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Love from the Straight Dope

May 26th, 2010 by jacqueline

Shouldn’t we just dump the worthless Chicago public schools and start over?
May 27, 2010 – part 1 of 2 parts

Dear Cecil:

I see where the teachers’ union is organizing a lobbying campaign in Springfield to get more money for the Chicago public schools. What’s the point? Everybody knows Chicago public schools suck. Why pour more money down a rathole? Wouldn’t it be better in the long run to pitch the pathetic existing system and start over?

Mark, Edgewater

Cecil replies:

No, Mark, it wouldn’t. I can see if we’re going to improve education in this town, we’re going to need to start with you.

I won’t argue that many Chicago public schools, not to put a fine point on it, suck. However, not all of them do. I don’t mean simply the selective enrollment and magnet schools everybody knows about — I mean a fair number of ordinary (OK, not that ordinary) neighborhood schools. Surely one of the more remarkable developments of our time is that, in some parts of the city, the local public elementary school has become a reason to move in, not out. In every case I know about, this was due to the efforts of a handful of determined parents, who eventually succeeded in getting the rest of the community on board. Having talked to some of the people involved, I won’t say it’s easy — but it’s also not that hard. In fact, enough local schools have turned around, or are on the way to doing so, that I’d say a formula of sorts has emerged. This won’t be of immediate interest to you, Mark, since the heavy lifting where schools are concerned is generally done by women, and you sound like a bit of a mope anyway. But you might like to know how it’s done.

1. You form a core group of parents.

Jacqueline Edelberg, who with co-author Susan Kurland describes the turnaround of Nettelhorst school, 3252 N. Broadway, in How to Walk to School (2009), says it all began with eight parents who got talking about school prospects in an East Lakeview park while watching their toddlers play. That seems to be a common scenario. Not wishing to move to the suburbs, pay exorbitant private school tuition or negotiate the byzantine magnet school application process, the group conceived the notion of looking into the local public school — a radical notion at the time. Nettelhorst was considered so dreadful that few children from the neighborhood attended; virtually the entire student body was bused in from elsewhere. While that may be the extreme case, it’s not unusual to find Chicago public schools in middle-class neighborhoods with more than 90 percent low-income students — until recently, most parents who could afford something else simply refused to send their kids to CPS.

Finding middle-class parents willing to make the commitment is easier than it used to be. “I love the city,” says Nancy Fetsch, a past board member of Friends of Blaine, which spearheaded local support for Blaine school, 1420 W. Grace. “I didn’t want to give up.”

2. You find a principal you can work with.

This is the essential next step — without it the process goes no further. Edelberg’s group met with Susan Kurland, then Nettelhorst’s principal, and asked what they could do to help. Kurland was game, and perhaps also a little desperate, and asked what it would take to convince local parents to send their children to her school. The group came back with a list the next day. You’d think any CPS principal would be similarly welcoming, but if you encounter one who isn’t (it happens, I’m told), CPS enrollment policies are such that you can generally send your kid to another under-enrolled public school in the vicinity. In short, you can shop around.

3. You find a pro bono lawyer.

Usually it’s a parent. Maybe it’s even you. Whoever it is draws up the paperwork for a tax-exempt “Friends of <school>” organization, which becomes the school’s fundraising arm.

4. You get the school spruced up.

Here’s an important thing to understand. You might suppose the first mission of parents marching into a Chicago public school would be to redesign the curriculum or take some similar radical step. Nope — the curriculum is set by downtown, and anyway you’ve got a more immediate concern. A common reaction on entering many Chicago public schools is: what a dump. The decorating of the typical Chicago public school looks like it was done by the same crew responsible for old CHA highrises and the Cook County Jail.

Needless to say, you don’t want visitors to your school thinking this. Assuming the building engineer is cooperative — next to the principal, this is the most important person you need on your side at the outset — much can be accomplished with donated paint or artwork. One of Edelberg’s early projects was to solicit an artist friend, Michael Bonfiglio, to create the mosaic spelling out the school’s name above the door, as seen in the photo of Nettelhorst students at the top of this column. (Edelberg is fourth from left.)

If you want, you can really go nuts. Here’s a video of Nettelhorst, which is crammed with so much donated artwork it makes the Vatican look austere. Few neighborhood schools have access to that kind of resources, but you can do a lot of with a fresh coat of colorful paint, and in addition many neighborhood schools have neglected treasures that need only a little polishing. For example, I was impressed with the gardens surrounding Waters school, 4540 N. Campbell, the most visible sign of an “ecology and environment” program started in the 1990s. Terri Versace, president of WatersToday, the school’s support group, says the major outdoor improvement her organization pushed for was getting an ugly asphalt playground rebuilt with greenery and new equipment. It paid off; the campus looks terrific.

