principals and janitorial staff, so it’s an ideal time to gussy-up. My school community stayed warm over eight winters renovating entire floors of Nettelhorst with a combination of pro bono professional painters, artists and volunteer elbow grease. Imagine how happy your kids will be to have an extended playdate with their friends, and how thrilled the teachers will be to start the New Year in a completely renovated space. A holiday work project may be one of the most meaningful gifts you can ever give your kids.

So this year, I pledge to get my act together, whip-up some chocolate toffee, and crank-out a few sentences on why my kids’ teachers walk on water. After all, you couldn’t pay me enough to be in an elementary school classroom all day. I can’t even manage to chaperone a field trip without frying-out. Come to think of it, I better slip in an appropriately generous gift card, too.

Wishing everyone, especially our country’s teachers, a happy and healthy holiday season! Thank you for helping our children shine!

Read the full post »

Hooray for Healthy Lunches

December 6th, 2010 by jacqueline

Also printed in the Huffington Post

Congress just sent President Obama ground-breaking legislation that will dramatically expand and improve school lunches across the country. In a recent Los Angeles Times article about the bill, the reporter led with a crazy-cute photograph of a Nettelhorst student happily devouring his school lunch. Random AP shot? Not quite.

Here’s the back story: when it comes to health and wellness initiatives, Nettelhorst, my neighborhood public elementary school, has moved mountains: we successfully lobbied to become a Healthy Choice Pilot School, giving us one of the system’s coveted salad bars, honored by the Healthy Schools Campaign and U.S. Senator Dick Durbin. We’re also one of the only public schools to have guaranteed recess for every kid, everyday–it’s a gift from our teachers who voluntarily gave-up a union-mandated planning period in order to supervise it.

Parents have led the charge. We helped develop the school’s nutrition policy forbidding sweets for classroom parties, which has been a tough sell for those drinking the same sugary punch as Cookie Crusader Sarah Palin. One of our moms, Tracy Wosniak, founded a program called “Waste Not Wednesdays,” where she helps fifth graders weigh the lunch garbage, and then, compost the table scraps. We started a weekly French Farmers Market.

Knowing that student health and wellness is intimately connected with environment, we’ve also transformed the school’s infrastructure, all pro bono. Our lunchroom has become “Bistro Louis” with a charming Parisian mural, soundproofing and surround-sound that plays jazz and classical music. We’ve renovated two playgrounds, an auditorium (with flexible seating so that kids can exercise during recess in inclement weather), and a teaching kitchen with Oprah designer and HSN star Nate Berkus. In partnership with the Chicago Blackhawks, we built a street hockey field in the front playlot and a a state-of-the-art fitness room. We’re in the process of building an Outdoor Classroom and organic garden with Arbor Day, Greencorps Chicago, Smarty Pants Are Leaders and Nature Explore.

All good things to be sure, but we’ve been unable to crack the biggest problem, namely, what’s being served on the lunchroom pass-through. Case in point, when the school called to say that my ten year-old son Zack forgot his lunch, I asked the clerk to loan him $1.85. “Duh. Of course we offered him money, Jacqueline,” she responded. “Guess what your kid said? No thanks. I’d rather starve. My mom says the schools serves garbage, and we don’t pollute our bodies.” Ouch.

As I trudged back to school to deliver Zack’s forgotten lunchbox of expensive organic food, crafting a lecture on “personal responsibility” in my head, I felt for the rest of the kids making due with limp pizza, Chef Boyardee, or heaven knows what else. We are the lucky ones. Almost half of all Nettelhorst students live in households that struggle to put food on the table. For some of these needy children, meals eaten at the school–lunch, breakfast, or snacks in the after-school cooking classes–will be the only meals of the day.

The Child Nutrition bill, which has strong bipartisan support, will go a long way towards improving the food situation at Nettelhorst and at schools across America. The $4.5-billion bill makes another 115,000 children eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, and provides 29 million more meals a year in after-school programs. School districts that comply with the new standards will receive an additional federal payment of 6 cents for each lunch served, a pretty big incentive to get with the program. While the bill encourages school districts to follow federally determined nutrition standards and source locally grown produce, some question if it goes far enough.

Organic food advocate Greg Christian, Chicago’s answer to Alice Waters, argues that every school should have an organic garden on site, teach sustainable agriculture in the classroom, and serve food that’s organic and made from scratch, everyday.

We heartily agree, but for all our talent and determination, my school community’s been unable to move the system itself. As a stopgap measure, we’ve enlisted Gourmet Gorilla, a small independent company, to provide affordable, healthy, locally sourced, organic snacks after-school and boxed meals, hand-delivered to every classroom, right before lunch. While this program has proven to be a great amenity for many families, it hardly solves the food problem for the school’s neediest children.

