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Parent Power: One Supermom's story

How a Chicago mother helped turn her neighborhood school from mediocre to marvelous.

By Connie Matthiessen

It was as if Jacqueline Edelberg was planning to send her four-year-old to Iraq.

But no, the Chicago mother simply announced that she was thinking of sending her daughter, Maya, to Nettelhorst Elementary, a run-down and, by almost every measure, failing public school just two blocks away. The response from friends and family was shock. How could she risk her child's education like that? "When you mention your plans and your friends' faces turn ashen, or your family is horrified — this can't help but give you pause," she says. "When it comes to education, no one wants to sell their own kids out."

Even so, Edelberg was determined to give her local school a try. Her eclectic, largely gay, middle-class neighborhood has what Edelberg calls a "gritty, fun, urban, electric vibe." It was attracting young families, but not because of the schools. Nettelhorst wasn't dirty or dangerous, but it was dilapidated — the playground equipment dated from the 1950s, with shabby play structures and chain-link swings — and it had a bad reputation. One teacher was the subject of a restraining order for hitting kids. And year after year the school failed to raise test scores: Some 70 percent of kids were performing below grade level.

But unlike so many parents who flee when faced with disappointing public schools, Edelberg took the maverick's route. Her thinking: If parents like me don't commit to their neighborhood school, it's never going to get better. To see exactly what she was getting into, Edelberg visited the school for a glimpse behind the somber façade.

Makeover madness

It wasn’t a great first impression. The walls were dingy, the roof falling in. Everywhere she looked, there were signs with warnings about lice, loitering, and drug use. Still, Edelberg saw potential in the high ceilings and large windows. "The building had great bones," Edelberg says. "It looked like a school, and it smelled like a school. I remember thinking, 'There's a lot here to work with.' "

When she met Susan Kurland, the principal at the time, she got a question she wasn't expecting: What would it take to entice Edelberg to send her child to Nettelhorst? Edelberg and another parent returned the following day with their wish list: a bright, welcoming environment, new playground equipment, and a rich after-school program, among other things. "We were so green," Edelberg recalls. "It was the kind of list you'd come up with if you imagined the perfect school served to you on a plate."

Without missing a beat, Kurland responded, OK, let's get to work. 

Edelberg and a small group of parents began proselytizing to the larger community to enroll their children and help transform the school. Using GreatSchools’ recommendations of what to look for in a public school  as a guide (Full disclosure: We didn’t know about this when we decided to profile Edelberg.), they worked with Kurland to decide which school improvement projects to tackle first. The list recommends that parents check out the school bathrooms, for example. "We realized that bathrooms are something parents care about, so we needed to make the bathrooms sparkly and fun."

But such changes cost money, and at the time there was no support or enthusiasm for Nettelhorst. "No one wants to give money to help a failing public school," Edelberg says.

So they scrounged for what they needed. They became expert dumpster divers. "We picked up chairs, tables, whatever people were throwing out," Edelberg says. "We begged and borrowed. We'd ask the hardware store for a couple of cans of paint. We'd ask volunteers to paint a single classroom. We made friends with people who do the window displays at stores, and they'd offer us materials when they were done with them." It was an uphill battle, but it worked. “When you need everything, everything you get is perfect," she says.

Surviving a bad rep

Revamping the school's reputation turned out to be the hardest part. "The big things were easy to fix, like making the building beautiful," says Edelberg. "But fixing perceptions of Nettelhorst — that took 70 percent of our efforts, at least. You can't put a shingle out that says, 'Nettelhorst: It's much better than you think.' "

But Edelberg had one enormous advantage: parents' sheer desperation. There were few good public options in Chicago. The city has a handful of excellent magnet schools, but they are in such high demand that the odds of getting selected through the lottery are slim. (Edelberg quips that parents have a better chance of getting their high school senior into Harvard). Besides, the magnet schools are a long bus or car ride away from Edelberg's neighborhood. And for Edelberg and her posse of renegade parents, private school was financially out of the question.

But nine months after their first makeover meeting, they held an open house for the new-and-improved Nettelhorst and 78 families enrolled. "When it was over, my entire team cried — we just couldn't believe it," Edelberg recalls. "We knew once we had that small critical mass, more families would come, too. That's when I began to have faith."


A school transformed

Today, Edelberg's daughter, Maya, and son, Zack, are in sixth and fourth grade, respectively, and Nettelhorst is a thriving neighborhood school. No longer dilapidated, it’s bursting with color (walls adorned with murals and mosaics by local artists) and energy (weekend farmers' markets on the school grounds). Neighborhood families clamor to send their children to Nettelhorst.