4. You start a public relations program.

This goes hand in hand with campus beautification. Private schools have professionally produced brochures and websites; public schools hoping to compete with them need the same. Design talent isn’t hard to come by in middle-class neighborhoods; as it happens, many in the forefront of school improvement efforts are creative types. Versace, a graphic designer, created the WatersToday printed materials; her husband, a software coder, put together a website for the group plus another for the school. Wendy Vasquez, past president of the Friends of Ravenswood School, 4332 N. Paulina, has a background in advertising and was able to get work donated.

You may say: hype won’t change the fact that we’re still selling a mediocre Chicago public school. Don’t be too quick to judge. “We have a lot of great teachers at Ravenswood, but most of them were here before we arrived,” Vasquez says. “The school had been improving for years.” True enough — the school’s test scores have risen steadily over the past decade, and today the percentages of students in different grades meeting or exceeding state standards are in the 70s and 80s.  Debi Prince, a past board member of Friends of Blaine, says, “It was always a good school. We just wanted people to know about this hidden gem.” Today Blaine’s meet-or-exceeds numbers are in the 90s.

5. You enroll your own kids.

This is the great leap of faith. To make it easier, some schools start a tuition-based preschool, a full-day program for three- and four-year-olds — a relatively inexpensive form of daycare when both parents work. You need 18 kids minimum to get one of these going. The idea is that parents will get used to the idea of having their kids in CPS while preserving the private-school option for kindergarten if things don’t come together.

6. You get the community involved in the school.

The concept is simple. “We were trying to put ‘going to’ and ‘Nettelhorst’ in the same sentence, something that hadn’t happened in twenty-five years,” Edelberg says. Nettelhorst currently hosts a wide range of community events and programs. The most elaborate is Jane’s Place, operated in association with Jane Addams Hull House, which for a fee offers after-hours classes to the community in everything from yoga to boxing. At Waters, a sizable portion of the school’s garden space is set aside for neighborhood use; Blaine formed a partnership with the Cubs.

7. You settle in for three or more years of open houses and fundraisers, volunteering at the school, and meetings out the wazoo.

No question, getting the local school off the dime can turn into a major life project. So? We’re not all going to cure cancer. But if you can help get a school fixed up, you’re entitled to think you’re contributing to making the world a better place. For more on how to go about it, contact Edelberg or Kurland through their website, howtowalktoschool.com.

8. You acknowledge you’re not going to get any breaks.

By which I mean, no breaks other than those accruing to the middle class, to which I’m assuming you belong, Mark. Let’s be frank — the concerns the typical middle-class parent faces are relatively trifling. Generally speaking your kids won’t be dodging bullets or getting hassled by gangbangers; a lot of Chicago public school students deal with those problems and more. The attention of the CPS central office, and the public education system generally,  is understandably focused on those that have it worst. That’s most evident in the funding formula. A significant fraction of the money allocated to each school is based on the number of low-income students enrolled; as that number goes down, so does the funding.

The upshot is, the more successful a public school is in attracting middle-class students, the more successful it needs to be. That means a lot of fundraising and community outreach efforts. That’s hardly an intolerable burden; parents of kids enrolled in private schools are commonly asked to do the same.

What’s a tougher to deal with in some ways is the notion that improving a middle-class school is easy, or that if middle-class parents enroll their kids in the local public school they’re stealing resources from the more deserving. Here are two of the five reviews of Edelberg’s book on Amazon:

In a ritzy neighborhood of Chicago, parents get together and decide to send their kids to the local public school. Since the neighborhood kids now attend, there’s no room for poor kids formerly bused in. Test scores rise along with the socioeconomic status of the students. The former principal pats herself on the back and writes, or gets a ghost to write, a book. What does that teach us? That people like to take credit where none is due.

I would hardly call this a blueprint. Most neighborhood parks aren’t full of doctoral educated moms taking time off from the corporate grind. I think this is just gentrification — plain and simple. Neighborhood becomes more wealthy and they want their kids at the local school and pay to make it happen … [N]ow, the school has become a neighborhood school that is as elite as the private and magnet schools they maligned through most of the book. I would say the school is not really a place for learning for all, but a place for people who can afford to live in that zip code.

Isn’t that great? On the one hand we’ve got people like you, Mark, who think improving the public schools is impossible. On the other we’ve got sniffs like the above who assume that, once a school does improve, making it happen was a piece of cake — a matter of writing a few checks. If it were all that effortless every affluent neighborhood in town would have great public schools, and they manifestly don’t. Do middle-class advantages make the job easier? Absolutely. Do they make it easy? Go try it for a while. Then you tell me.