Unfortunately, Nettelhorst, like a third of all Chicago public schools, is cursed with a “steam and nuke” kitchen, which means that anything served hot (or warmish) is processed elsewhere. Pretending for a moment that a donor dropped from the sky to convert our dwarf kitchen into an actual cooking kitchen, there’s still no guarantee that the food produced in it would be much improved.

Christian says the real culprit for the current crisis is the USDA. Because the agency’s main job is to sell highly subsidized conventional crops (like corn, soybeans, rice, and wheat) and farmed foods (like dairy and beef), cheap, low-quality surplus food gets pushed into our schools. While pilot programs and salad bars are positive steps, they tend to mask the larger systemic problem, namely that children can’t learn if school districts continue to serve sub-standard food, day in and day out.

“Change will only come about through contracts,” says Christian. “If sustainability plans are written into the RFP’s, the winning bidders will be forced to execute them.” Few large growers and processors would be able to compete if they continue to deliver the status quo. Given the might of Illinois’ agriculture lobby, you can imagine how popular his idea will be around here.

But there’s hope. The First Lady’s Let’s Move! campaign to end childhood hunger and fight childhood obesity has our country taking health and nutrition seriously for the first time since WWII. Without waiting around for any top-down permission, my school has already instituted many of the bill’s guidelines, but we know first hand that it’s going to take some real political muscle to move the current system.

Mr. President, the new legislation awaiting your signature is a giant step in the right direction–on behalf of the students at my little public school, including my son, Zack: Thank you for putting kids first.

Follow Jacqueline Edelberg on Twitter: www.twitter.com/walktoschool

Geoffry Canada Leads the Charge

November 21st, 2010 by jacqueline

Also printed in the Huffington Post

Last week, over a thousand people turned out to hear Geoffry Canada, the powerhouse behind the Harlem Children’s Zone, give the keynote address at the United Way’s Education Summit at Chicago’s Park Community Church.

The summit was billed as a faith-based, urban school reform revival, and Canada delivered a powerful Sermon on the Mount. “We cannot tolerate another generation of failure,” he told a racially diverse audience of teachers, parents, clergy members, politicians, and community activists. In clear and exacting terms, he implored us to find the courage to stand up for children.

After Canada spoke, I joined a panel of experts to explore how we could channel his inspiration into action. The panel, led by Advance Illinois’ Robin Steans, included some Chicago heavyweights: Etoy Ridgnal, the Chicago Director of Stand for Children; Sarah Duncan, the Community Schools advocate and Board Member of the Ariel Education Initiative; Laura Thrall, the CEO of United Way of Metropolitan Chicago; and Noel Castellanos, the leader of the Christian Community Development Association.

I braced for the worst, knowing that Canada had likely stirred up a hornet’s nest. Although audience members could text questions to the panel anonymously, the ones scrolling across two giant screens (yes, this was some seriously high-tech church) were universally tame, centering on political lobbying, leveraging resources, personal actions, and replicating the neighborhood/community school model. Following-up on a question about our innovative fee-for-service community school, Jane’s Place at Nettelhorst, leave it to an eight-year-old boy to raise his hand the old-fashioned way, and ask the hardest-hitting question of the night: “The guys who come in to teach in the afterschool program all sound really great…Who’s supposed to pay for all that?” Good question, kid.

Now, maybe it was a self-selecting crowd, and maybe we were in church and all, but my town’s in the middle of a heated Mayoral election, and the audience was sprinkled with candidates and media types. Chicagoans aren’t known for pulling-punches, so what gives?

Up until Davis Guggenheim broke ranks in Waiting for ‘Superman,’ it was practically verboten to challenge a recalcitrant teachers’ union. You couldn’t even say there was such a thing as a “bad” teacher.

Eight years ago, when our group of mommy reformers first set foot in our neighborhood’s under-performing and under-utilized public elementary school, some teachers walked the hallways muttering obscenities and one even had a restraining order against her for hitting students. We knew who shouldn’t be there, the principal knew it, the students sure knew it, and so did all the other teachers. The stoic union investigators dispatched from central office even seemed to know it, too.

