“Nettelhorst School’s transformation from a struggling school into a vibrant educational community is an inspiration. I hope their story—a story of dedicated parents and innovative administrators—will embolden reformers across the country to step forward and take back their schools.”
—Richard J. Durbin, U.S. Senator for Illinois, Assistant Majority Leader
“An unbelievable change, from caterpillar to butterfly, and it happened right in my own backyard in Chicago. How to Walk to School moved me to tears…it’s one of the most absolutely beautiful, heartwarming stories I’ve read in a long time.”
—Nate Berkus, decorator and featured design expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show
When two gutsy moms ventured inside Nettelhorst, their neighborhood’s underutilized and struggling public elementary school, the new principal asked what it would take for them to enroll their children. Stunned by her candor, they returned the next day armed with an extensive wish list. The principal read their list and said “Well, let’s get started, girls! It’s going to be a busy year…”
How to Walk to School is the story—from the highs to the lows—of motivated neighborhood parents galvanizing and then organizing an entire community to take a leap of faith, transforming a challenged urban school into one of Chicago’s best, virtually overnight. Susan Kurland, Nettelhorst’s new and entrepreneurial principal, and Jacqueline Edelberg, the neighborhood mom, prove that the fate of public education is not beyond our control. How to Walk to School provides an accessible and honest blueprint for reclaiming the great public schools our children deserve.
Picture two real-life examples set in gentrifying neighborhoods in Chicago. In the first scenario, local parents convene a town hall meeting with the principal of their underutilized public elementary school. The families demand answers. The principal adamantly explains that despite the poor test scores, her school is still an appropriate choice. A representative from the public school board supports her argument with statistics and what the parents perceive as bureaucratic double-talk.
The frustrated community members, hearing no viable solutions to the school’s declining educational performance, become angry and cite their high taxes and diminished property values. Some question why their local alderman is MIA. One mother cradling an infant yells, “Just fix the damn place!” Another man complains that the principal is incompetent and should be fired immediately. The meeting further dissolves into name-calling, ad hominems, and bad blood. Everyone walks away wondering why no one in the room has taken responsibility for finding solutions.
In the second scenario, a group of parents hold a private meeting with the principal of their underutilized local public school. The well-meaning parents discuss the fact that although the school’s test scores have improved over the past several years, few neighborhood families are enrolling their children at the school. In case the principal does not fully appreciate just how poorly the community regards his school, the group confides that even the local alderman has given up hope that the school will pull out of its nosedive.
The neighborhood parents offer to volunteer their time and skills to help the principal transform the institution into a school of choice. As successful doctors, attorneys, government employees, and business consultants, these parents have considerable expertise to share. Despite their heartfelt appeal, the principal, unwilling to take a risk with his school, thanks the parents for their candor and generosity, and suggests other, “more suitable” schools for their children. The meeting ends. The parents, stunned and demoralized, leave with the realization that they now face the daunting process of private school interviews and magnet public school applications. The local public school drifts ever further into disrepair.
Versions of these two scenarios play out frequently in cities across the United States. Yet parents’ and principals’ inability to work together for the betterment of neighborhood schools makes little sense, given the steep challenges that face American education. State and federal funding for education continues to decrease. No Child Left Behind legislation threatens the closure of underperforming schools. Stretched budgets leave schools understaffed with underpaid, disheartened teachers, overcrowded classrooms, and crumbling infrastructures. The end result is that far too many students across the country are not receiving the education they need and deserve. But all too often, the very principals who desperately need help rebuff well-intentioned parents who pledge themselves to addressing these challenges.
Surely principals are aware that family engagement is one of the critical factors—if not the critical factor—in determining their school’s success or failure. Principals must know better than anyone that they need all the help they can get—which begs the question, why are struggling principals so reluctant to embrace local parents who offer to volunteer their time, energy, and expertise?
It is easy to imagine why the principal in the first scenario would choose not to work with the hotheaded parents. After all, a principal’s job is so taxing that she would be foolish to wittingly add more trouble to her already full plate. But why would the principal in the second situation refuse the help of solicitous parents who want to create a collaborative environment that would benefit everyone?
© Jacqueline Edelberg and Susan Kurland, excerpt from How to Walk to School: Blueprint for a Neighborhood School Renaissance
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