Hey Readers! Here’s an inspiring post by Jacqueline Edelberg, former Fulbright scholar and now author of How to Walk to School: Blueprint for a Neighborhood School Renaissance , foreword by Arne Duncan and afterword by Rahm Emanuel (with whom I went to elementary school!). Her story on turning around a school has been featured on NPR, CNN, 60 Minutes — a lot of media. But I hadn’t heard of it till now, and I’m so glad she dropped a note!
In my New York neighborhood, something similar did indeed transpire: A miserable school became an enviable one, with parents who’d shunned it now dying to get their kids in. It was an unswerving principal, Anne Marie Carillo, who did it for us. As you’ll see in the following essay, big change can also start with a group of fed-up moms.
You Can Make Your School Great, by Jacqueline Edelberg
My book 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 get 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.
The eight of us each captained a team: infrastructure, PR, marketing, curriculum, enrichment, special events, and fundraising. After nine months, we hosted our first Open House: 300 neighborhood families came, and 78 kids signed up for preschool that day!
How do you turn a neighborhood school into the heart of the community? Equal measures of elbow grease, hustle, moxie, some smoke and mirrors, and luck.
The infrastructure team recruited artists to transform the neglected, 120 year-old building into pure magic, all with a budget of ZERO. Take a virtual tour. It will knock your socks off. [Lenore’s note: It did!]
The enrichment team developed an innovative fee-for-service community school model in which established cultural purveyors come into the school to teach their craft. Instead of casting 650 kids out into the universe afterschool, why not invite 30 instructors to come to the school? Clever us, we found a way to free the soccer mom!
The special events team convinced the Chamber of Commerce to host all community events at the school: Halloween Hooplas, Little Bunny Egg Hunts, Pet Fests, you name it. We also started a Farmer’s Market with Bensidoun USA. The idea was to put “going to” and “Nettelhorst” in the same sentence, which hadn’t happened in 30 years.
Meanwhile, the PR and marketing teams worked over-drive to change community perceptions. We learned that you can re-brand and reposition a failing public school almost like cereal. The good news is that it’s not like you’re selling Ho-Hos or Twinkies: a viable public school is something that everyone desperately wants. Still, it took some work convincing a skittish population that viable doesn’t mean perfect. Did any of us have a perfect elementary school? Even though Nettelhorst just needed to be “good enough,” the process of so many creative minds coming together created a school that has become much more than the sum of its parts.
Money didn’t drive our efforts. Funny, nobody wanted to give money to a failing Chicago public school, and the park moms were already investing sweat equity, so we quickly disbanded the fundraising team. However, three years in, it’s back. That’s because we learned how to galvanize resources and create deep mutually beneficial partnerships. Now our development team rivals any private school. But, it wasn’t money that powered the Nettelhorst revolution. People powered it.
While the last seven years have been very good to my little school, the real story is that this 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.”
Are you kidding? I thought we mommies already had 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!
But we don’t need to wait for some fancy new educational initiative to fall from the sky. 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.
Everybody thinks that American education is so messed up, that there isn’t anything that people possibly do to fix it. But, that’s not true. There’s a ton of stuff we can do. It’s just a question of figuring out a game plan, and then putting one foot in front of another and doing it. Together.
Make no mistake: change requires work. Our experience fixing Nettelhorst wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns. Change is often messy and unpredictable. Our journey was a full-tilt crazy, hard, emotional rollercoaster, but overall, it was immensely satisfying, joyful work. And, the school itself is proof positive that our approach works.
If eight park moms could pull our little neighborhood school out of its 25- year nosedive, surely other driven moms — and dads — could do the same thing. If we 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? — Jacqueline Edelberg
Lenore’s note: Yes!
For more info, please go to howtowalktoschool.com.
P.S. (From Lenore): Some folks are suggesting that this kind of activism is not Free-Range, but it very much is. Free-Range is all about COMMUNITY. The more we build it, the more we interact with our neighbors and neighborhood, the safer everyone feels and the more willing we are to let our kids out into it. It’s that “olden days” feeling everyone longs for.
And who would ever argue against helping to create a good, local public school? It’s like arguing against Popsicles, puppies and summer! L.