We didn’t have time to sit around waiting for a lumbering, Kafkaesque bureaucracy to self-correct. Our principal gave the curriculum team carte blanche to review curriculum and financial plans, weigh-in on hiring decisions, and most importantly, access to document teaching styles. Funny thing happened: with all those pesky parents roaming the halls and peeking into classrooms, within two years of our reform movement, almost every single ineffective teacher left Nettelhorst, voluntarily.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t take too many disgruntled teachers to contaminate a staff. When the most negative forces left, the school’s extremely toxic teaching climate improved dramatically. Test scores tripled, across every demographic. My kids, who started at Nettelhorst in preschool, are now in fourth and sixth grade, and I’d put their education–one without any gifted program, selective enrollment, or tracking system–on par with any private school in the country. Our teachers are that good.

While we can all cheer the parental pressures that helped to fix my little neighborhood school, and celebrate the extraordinary, award-winning teaching that’s going on at Melrose and Broadway, the question still remains: in what backwards universe could adults allow this deplorable situation to fester?

Embarrassingly enough, I’ve been cowed by this massive chilling effect along with everybody else, and I’m not even beholden to the system! In writing How to Walk to School, we labored to describe the school’s toxic teaching climate in the most palatable terms. We shied away from laying blame, and chose to concentrate on how parents and principals could remedy the situation from within the system. No one was “bad” just “ineffective.”

Now, lo and behold, Waiting for ‘Superman’ has given us the freedom to say that yes, some teachers are bad, and that a system that protects them is inexcusable, and that we, as Americans, are not going to tolerate it anymore. Heaven help me, did I really just say that out loud? President Obama has said that education is the civil rights issue of our day. If a generation of civil right activists faced ferocious dogs, water-canons, and Billy clubs, why am I such a ‘fraidy cat to say publicly what everyone says in private?

Before some mean-spirited blogger hurls criticism my way, let’s be clear: I love, love, l-o-v-e teachers. I’d rather eat glass than home-school my two adorable kiddies. I was also weaned on unions; in the seventies, my mom kept us home for months during the teacher strikes rather than cross a picket line (backgammon anyone?). I’m not saying that the handful of disgruntled teachers contaminating Nettelhorst were bad people, or that they didn’t love their craft, or that maybe, once upon a time, they were even decent educators. But, by any reasonable standard, these folks should not have been in any classroom, my kids’, or anybody else’s.

Imagine running a business with tenured employees who only need to demonstrate “competence.” Imagine a system that makes it nearly impossible to remove individuals who fall short of expectations. What quality of product would your company produce? We have decades of research proving that the single most important factor in student performance and lifetime achievement is the quality of the teacher in the classroom, including super-star economist and fellow Nettelhorst mommy Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach’s ground-breaking study, so how can we possibly defend the status quo?

If we’re going to see school reform, real school reform, we’re going to need to start asking tough questions and demanding serious answers–answers that are in the best interest of children, not adults. Kudos to Mr. Canada for leading the charge.
Before catching the red-eye back to NYC, Canada concluded his remarks with a poem he wrote:

Maybe before we didn’t know, that Corey is afraid to go.
To school, the store, to roller sake, he cries a lot for a boy of eight.
But now we know each day it’s true, that other girls and boys cry, too.
They cry for us to lend a hand, time for us to take a stand.

And little Maria’s window screens, keeps out flies and other things.
But she knows to duck her head, when she prays each night ‘fore bed.
Because in the window comes some things that shatter little children-dreams.
For some, the hourglass is out of sand. Time for us to take a stand.

And Charlie’s deepest, secret wishes, is someone to smother him with kisses.
And squeeze and hug him tight, so tight, while he pretends to put up a fight.
Or at least someone to be at home, who misses him, he’s so alone.
Who allows this child-forsaken land? Look in the mirror and take a stand.

And on the Sabbath, when we pray, to Our God we often say.
“Oh Jesus, Mohammed, Abraham, I come to better understand,
How to learn to love and give, and live the life you taught to live.”
In faith we must join hand in hand. Suffer the children? Take the stand!

And tonight, some child will go to bed, no food, no place to lay their head.
No hand to hold, no lap to sit, to give slobbery kisses, from slobbery lips.
So you and I we must succeed, in this crusade, this holy deed.
To say to the children in this land: Have hope. We’re here. We take a stand!

Top Chef: Education Reform

November 18th, 2010 by jacqueline

Also printed in the Huffington Post

It was the Top Chef of education reform. Last weekend, Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and the Indianapolis-based non-profit, The Mind Trust, held its second annual Education Case Competition for top business school students from across the country. A rather intimidating panel of education powerhouses assembled to judge the competition; I was delighted and honored to provide some local Chicago color.