There’s no question that once a neighborhood public school becomes successful and everybody wants to send their kids there, things change. Blaine, for example, was one of the earliest north side schools to make the transition; Friends of Blaine was formed in 2002. At the moment the school’s ethnic makeup is a rich mix — although whites are the largest single group, the student body is predominantly minority.

But with an enrollment of more than 800, Blaine is approaching capacity. Up to this point the school has accepted students from outside the attendance boundaries; these students are mostly minorities. Inevitably their numbers will decline as they’re replaced by kids from within the boundaries, who are mostly white.

Something similar is happening at Nettelhorst — as with Blaine, the school has become a reason to move to the neighborhood. I’m told the lower grades are already full; someday the entire school will be. At present Nettelhorst’s diversity is one of its most attractive features — who can fail to be charmed by the rainbow coalition in the photo above? Eventually, though, most of the students will live within the attendance boundaries in a neighborhood that’s overwhelmingly white. The implications of that are a subject to be considered next week.

— Cecil Adams

Saturday, June 19: Supercharge your school in just six hours!

May 20th, 2010 by jacqueline

This free, one-day session will show you how. Whether you’re a lone parent who wants to create positive change at your school —or part of a well-organized group with solid experience—you can get deep, no-cost access to people who will provide you with practical ways to organize and drive more resources into your school. Schools across Chicago are discovering that parents and communities can create a better environment for their children, using proven techniques and approaches that anyone can learn.

During this one-day session, you’ll meet and get practical advice from volunteers and experts who have hands-on experience improving Chicago schools. Whether you’re just starting out, or have successes under your belt, there’s something for everyone. From building community, to setting priorities and finding and securing new funding resources and partnerships, to creating new programs and overhauling facilities — you’re just six hours away from understanding how to improve your school in ways that may have seemed unreachable. Topic areas include:

• How to energize parents and community to support your school.

• How to set up your own not-for-profit group, including take-home documents-How to set priorities in your school, and find sources of funding to achieve real results

• How to ask for donations, including proven, take-home examples of appeals, proposals and campaigns

• How to create partnerships with organizations that can bring you expertise and volunteers for almost any project you can envision-and much more.

Attendance is limited to the first 100 registrants, two maximum from each school; this event is organized and managed by parents of public school students, who have dedicated themselves to putting the resources you need in one place, for one fast-paced day, so you can get to work immediately improving your school. There’s no sales pitch, no catch. This truly is a free event to share experiences, secrets and networks that can improve your school and your child’s life.

It all takes place Saturday, June 19th. You’ll even get lunch.

Register now, before space runs out

Questions? Shoot an email to SchoolSymposium2010@gmail.com

Philly’s Andrew Jackson moms rock it out!

May 15th, 2010 by jacqueline

Last week, I met South Philadelphia’s version of Chicago’s Roscoe Park eight: the Passyunk Square moms.  Last Fall, this group of talented, scrappy moms joined together to form the the Passyunk Square education committee, with the goal of improving Andrew Jackson Elementary, one of the lowest performing schools in the city. While I was there, their story landed on the front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer! Now their  movement’s on School Superintendent Dr. Arlene Ackerman’s radar (she came to my talk at the Free Library of Philadelphia!). Thanks to today’s amazing press, I’ll wager that the Passyunk Square moms now have a cheering neighborhood behind them, too.

As I read the front page story to my kids, my son Zack (age 9) asked why, why, why was I was crying all over my toast and jam.

“There’s no crying at breakfast, mommy.”

The kid had a point, but here’s the back-story: As I’ve been touring the country for the book, I’ve heard all ton of really positive feedback, but it hasn’t all been a total love-fest. The most disturbing criticism I’ve heard so far is that few moms have the background or passion to fix their neighborhood school. And this gem, from an über-respected educational expert, and a woman no less:

“I’m sure you mommies are great, and that your little school is great, and kudos to your local efforts, but until this blueprint is brought to scale, your story really isn’t germane to the public policy debate.”

In a room crowded with super smart people, all I could stammer was, “Really? Gosh, I thought mommies had already gone to scale.”

Why do so many experts and policy wonks believe that parents can’t really impact school reform in any systemic way? Little mommies, HA! Have they even been to a neighborhood sandbox lately? Women change the world every day!

That said, at the end of the day, no mom—no matter how smart, creative, or energetic—wants to sell-out her own kid in the name of  some noble, political experiment. From personal experience, being an early adopters is a risk of faith, and not for the faint-hearted. Philadelphia mom, Marina Stamos, is wrestling with the decision to send her four-year-old son to Jackson Park Elementary in September. Her account in the local community paper talks about the fear of being the only idiot in the pool, an understadable fear that many neighborhood parents share.  If the Passyunk moms play their cards right, other parents will jump, too.  But for the first wave, it will be a matter holding hands, and deciding that, come hell or high water, they are going to make it work.