A model of school reform, the school receives corporate donations and funds from foundations and Chicago sports teams, as well as in-kind support from artists, local chefs, and designers. And Edelberg has become a school-reform celebrity of sorts: She's appeared on Oprah, her blog runs regularly on the Huffington Post, and her book, How to Walk to School features enthusiastic blurbs by Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Chicago Mayor (and former White House Chief of Staff) Rahm Emanuel.

Is there a school makeover in your future?

When it comes to parent power, Jacqueline Edelberg may seem like an intimidating act to follow. But every step of the way, Edelberg had doubts. "Sometimes it all seemed like a house of cards. I'd wake up at night and . . . wonder, 'How are we going to pull this off?' "

In retrospect, she thinks it came down to a few key ingredients: Buy-in from the school principal and from the neighborhood — not just parents, but the community at large. Edelberg's team invited local groups and cultural organizations to offer afterschool classes and workshops, including dance, sports, martial arts, and jewelry making. They encouraged creativity — never micromanaging. When artists offered to help decorate the school, she recalls, "We'd tell them, 'No phallic or religious images. Beyond that, you can do what you want.' "


They created community spaces within the school, like the kitchen, where parents gather and teachers eat lunch. Besides the weekly farmers' market, the school hosts many neighborhood events — from film screenings to pick-up softball games.

"Nettelhorst has become the heartbeat of the community," Edelberg says. "We're trying to get back to the notion that public schools belong to the public — that idea has been lost."

Nettelhorst today

Despite its many successes, Nettelhorst still has its struggles. While test scores have improved since the turnaround, they remain well below those of Chicago's top public schools.

Critics have also attributed the Nettelhorst turnaround to yuppification, arguing that children who used to be bussed to Nettelhorst from poorer neighborhoods have been edged out. Edelberg counters that children were bussed in because no one in the area wanted to go there; now that neighborhood children are flocking to the school, there is little extra space. Indeed, Nettelhorst's student body remains fairly diverse — it is 40 percent white, 20 percent black, 20 percent Latino, with one-third of students  qualifying for free or reduced lunch and 23 languages spoken.

Edelberg is too busy spreading the word to worry much about Nettelhorst's critics. She still gives tours to prospective parents. She also travels nationwide to consult with parent and school groups, convinced that Nettelhorst's turnaround can be a blueprint for transforming other struggling schools.

"Every parent wants their child to go to a decent school," she says. "But people think there's nothing they can do unless they're Geoffrey Canada or Mark Zuckerberg. I want them to know this isn't true."