The Case: how should urban districts respond to decreasing enrollment and increasing competition from charter schools, other local non-urban districts, and private and parochial schools? Working within current political and economic realities, teams needed to re-imagine an ideal urban education system, focusing on governance, public accountability, budget, operations and organizational structure, human capital, transportation, facilities, and measures of success. Students were encouraged to “think boldly and creatively and not be constrained by traditional practices and structures in public education.” Dream big.

The least persuasive plan I heard responded to the seeming insatiable demand for school choice by providing bus service to every single student in the district. A random lottery for everyone! I asked the team, “On top of the financial and logistical nightmare you’re proposing, why are you staffing each school with a community outreach person when there won’t be any parents left in the neighborhood to engage?” One of my esteemed colleagues put it more succinctly: “What makes you think school choice matters to parents if every school in the district sucks?”

In the end, a gussied-up version of the neighborhood school model, the very one that has succeeded in this country for over a century, ruled the day. The winning team proposed a school district that valued human capital, lean operations, and high aspirations and expectations, above all else. The plan rewarded high performing schools with increased autonomy, and turned to principals, parents and community members to come up with creative solutions to their own problems. True to their business school roots, the students empowered each individual school to harness market forces to solve its budget woes. They hoped to create a culture of excellence.

Two big shockers of the competition: one, the final round was a head-to-head smackdown between Northwestern and the University of Chicago–as a U of C alumnae, just once I’d like to leave a room without a chip on my shoulder; and two, the winning team delivered the How to Walk to School blueprint almost to a tee.

When our eight mommy reformers brainstormed about how to revitalize our underutilized and underperforming neighborhood elementary school, Nettelhorst, we didn’t draw upon any educational research or fancy economic modeling; our plan just made intuitive sense given the facts on the ground and a razor-thin window of opportunity. And, we’re not the only rag-tag band of reformers creating change in our community from the ground up. Want to be inspired? Check out: WatersToday here in Chicago, Peralta in Oakland, the Passyunk Square Civic Association in Philadelphia, and the Sustainable Heights Network in Cleveland. I’ve met some of the folks behind each of these movements, and I’m blown away by what they’ve been able to accomplish.

Education experts advocate for ever more Draconian top-down initiatives, and tell us that reform takes decades and that change is incremental. We don’t have time for the status quo anymore. “As our nation faces the challenge of improving opportunity and outcomes for all students, we need our most talented and innovative leaders to be involved–just the type of leaders who participated in last weekend’s competition,” says Mind Trust Founder and CEO, David Harris.

Here’s my spin on the Mind Trust competition: Want to reform public education? How ’bout something really old school: Start by fixing the neighborhood school in your own backyard. Step one, look to the talent-pool sitting around the local sandbox. Bet your bottom dollar that those “talented and innovative” leaders will be right under your nose.

Creating Chemistry

November 13th, 2010 by jacqueline

My latest entry for the Huffington Post

Waiting for ‘Superman’ opens with director Davis Guggenheim driving by his neighborhood’s underperforming public elementary school, lamenting his decision to send his kids to a private school several miles away. From his car window, the public school looks like a cross between an abandoned 1950’s strip mall and minimum-security prison. Is it any wonder why he, along with so many of his neighbors with other school options, just keeps on driving?

When my group of park friends set about fixing Nettelhorst, our neighborhood’s underutilized and underperforming local school, the infrastructure team had a clear mandate: conjure up some chemistry on a budget of nothing. And fast.

The auditorium doors

The auditorium doors

For starters, we took a good hard look at the century-old building through the eyes of a prospective neighborhood parent. Fortunately, many exterior improvements were relatively simple and inexpensive. We removed all negative outdoor signage, raised the shades, covered the widows in outward-facing student artwork, and left the classroom lights on at night. Every door got a fresh coat of blue paint which then became a canvas for a local artist. It’s hard to entice skittish parents to come in if all the doors are brown and locked.

As we tackled each interior renovation project, we asked countless logistical questions: When parents enter the school, where will they store strollers or hang coats? When waiting in the office, where will they sit? Where can parents change a diaper or entertain a toddler? We tried to imagine a prospective a parent’s experience from the moment she hit the front door to the time she found her way into the library.

How did our infrastructure team gussy-up with a budget of nothing? We had the audacity to ask, and ask, and ask again. We started by cracking open the local phone book and cold-calling local merchants. We found that most people couldn’t give a substantial amount of any one product, but if we promised to pick-up donations right away, most offered to give what they could. Our team sourced materials from store window displays, shuttering businesses, Freecycle, Craigslist, thrift stores, alleys and yard sales. We said ‘yes’ to everything, no matter how kooky. One of the joys of needing everything is that anything you get is just perfect.