Philly’s Passyunk Square moms are proof positive that the neighborhood school blueprint is a good idea, not because a handful of type-A Philadelphia moms thought it up, or because their local superintendent is the very best educational leader on the planet, but because their collective vision makes intuitive sense. The road ahead won’t be all sunshine and unicorns; transforming a neighborhood school requires into a school of choice requires a ton of hard work and moxie, but it can be done, and it can be done in record time. Their local superintendent, Dr. Ralph Burnley, told me that he wants Andrew Jackson to be one the best elementary schools in the country. Double-down, and watch this team of moms knock it out of the park.

In Chicago, our crowd wasn’t a bunch of nuclear physicists building a reactor. This is doable stuff. Moreover, our experience reforming Nettelhorst wasn’t a one-off inspirational tale, like Ballroom Dancing or Dangerous Minds. Versions of our movement are springing-up all over the country, like pop-rocks. If you’re cooking-up your own neighborhood school renaissance, please shoot me an email. I’d love to hear your story.

I hope the the Passyunk Square story inspires parents across America to embrace their public schools.

Don’t all great revolutionary sparks start in Philadelphia?

Say NO TO 37!

May 8th, 2010 by jacqueline

No to  37! It’s not all sunshine and unicorns at Melrose and Broadway: budget cuts are poised to wreck havoc with all Chicago public schools. Illinois already ranks 49th in the Union for state spending for education (second only to Nevada). This is not just Chicago’s problem: in the coming year, all the children in Illinois face the possibility of a life-changing crisis.

Across Chicago and Illinois, students face a disastrous reduction in the quality of their educations — with class sizes reaching an unacceptable 37 students in Chicago, the elimination of Preschool for All and full-day kindergarten, teacher and assistant principal firings, and more.  There is no question that our kids’ lives will be forever impacted by what we — and our elected officials — choose to do in the coming months.

On April 21, report card pick up day, I dragged my kids and our new dog downtown to speak at the NO TO 37 Rally here at Chicago’s Thompson Center. I hope you’re shaking your head — or fist — at the thought of our kids’ future being jeopardized, please spend just 60 seconds to protect that future. Without hearing from you, state leadership will NOT do what’s right.

If you take one minute to visit www.noto37.org you’ll find an incredibly simple way to cast your vote for an entire generation. Don’t worry about finding your rep’s address or your district. Just select your Illinois school (you can just type in “Nettelhorst”), type in your name and address, and edit the provided text as you feel necessary. Please help Nettelhorst, and every school in the state, by saying NO to 37! This entirely volunteer/parent driven campaign has been up for just over a couple of weeks, and has already generated over 90,000 emails to legislators. The No to 37! site is the brainchild of our Nettelhorst hero, Ted Ganchiff, the fund-raising wizard  depicted in How to Walk to School—check out the coverage in the Chicago Tribune.

Don’t sit idly by while our kids’ education and quality of life are stripped away — let our leadership know that you are concerned. With elections coming up, you can also remind them that you’re watching to see who protects our kids and who doesn’t. 

There is strength in numbers. Forward this link to other parents who want the best education for their children, and refuse to see their child’s lives and futures put in jeopardy. In a few short months, when classes are overflowing, programs are cut, and teaching staff has been laid off, it will be too late. 

From Carbondale to Peoria, Rockford to Joliet, LaGrange to Wilmette, and all the towns in between, time is running out to save Illinois schools. Illinois legislators left Springfield without approving a budget, so we have three more weeks to keep the pressure on. When they return to the table, they will vote to slash education fundingunless they hear from you.

Please take ten seconds to add your voice. Say NO to 37!

Upcoming Events


Susan and I have a few joint presentations:

May 11: Lincoln School, 7:00 pm, 2001 W. Orchard

May 18: Belmont Neighbors, 7:30 pm, Mount Carmel, 720 West Belmont Ave

June 12 or 13: Chicago Tribune Printer’s Row Lit Fest, details TBA


June 15: I’ll be speaking at the City Club of Cleveland in partnership with the Cuyahogo Community College. Details will be posted on the How to Walk to School events page just as soon plans firm up.

Our Relentless Plea

Please, please help spread the word: become a fan on Facebook, share this email with your friends, follow walktoschool on Twitter, post a review on Amazon and other websites, and ask your local bookstores or libraries to stock the book.

The starting gun of the national education debate just sounded in the Capital, so we don’t have a moment to loose!

Nettelhorst School | Nettelhorst Community Group | Rowman & Littlefield Publishing, Inc.