Comments from readers

"Ms. Edelberg have the love which enable her to transform the school to be great school. We need more parents and people to do something for society. The school now needs to slowly upgrade the academic level of their students. keep up the good work Ms. Edelberg. God bless you! "
"I love your energy, Ms. Edelberg. You are certainly an inspiration to other parents in this or similar situations. Thank you for caring enough about your children and community to make a difference."
"Is no one else troubled that a teacher under a restraining order for hitting children was actually still teaching in this school? Unions...all about protecting the teacher at the expense of the student. "
"Private and parochial schools have several significant advantages over public schools. 1) They can limit their class sizes. Public schools have to take all comers. If private schools had to scale up to handle class size fluctuation and 1000's of students, their costs would go up. 2) They can kick misbehaving and/or poor performing students out. Test scores go up, discipline problems go down, less costs for security. This country guarantees an education for everyone. 3) Their population is already pre-selected with parents who care enough about education to pay for it. Many, but not all, public school parents also care. IMHO, this parent took the best route (which is almost never the easiest one) and worked to FIX her local school."
"Scores are not everything and they are not indicative of school performance. I live in a upper middle class suburban area. All our schools are rated 10 by Great Schools and have the highest scores. BUT, our kids are not learning in the schools. Most if not all parents (some won't tell you the truth) are having their kids tutored after school. Many parents game the system this way. We've pulled our kids out. Test scores mean nothing. Actually teaching, creativity, learning, thinking skills etc, all those things that are so difficult to quantify on tests, those are what really matters."
"My son went to a charter school from first to fifth grade. It was the charter school that helped him, not the public school. The public school in our community kicks kids out of their IEPs and 504s. The charter school helped as soon as he went their school even without an IEP."
"Test scores are not everything. My children's school is helping build good human beings and teaching them to be stewards of their environment. The kids at their school are involved, creative, and learning to work together. Teachers are not teaching to the test and teaching our kids to be automotons. Find a school with high test scores and ask the kids if they like it. If they said yes you've found a miracle."
"How great to get into the community and lobby for the public school. Often charter schools and private schools skim the cream of the kids and leave the behavior problem and special needs kids out. Public schools HAVE to take all children and provide special services, so they do take money to run these programs. If all kids went to public school there would be plenty of money and the scores would go up too. God bless her for getting involved and making it better at that school for ALL the kids attending!"
"I enjoyed reading about this parent's brave, practical approach to improving her neighborhood situation. Thanks for sharing this story."
"The question is, how many African American and Latino parents got involved in helping with this effort. Or was it only a white middle class participation? How inclusive was this effort?"
"This is a great article - very inspiring story! So please take this comment with that in mind - I have to take exception with the inclusion of lice as one of the indicators that the school was in an neglected and dilapidated condition. As any health care professional will tell you, lice has nothing to do with being dirty or clean. It's no respector of persons - whether your school is well funded with a lot of parental involvement or not, at some point, lice is going to show up. In reading the article, I understand the author's point that signs posted all over the school with lice warnings added to the poor atmosphere, and certainly if lice is not dealt with, there is an element of neglect. It's the inclusion of lice in the headline advertsing the article that I have a problem with. There's already a lot of stigma associated with lice, and the poor kids who end up catching it are the ones who have to deal with it. Let's not add to it unecessarily. Thanks! - From a mom who, if you haven't already guessed, has had to deal with this problem at our well funded, brand new, high parental involvement elementary school :-)"
"You are an inspiration. This sounds like the kind of school I would send my child to if I lived in your area. Keep up the good work."
"What a beautiful and amazing story! Moms, dads, families, neighbors, communities...that's what it's all about!!! Awesome Jacqueline Edelberg!!! We all need to roll up our sleeves and make our world a better place!"
" example of one person having the vision to create the energy and commitment to bring about change. A story I will retell over and over...nothing is impossible...when the positive will of the people takres on a life of it's own. Thank you for setting the bar even higher for all of us working ech day to make our neighborhoods, region and word a better place."
"This is very like what we are doing at Pleasant Ridge Montessori in Cincinnati Ohio - a public NEIGHBORHOOD Montessori School. Step 1 - Engage, don't flee."
"Thought you all might find this article interesting/useful in the ongoing neighborhood school debate within NUSD. It's somewhat similar to what we are seeing at LV."
"How true. Parents have got to start to believe that they have the power to change schools that their local school districts do not want to invest in. Parents who come together and get other parents, community and people in the arts, etc. together, will make a change. I have worked in a star school and a dream school with many at risk kids. All children deserve to walk to school and feel a part of their community. That starts with the parents. You have to believe that you have the power to change what is happening with their child's school and their education. Don't give up. Believe and it will happen. I have realized that most parents do not know their rights, and that is one of the first things a parent needs to know and when that happens the empowerment of what can happen at a school is amazing. There are people that want to help but you need to understand your rights and your child's rights to a great education."
"My heartiest congratulations to Mrs Jacqueline Edelberg for leading the change. I am sure the effort can be emulated anywhere on the globe. The effort has global appeal. WELL DONE."
"Very encouraged by this article; however, if we can see an example of how a school made a radical turnaround in academic scores, please post. What was done was exciting to read about; however, I would still struggle to send my child to a school that did not provide a strong academic foundation."
"We move to Chicago from NYC about 2 years ago. By luck, we put Nettelhorst on our radar because we wanted schools that were not at the top of performance but maybe they were doing exciting and interesting things with their kids. We visited a TON of schools in Chicago and this school was the only one that stood out. We bought in the neighborhood and our kids not attend Nettelhorst. We could not be more appreciative of the efforts put forth but Jacqueline and her fellow friends. We love it here and look forward to helping Nettelhorst excell for years to come."
"It really helps if the school is in a great neighborhood to start with. Not to diminish the accomplishment, but I'll be impressed when someone does this in a truly depressed area."
"This is a public school right? It already gets local taxes, state funds and federal funding too... It coast more to operate than do parochial and most private schools..and the only solution is for outside sources of revenue? The solution IS the problem - the public model IS NOT WORKING. The only way to make the public model work is for it to be cpmpetative with all other schools. Until that happens it remains a bottomless pit."
"Thank you for your encouraging story. We to are trying to chg our school from a bullying situation to a safe place to learn. Unfortunately our principal is our main problem and stumbling block. To him fights, rock throwing, death threats and the like are not considered bullying. Help"