The lunchroom

Nettelhorst's lunchroom

We asked plumbers to plumb and painters to paint. Our principal made it easy by opening her school to tradesman and artists on evenings and weekends. We also tapped local civic groups and charities to host community paint days, and hundreds of volunteers turned out to help. Word to the wise: smiles and doughnuts go a long, long, way; so do thank you letters, before and after photos, and gushy “We ❤ you” student posters.

Today, there isn’t an inch of the school that hasn’t been touched by someone’s creativity and kindness. Take a virtual tour. I promise, it will knock your socks off.

It was four years into our eight year movement before we learned how to fundraise and create deep, mutually beneficial partnerships, and only then did we set our sights on tackling the school’s gigantic infrastructure projects. When we had vendors and catalogues instead of volunteers and cast-offs, we managed to build two new playgrounds, and a state-of-the-art fitness room with the Chicago Blackhawks and renovate the school’s dilapidated auditorium and its pathetic excuse for a science lab. Just last month, we cut the ribbon on a brand new teaching kitchen designed by Oprah designer and HSN star, Nate Berkus.

Someone might look at our kitchen’s fancy subway tiles and shiny stainless-steel appliances, and think that the stuff is what matters. It’s not. Yes, Nate, Home Depot, Pottery Barn, and a slew of design professionals created a breathtaking space, but the hodgepodge kitchen it replaced, the one our community volunteers built with materials salvaged from dumpsters, was just as valuable. The real take-away is that our principal believed her students should learn about nutrition and cooking, and that our community came together to support that vision. When a kid reads Green Eggs and Ham and then makes it at school, it’s of little consequence if the frying pan is top-of-the-line or thrift store make-do. In the eyes of a child, care always reads as care.

Conventional wisdom says that change requires consensus and buy-in, but that’s just not so — particularly in matters of aesthetics. While our principal and engineer were on board for change, not everyone was overjoyed with the transformation; some disgruntled staff members cursed us, and some even tried to sabotage projects. But, in the end, hot pink and disco balls won out. Naysayers either came around, or left for grayer pastures.

Accepted wisdom also says that a school environment will change only after its culture changes. We turned that theory on its head: by changing the school environment first, the school’s deeply ingrained negative culture improved dramatically, virtually overnight.

Don’t take my word for it. In Cheryl Hines’ new makeover show, School Pride, a deserving community gets a brand new, completely transformed school. It’s a refreshing, civic twist on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy: cameras roll as four experts — a community organizer, an interior designer, a comedian, and a journalist — lead the entire school community through an emotional renovation process in a matter of days.

Of course, like all ugly-duckling-to-swan makeover shows, School Pride makes for inspirational reality television. But, the real message of the series is that we don’t need to wait for a caravan of trucks with television cameras to effect change. My Chicago neighborhood is proof positive that a little bit of organization, moxie and elbow grease can transform a school, and in so doing, transform the very fabric of a community.

Yes, far too many of our public schools are aging and broken, and yes, there’s plenty of blame to go around. However, the good news is that you don’t need to be a celebrity or a billionaire or education expert to fix the school in your neighborhood. You don’t even need to have kids. You just need to care.



Chicago Live!

November 6th, 2010 by jacqueline

On Thursday, I was interviewed by Jenniffer Weigel at the Chicago Theater for the Tribune’s Chicago Live! with the Second City. Host Rick Kogan delivered a star-studded line up, including local politicians, personalities, musicians, comedians, and the Blackhawks’ Head Coach, Joel Quenneville. It was an amazing evening all around, but the coolest part, by far, came after my interview, when my daughter, along with four of her Nettelhorst pals, got to sing her little heart out accompanied by, get this, Robbie Fulks!

Here’s the Chicago Live! radio podcast of our girls–Maya, Caitlin, Abby, Regin, and Annie–rocking-out Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours.”  One critic raved “Those girls from Nettlehorst and Robbie Fulks brought the house down. What a great night!” The energy backstage was infectious–check-out Jen Weigel’s sneak peak video of the cast. I’m one super-proud mama!

Upcoming events

If you’re in Chicago on November 17th, I hope you can make it to the United Way’s Education Action Summit. Geoffrey Canada will be the keynote speaker, and I’ll be on the discussion panel after, moderated by Robin Steans of Advance Illinois.

Click here for more upcoming events in Chicago and around the country.

