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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

Oprah-Waiting for Superman

September 22nd, 2010 by jacqueline

A few weeks ago, Oprah featured the powerful new documentary Waiting for Superman. Her panel included Bill Gates, David Guggenheim, and Michelle Rhee.  I was invited to bring our eight Nettelhorst moms to Oprah’s LIVE follow-up show from Chicago. It was quite a morning: Oprah, along with Governor Chris Christie, Mayor Corey Booker and Geoffrey Canada, applauded Mark Zuckerberg’s 100 million gift to the Newark public schools. Arne Duncan thanked him from Washington.

I should have left the Oprah taping elated. After all, we were part of a select group of education-minded Chicagoans who her producers thought would make-up a good audience (I peed in my pants when I got the call). We got to screen the movie the night before. Before the show, my friends and I danced the O-O-Oprah dance, which is pretty fun to do if you are actually in the studio. During the show, Oprah implored viewers to go to Waiting for Superman, a movie that everyone in America should see. In the taped discussion after the show, she called on our supermom Barri Liner for the first comment, and Bari managed to give a shout-out to Nettelhorst. And, you know, it’s O-p-r-a-h.

But no, I felt rotten. My friends were peeved that I couldn’t just enjoy the moment. No, I didn’t want to go to lunch and celebrate. I wanted to go home and sulk.

Here’s my problem: Oprah had spent a whole hour, actually more if you count the after-show, without offering a real game plan for what her viewers could do to help. It’s fantastic that Mark Zuckerberg donated a 100 million to Newark schools, and it’s laudable that Oprah handed out seven million-dollar gifts to high-performing schools just days before. Yes, Geoffrey Canada is a force of nature. But, most people don’t have millions of dollars burning a hole in their pocket, or the resources to transform all of lower Manhattan.

Imagine if Oprah had emphatically directed all her millions of viewers to the United Way’s Waiting for Superman action page?  Imagine if all those people clicked on Donors Choose, searched for their local neighborhood school, and committed to support a teacher’s project proposal? What if everyone followed-up with a call to the school, asking the teacher what else she needed? What if people all over the country took it a step further, and decided to gather-up a some friends, march right over to their neighborhood school, and ask the principal what they could do to help?

The United Way has endorsed our blueprint. So has the national PTA. Groupon, Free Range Kids, and Mamapedia, have been super helpful getting the word out. There’s no one magic bullet to fixing education, but if normal people knew that they had the power to create change in their own community, I think we’d have a huge part of the problem licked.

Nate Berkus Opens the Nettelhorst Community Kitchen

September 14th, 2010 by jacqueline

Hooray! This morning, thanks to Nate Berkus, Nettelhorst has a brand spanking new teaching kitchen! Congressman Mike Quigley, State Representative Sara Feiganholtz, and Alderman Tom Tunney helped cut the ribbon on a kitchen that came to fruition by sheer goodness–HUGE thank you to Pottery Barn, Home Depot, the amazing team at Nate Berkus and Associates, and all the Nettelhorst parents and community members who helped make the dream become reality. Check out these amazing photos!

Top Chef winner Stephanie Izzard and acclaimed chef Lorin Adolph prepared breakfast for guests, parents, donors, and the eighth graders–super delicious dutch oven pancakes, fruit with mint, frittatas, and fresh orange juice. Tom Tunney even joined on as sous chef. YUM!

The Nettelhorst Community Kitchen represents everything we have been striving to create these past few years. A warm and welcoming place, where parents, students, teachers, and community members can come together and celebrate food and each others’ company. THANK YOU NATE!!

Take a virtual tour of Nettelhorst. I promise, it will knock your socks off.

The Stanley Cup Comes Home

June 17th, 2010 by jacqueline

Yeah! We won! Yeah! We won! Yeah! We won the Stanley Cup!!

So grateful that Nettelhorst students could share this thrilling journey with the Blackhawks!

Every kid deserves a hero.

The Front Page of the Chicago Sun Times

The Front Page of the Chicago Sun Times

More from Cecil Adams: the Straight Dope Chicago, Part Two.

June 3rd, 2010 by jacqueline

Should we just dump the worthless Chicago public schools and start over?
June 3, 2010 – part 2 of 2 parts

To the Teeming Millions:

In last week’s column we established that (a) contrary to popular opinion, not all Chicago public schools sucked, and (b) to the extent that a given school did suck, getting it turned around was far from impossible, provided middle-class resources could be brought to bear. This week we take up the logical followup question: what happens when a Chicago public school in a largely white, middle-class neighborhood becomes successful and all the local parents send their kids there, crowding out minorities who live farther away? (You’ll excuse me for using the same photo, but it nicely illustrates the issue, and if ever a picture were worth running twice, this one is it.)

Cecil Adams

I purposely raised the subject of urban diversity with Jacqueline Edelberg over martinis at a sidewalk cafe down the street from Nettelhorst school, which she had been instrumental in helping revive. I knew what I’d see. It was a pleasant night and the East Lake View neighborhood was out in force — gay couples, parents with strollers, people walking their dogs. (And yes, if I’d studied the passersby assiduously enough, no doubt I’d have seen some gay parents with dogs.) City neighborhoods don’t get much livelier than this, nor, from a certain of view, more diverse. Nettelhorst school reflects that diversity — at least it does now. The question I spent a couple hours debating with Edelberg was whether it always would. I was skeptical. History suggested city diversity was ephemeral, the sign of a neighborhood in transition, and that the school’s delightful mix was only a lucky accident, destined soon to evaporate, as had happened everywhere else.

Whether any substantial number of people would care I don’t know. Some certainly would, including most of the parents I spoke to who were trying to improve their local schools. For them the diversity of the big city was one of its great attractions. A few days earlier Edelberg and I had watched the variously hued collection of kids playing kickball in the schoolyard at Nettelhorst. We had essentially the same take on the scene: this is the future, or one possible future. This is what the world ought to be like.

