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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.

You are Superman

October 12th, 2010 by jacqueline

As the teachers unions, politicians, and policy wonks duke it out over who’s really to blame for the crisis in American public education, normal people can respond to Waiting for Superman’s call to action with, guess what? Action.

The fate of public education is not beyond our control. How to Walk to School: Blueprint for a Neighborhood School Renaissance has a very simple message: Every kid, in every community, deserves a great neighborhood public school. I led eight moms in a Chicago diner to make our dreams come true.

Faced with the totally insane public/private school gauntlet that frustrates parents across America, my girlfriend and I ventured inside Nettelhorst, our neighborhood’s underutilized and struggling public elementary school to see just how terrible the place was. The new principal asked what it would take for us to enroll our children. Stunned by her candor, we returned the next day armed with an extensive wish list. The principal read our list and said “Well, let’s get started, girls! It’s going to be a busy year…”

We were eight park moms who galvanized neighborhood parents and then organized an entire community to take a leap of faith, transforming a challenged urban school into one of Chicago’s best, virtually overnight.

Each mom captained a team filled with parent recruits from our little park: infrastructure, enrichment, special events, PR, marketing, curriculum, and fundraising. Each team had to succeed concurrently to make the project work. By our lights, we had nine months to pull it off.

The infrastructure team enlisted local painters and artists to transform the neglected, 120 year-old building into pure magic, all with a budget of ZERO. Take a virtual tour. I promise, it will knock your socks off.

The enrichment team partnered with some of the city’s most respected enrichment providers for an innovative fee-for-service community school model. Every afternoon, scores of instructors come into the school to teach classes ranging from field hockey to belly dancing. We found a way to free the soccer mom!

The special events team worked to turn Nettelhorst into the heart of the community. We partnered with the Chamber of Commerce to host neighborhood events at the school, like the Halloween Hoopla and the Little Bunny Egg Hunt. We became a water station for the Chicago Marathon and started a weekly farmers market. In short order, our school became a go-to-destination, even if neighbors didn’t have kids.

Far and away, our biggest challenge was changing deeply entrenched community perceptions. Fortunately, our marketing and PR teams learned that you can rebrand and reposition a failing public school as easily as breakfast cereal.

Our principal gave the curriculum team carte blanche to review curriculum and financial plans, weigh-in on hiring decisions, and document teaching styles. Within two years of our reform movement, the school’s extremely toxic teaching climate improved dramatically and test scores tripled, across every demographic. My kids (age nine and 11) have attended Nettelhorst since preschool, and I’d put their education on par with any private school in the country.

When our team began fundraising in earnest, almost four years into the movement, we learned how to galvanize resources and create deep mutually beneficial partnerships. But as serious as our funding woes were, and continue to be, money didn’t power the Nettelhorst revolution. People did.

While the last seven years have been very good to my little school, the real story is that change can happen at any school.

While some skepticism is to be expected, the latest criticism I’ve heard has me apoplectic. This, from an über-respected education expert and a woman, no less: “I’m sure your little public school is great, and that you mommies have done a great job fixing it up, and that’s all great, but until your model is brought to scale, it really isn’t germane to the public policy debate on education.”

Are you kidding? I thought mommies had already gone to scale? Why do so many experts 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!

Make no mistake: change requires work. Our experience fixing Nettelhorst wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns. Reform is often messy and unpredictable. Our journey was a full-tilt crazy, hard, emotional rollercoaster, but overall, it was an immensely satisfying and joyful ride. And, the school itself is proof positive that our blueprint works.

We don’t need to wait for some fancy, new, educational initiative to fall from the sky. Here’s the secret: the superman your school is waiting for is you. YOU have the power to create change in your community from the ground up. Our crowd wasn’t a bunch of nuclear physicists building a reactor. This is elementary school, people. So, go see the movie, take any step on the United Way’s action plan, or better yet, gather up some friends, walk right into your neighborhood school, and ask the principal what you can do to help.

If eight park moms and one visionary principal could pull our little neighborhood school out of its twenty-five year nose-dive, surely others could do the same thing. If Waiting for Superman could spark a national grassroots school reform movement that would pull us all out of the giant mess we’re in, now wouldn’t that be something?

Reprinted in the Huffington Post
Nettelhorst School | Nettelhorst Community Group | Rowman & Littlefield Publishing, Inc.