Political Will

November 4th, 2010 by jacqueline

Political Will

Reprinted from the Huffington Post

Today, a four-year parent-initiated community effort will come to fruition when Nettelhorst, my neighborhood’s public elementary school, will unveil a brand-new science lab. It’s been a long road: Two years ago, the Anixter Family Foundation kick-started our campaign with a $50,000 gift to replace the school’s outdated science curriculum. Then, with a $100,000 U.S. Cellular “Calling All Communities” win, we decided to renovate the school’s pathetic excuse for a science lab. Securing funding was tip of the iceberg — a rag-tag team of dedicated parent volunteers spent the better part of the summer supervising this gigantic capital project from start to finish.

“Nettelhorst’s new science lab is a testament to the tremendous efforts of the school and the community,” says Congressman Mike Quigley. “Parents, teachers, and students working together to invest in science and create a better environment for learning is a great example for schools across Chicago and around the country.”

Joining our community partners and budding scientists at the dedication ceremony will be an all-star line-up: former White House Chief of Staff and Chicago Mayoral Candidate Rahm Emanuel, Congressman Mike Quigley, State Representative Sara Feigenholtz, Alderman Tom Tunney, and State Senate President John Cullerton. While this might seem like 11th-hour, election year posturing, everyone on this roster has been deeply involved in the school’s nearly 10-year revitalization effort.

Eight years ago, I was pushing my toddler’s stroller through the snow, when my State Representative returned my phone call. “Hi there, this is Sara. I heard some moms are organizing in the park. What can I do to help?” For over an hour, Sara listened as I explained our grassroots action plan to revitalize our underutilized and underperforming neighborhood school. A few months later, when we were a long-shot gunning for a new Community Schools grant, she helped arrange a meeting with the Mayor’s office. Once downtown, it was up to us to make the case for why Nettelhorst should be one of the six inaugural community schools, but Sara’s the one who got us in the door.

Three times around, we lost our state matching grant to renovate the school’s auditorium; each time, there was Sara, working the phone lines to try to save it. Now, thanks to community support and a lot of political muscle, when a Nettelhorst kid performs in the school play, he feels like he’s opening at Carnegie Hall.

When Nettelhorst hoped to start a French Farmers’ Market with Bensidoun USA on the school’s front playlot, our first stop was the Alderman’s office. City planning isn’t for the faint-hearted: Tom helped smooth the way with community groups and helped us navigate Chicago’s byzantine codes and regulations. He came through for us again when we wanted to approach the Chicago Blackhawks to bring an extensive a Health and Wellness Initiative to the school. Tom introduced us the Blackhawk’s president, John McDonough, and within a year of solidifying that partnership, Nettelhorst has built a state-of-the-art fitness room and a hockey field. Last month, when the school unveiled its new Nate Berkus’ Community Kitchen, Tom, who still cooks at his own restaurant, Ann Sathers’, every Sunday, was right there working the line with chefs Lorin Adolph and Top Chef winner Stephanie Izard cooking our eighth graders breakfast.

Even before Rahm was elected to Congress, he was reading to neighborhood kids in our school library. As Congressman, his first act was to return to the district and open Nettelhorst’s first Open House for the community (300 families came, and 78 kids signed up for preschool that day!). When Mike took over Rahm’s seat, our school had yet another ally in Washington, but Mike had been championing our cause as County Commissioner for years. When your congressman has attended every single Little Bunny Egg Hunt, Story Hour and Halloween Hoopla for a decade, when he knows your school’s successes and heartaches intimately, it’s a lot easier to ask for help when you need it.

Reformers and principals need help making connections beyond the sandbox or the schoolyard. So, when Nettelhorst imagined a state-of-the-art science lab — as with any of our pie-in-the-sky human or capital projects — parents made a beeline to talk to our elected officials. It’s not just about securing funding, although that’s part of it. It’s about working together to forge long-term community relationships, navigate complex government bureaucracy, and build deep, mutually beneficial partnerships.

Chicago may be a big city, but our little neighborhood is decidedly tight-knit. If our school failed to steward investments or deliver on its promises, community leaders wouldn’t have gone to bat for us again and again. As each of Nettelhorst’s capital campaigns has been initiated, directed, and sustained by the volunteer efforts of parents and neighbors, solid working relationships with our elected officials has proved critical to moving projects from scribbles to reality.

And yes, “elected” means there will be elections to support. Nettelhorst won the U.S. Cellular contest because our parents mobilized thousands of friends and family to go into stores across the country, pick-up a free card, and vote for our school (thank you, Facebook!). A great many of these voters were moms, pushing strollers. In a democracy, an energized school community can be a powerful political force. When critics joke about the power of little mommies to affect change, see it clearly: women hold up half the sky.

