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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

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