But you can make the case that by our very presence we were ensuring it wouldn’t be. Benjamin Schwarz writes about this in the current Atlantic. His subject is a couple recent books claiming New York has lost its soul: once it was a vibrant mix of working class folk, bohemians, and creative strivers; now it was a wasteland of yuppies sipping lattes at Starbucks. Schwarz was scornful of such talk. His contention, brutally simplified: New York’s golden age lasted from the time the first proto-gentrifier moved in till the last working-class family moved out.

Chicagoans have fewer illusions on that score, I venture to say. You hear occasional complaints that Michigan Avenue has been ruined and that kind of thing. But I think most would agree that to the extent Chicago has ever had a golden age, we’re in it now. Fifty years ago the city was provincial, segregated, and frankly pretty dull; today it’s more cosmopolitan.

You see this in the schools. Fifty years ago a Chicago kid might get through grade school without ever laying eyes on a student of a different race. Today, although neither the city nor the schools are models of integration, CPS students are likelier to encounter a range of cultures, languages and ethnicities. It’s tempting to believe the kaleidoscope of backgrounds at schools like Nettelhorst or Blaine is the steady state, the natural result of the mixing that occurs in a crossroads city.

But that may be wishful thinking. Diversity in the magnet and selective enrollment schools is maintained by a conscious policy of differential admissions (this is now based on things like geography rather than race). The enrollment process in neighborhood schools for the most part is simpler — they accept any student living within their attendance boundaries. The rich ethnic and economic mix seen in some schools today is a consequence of rising middle-class participation. At all four public elementary schools I looked at in my first column — Blaine, Nettelhorst, Ravenswood, and Waters — the number of white students has gone up while the number of minority and low-income students has gone down. But the transition isn’t complete. These schools are in neighborhoods that are mostly affluent and white. It’s not unreasonable to think eventually their students may be too.

To be sure, that hasn’t happened yet, and perhaps it won’t. At Blaine, an excellent school that from all signs has been embraced by its middle-class community, the low-income rate is 25 percent, which most suburbanites would consider shockingly high. More than half the students are minorities. Yet the percentage meeting or exceeding state standards is routinely in the 90s and sometimes is 100. Two lessons may be drawn from this. First, while middle-class participation is undoubtedly an asset, the quality of a school, as evidenced by test scores, isn’t strictly related to affluence. Second, while it’d be naive to think all middle-class city parents prize diversity in the schools, experience suggests they’ll at least tolerate it if their kids get a good education.

But school diversity may be fleeting. The high percentage of low-income students in schools in middle-class neighborhoods stems from the fact that an underenrolled magnet cluster school may draw students from outside its attendance boundaries in order to fill the seats, and poor minorities account for the bulk of the students in the pool. As the locals return, there’s less room for outsiders.

And of course you want more locals. Edelberg’s book is entitled How to Walk to School — a throwback concept in the age of the SUV, but nonetheless every city parent’s dream. No more driving to school! No more driving to play dates! Put it this way: if you’re a big-city mayor and you get the neighborhood school thing working, your town’s future is secure.

But a school’s success may make it less diverse over the long run. Middle-class parents (or prospective parents) move into the neighborhood because of the school, pushing up rents and home prices; eventually low-income residents are forced out. Chances are the school will never become as homogenous as a suburban school, because city neighborhoods generally have a wider range of housing types and prices and in some cases more affluent minorities. Lincoln Park today remains 15 percent minority and Lake View 20 percent, compared to less than 4 percent for Winnetka. The fact remains that these mostly gentrified communities are overwhelmingly white. Who’s to say the diversity in their schools will last?

Jacqueline Edelberg didn’t have much patience with this concern, and I suppose I can’t blame her. It’s a little perverse to fret about a possible Caucasian skew at a time when the CPS student population is only 9 percent white. Nonetheless, if you think diversity is worth having, it’s something to think about — I’m not sure the engaging mix in schools like Nettelhorst and Blaine will survive without some cultivation. I have no advice at the moment on how that might be accomplished. But I’d hate it to be said, a generation from now, that we had the opportunity, and we let it slip away.

— Cecil Adams

Go Blackhawks!

June 1st, 2010 by jacqueline

In Chicago, we’re all a buzz about the Stanley cup. Last week, Nettelhorst’s Pep Rally for the Blackhawks was broadcast live on WGN. As I watched our kids whiz around our new field hockey field on the news-clip, the broadcaster’s line “Nettelhorst, the official school of the Chicago Blackhawks!” stopped me cold.

The Pep Rally was the culmination of three years of hard work. Last year, we were over the moon when we unveiled our new Blackhawks’ fitness room to the press. Watching the seamless fitness room launch, or the Pep Rally, or even the announcement of the partnership at Principal for a Day, it might seem as though events like these just fall from the sky. They don’t.

The success of the Blackhawk partnership–from the fitness room, to the hockey league, to the Health and Wellness initiative–rests on the hard work and dedication of Nettelhorst parents, from the inception, to the hustle, to the follow through. No doubt, we were extraordinarily lucky that our Alderman, Tom Tunney, made the initial introduction with Blackhawks President John McDonough, but after that, the school needed to deliver. And it did, in spades.

How to Walk to School provides a blueprint for how any school community can leverage resources and cultivate public/private mutually beneficial partnership. If you’re in Chicago, the Nettelhorst Community Group is offering a free, one-day session to show you how. Register now, before space runs out! Questions? Email SchoolSymposium2010@gmail.com

The Hawks won their second game last night, but even if we don’t win the Stanley Cup this year, the team’s already won every award in our book. And, we’ve got 650 excited public school kids to prove it.

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.