If politicians knew how to fix all of our schools, they would be fixed. Shouting and pointing fingers is rarely helpful. Politicians aren’t clairvoyant; they need to know exactly what schools need, and how they can help, in concrete terms. And then, it’s up to us, as the grown-ups, to follow through with action. Even with a hefty dose of luck and moxie, capital projects and community partnerships don’t materialize out of thin air. It’s our collective responsibility to wrap our arms around our schools, and make them the heart of our communities.

On my little corner of East Lakeview, hundreds of public school kids will be dissecting frogs, testing DNA strains, and building wind turbines or prosthetic arms. Northwestern University’s Vice President for Research, Jay Walsh, has been our go-to science guru. “Improving math and science in our schools is essential now more than ever,” he says. “The recent U.S. ranking by the World Economic Forum of 48th out of 133 developed or developing nations in quality of math and science instruction is a siren call. The Nettelhorst science lab is a wonderful example of how we can enthuse students and help them develop the understanding that drives innovation.”

Every child in America, regardless of circumstance, deserves a great neighborhood public school that delivers a first-rate science education. Starting tomorrow, Nettelhorst kids will be getting one because adults willed them a better future, and went after it, one step at a time.

Whether your state is red, blue, or some shade in between, no matter. Vote on November 2nd. And when you do, be sure to vote for the people who are putting kids first.

Follow Jacqueline Edelberg on Twitter: www.twitter.com/walktoschool

Principals Can’t Go It Alone

October 24th, 2010 by jacqueline

My latest entry for the Huffington Post

Principals Can’t Go It Alone

Families in disadvantaged neighborhoods aren’t the only victims of the lottery nightmare depicted in Waiting for ‘Superman.’ In cities across America, middle class parents face the same nail-biting anxiety as they struggle in vain to find a public school that will choose them.

In Chicago, the most desirable public magnet schools admit students by lottery or testing, and demand far outstrips supply. Consequently, the city’s entire five-year-old population is locked in a frenzied scramble for a few hundred spots, many of which are already gobbled up by sibling preferences. Just how fierce is the competition? It’s statistically harder to get your kindergartener into one of Chicago’s top public magnet schools than it is to get your high school senior into Harvard.

Despite so many enticing public school options, for most discriminating parents, school choice proves elusive. Given the myriad problems associated with public school–including barriers to admission, budget cuts, high class sizes, low test scores, busing, student violence, school closures, teacher strikes, No Child Left Behind, a lumbering bureaucracy, union woes, and a state ranked 49th in education funding–it’s no wonder why so many Chicago families decide to call it quits, and jump-ship for private, parochial, or suburban schools.

Of course, few families have the resources to secure other options. The real lesson of Waiting for ‘Superman’ is that no kid in America should have his or her future determined by the drop of a lottery ball. Surely we can all agree that every kid, regardless of circumstance, deserves a great neighborhood school.

As my park friends and I assessed the viability of Nettelhorst, our neighborhood’s underutilized and underperforming public elementary school, we carefully weighed our options: pay private school tuition (assuming we could get in), stomach the maddening public school lottery, or move to the suburbs. Quite frankly, fixing what we had seemed easiest. Whatever Nettelhorst’s challenges were, and they were considerable, we had before us a visionary principal who greeted our wish list with open arms.

At the time, we were too naïve to know that few principals would entertain advice from energized neighborhood parents interested in making “improvements,” let alone coming right out and asking for it. Insular leadership seems counter-intuitive: State and federal funding for education continues to decrease. No Child Left Behind legislation threatens to close underperforming schools. A Kafkaesque bureaucracy grows bigger by the day. Stretched budgets leave schools understaffed with underpaid, disheartened teachers, overcrowded classrooms, and crumbling infrastructures. It’s a mess, and there’s plenty of blame to go around.

Why do the very principals who desperately need help rebuff well-intentioned neighborhood parents who pledge themselves to addressing these challenges? Part of the answer lies in simple self-preservation: pesky, hyper-involved parents will almost certainly hijack a principal’s valuable time and energy. Occasionally, such “kind offers” may serve as window dressing to a simultaneous appeal to the district’s superintendent or legal department. Consequently, many principals, even fairly successful ones, have constructed impenetrable boxes around themselves.

Our principal, Susan Kurland, understood that Nettelhorst suffered from the classic chicken-and-egg dilemma: The school needed to improve to attract neighborhood families, yet it needed that same community to help direct, enable, and sustain that change. Most public school reform movements derail when well-meaning community members start off on the wrong foot, and begin the conversation by shouting, blaming, or demanding. Instead of being hurt, angry, or threatened that we didn’t appreciate how far her little school had already traveled, Susan took a leap of faith and asked us to dream big.

What will have to be in place to convince your neighborhood to return to its public school en masse? Imagine what your ideal elementary school might look like, how it would feel, and what programs it might offer. If all principals had a customizable blueprint and an army of loyal parent-soldiers, we could see real systemic change.

Parents can’t improve schools without principals, and principals can’t do it without parents (and teachers, too, but more on that later). Susan was willing to share her school with anyone who offered to help. Ultimately, reformers could have done somersaults until the end of time to bring prospective parents to the school’s front door, but it all would have been for naught had she refused to open it.

Last week, Chicago Public Schools gave donated copies of How to Walk to School to every principal. Hopefully other cities will take similar steps to empower principals to embrace change. Game on.

Follow Jacqueline Edelberg on Twitter: www.twitter.com/walktoschool

Wall Street Journal: The Last Reunion

October 16th, 2010 by jacqueline

The Last Reunion

By Byron Wien

Reprinted from the Wall Street Journal, October 16, 2010

In 1986, some former classmates and I organized an informal 40th reunion for the graduating class of our public grammar school in Chicago. We were in our fifties back then, and many of our careers were going well. Most of us were still in good health and were enjoying being busy and watching our children grow up. The mood of the evening was one of optimism and hope. At one point a woman slipped her phone number into my pocket and told me to call her when I got to Los Angeles. She assured me of a good time.

Two weeks ago, some of us organized a similar reunion for those classmates we could locate. Although graduation was 64 years ago, most of us still live in Chicago. A few came from as far away as Denver and New York.

Our school, Nettelhorst, has gone through several phases. When we attended, it was an average middle-class neighborhood public school, and all students walked to it from their homes or apartment houses. Over time nearby residents became less enthusiastic about the place, so buses brought students in from distant neighborhoods to fill the vacancies. The school went into serious decline.

Over the past decade, though, a group of neighborhood parents developed a program to bring the school back to life—and they succeeded. The renaissance is described in a book, “How to Walk to School,” with contributions by Arne Duncan, the U.S. secretary of education who was Chicago’s superintendent of schools, and Rahm Emanuel, the former White House chief of staff who is now running for mayor of Chicago.

My classmates and I were amazed at how involved parents now are in the school. My mother gave me a dollar so she could join the Parent/Teachers Association, but she never intended to show up at the meetings. From her point of view, once her kid got inside the school building it was up to the teachers to get him educated. School had worked for generations without the meddling of parents.

Our reunion began at 4:30 on a Saturday afternoon. I was a little shocked to see some of my old friends. We’re now in our late seventies and time has left its mark. Some required walkers or canes, a few had gotten much heavier (that was expected), and several formerly clean-cut faces had gray beards. But the good-looking girls, while a bit wrinkled, brought back memories. Losers don’t come to reunions, they say, and some who had intended to come dropped out at the last minute. Once we were together, I could feel the old warmth in the room. We were glad to have survived this far and to see each other again.

We took a tour of the school (the fellow with the walker valiantly scaled the stairs). The old 1892 building was intact, but the interior had changed. The drab walls were brightly painted and our stationary desks with their inkwells—yes, inkwells—had been removed. A few murals painted during the Works Project Administration of the 1930s had been restored. The porcelain signs above the “boys” and “girls” restrooms had been preserved, and the seemingly ancient wooden doors were still there.

Each of us had been asked to write a brief summary of our lives. Only my old girlfriend and I, it turned out, were still working. That desire to make every minute of life count may have been what brought us together 60 years ago, though neither of us knew it then. I got the feeling that while most of the others had what would be considered “a good life,” they felt somewhat unfulfilled; goals hadn’t been reached and time was getting short.

Each of us spent a few minutes talking to a videographer about the school’s impact on our lives. Most remembered their teachers more clearly than I did. Some talked about pranks and humiliations, but it was clear that their friendships had provided a safety net for the many emotional falls experienced in childhood. A genius may thrive as a loner, but most of us need a network.

Some say your personality is formed before your 10th birthday. I couldn’t tell in grammar school who was going to be successful. We all spent most of our time back then just trying to enjoy ourselves. I learned that you were unlikely to make it without the love of others, and that you had better believe in yourself and try your best to get the most out of your talent because life in the real world is going to be hard.

Toward the end of our gathering, I expressed sorrow that this would be our last reunion. We all had accepted that we only have a limited amount of time left, but we all thanked God that we had gotten together once more. In a world of cell phones, iPads and Twitter, we all seemed to know that it was face-to-face interaction that gives meaning to life.

Mr. Wien is vice chairman of Blackstone Advisory Partners LP.

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