Photo by: Mural by Anita Prentice

A Neighborhood School Renaissance

Photo by: Mural by Anita Prentice

When I wrote How to Walk to School, Blueprint for a Neighborhood School Renaissance, I never envisioned the enthusiasm with which it would be received. In my travels over the past year, I’ve found that creating wonderful schools for our children is not just a priority for moms nationwide — it’s a mission, a passion. Here is our story:

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 this place was. The new principal, Susan Kurland 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. Susan read our list and said “Well, let’s get started, girls! It’s going to be a busy year…"

We were eight 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.

When we arrived on the scene, the school looked like a penitentiary, but the 120 year-old building had great bones. Neighborhood parents, teachers, students, and business owners rolled up their sleeves and got to work, all with a budget of ZERO. Today, there isn’t an inch of the school that hasn’t been licked by a neighborhood artist. It’s delicious. See the Youtube video

While the last seven years have been very good to my little school, Nettelhorst, 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 me? 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!

So many stars are in alignment right now. When I was in DC in September, I met with staff of all the democratic Senators on the Education Committee, and change is in the air: PBS just aired a documentary that follows two Chicago principals through the academic year. The call for universal preschool is getting louder as Jumpstart’s Read for the Record adds some real star power. Innovative empowerment zones, like the Harlem Children Zone, and charters, like Kipp and Tim Knowles’ U of C schools, point to new willingness for policy makers to think outside the box. And, with backing from the Department of Education, Community Schools (of which Nettelhorst was Chicago’s first), are poised to become the national model. At long last, it seems as though our country is on the cusp of real school reform.

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.

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.

Our blueprint is not a one-size-fits-all model: our locally based, self-sustaining, fee-for-service community school readily translates to almost any urban or rural setting. It’s locally based, non-partisan, community-driven, old school, proven, and virtually FREE.

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 roller coaster, but overall, it was immensely satisfying and joyful. And, the school itself is proof positive that our approach works.

If eight park moms could pull our little neighborhood school out of its twenty-five year nose-dive, surely other driven moms could do the same thing.

And, if we can 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?

I’ll be in DC: On Mon., January 25th, at Busboys and Poets in partnership with DC Voice and Teaching for Change, 6:30 to 8 PM, 2021 14th St. and V. Busboy and Poet is a super hip bookstore, with a hopping restaurant and bar. If the prospect of booze on a weeknight isn’t enough to drag you out after work, C-span will be broadcasting the event on Book TV!

Jacqueline Edelberg has been the driving force behind the Nettelhorst School’s dramatic turn around, a story that has been featured on Oprah and Friends, NPR, CNN, 60 Minutes, Education Weekly, and in the local Chicago media. Before devoting herself to art, community organizing, and cutting the crusts off bread, Jacqueline taught political science at the university of Osnabrueck in Germany on a Fulbright.

How to Walk to School Blueprint for a School Neighborhood Renaissance is available on

Editor’s Note: Moms, please add your thoughts about how have or could help your child’s classroom/school, and Teacher Moms, please suggest ways parents can lend a hand. Thank you!

Like This Article

Like Mamapedia

Learn From Moms Like You

Get answers, tips, deals, and amazing advice from other Moms.


What an amazing and fruitfull journey you are all on. The biggest thing that stands out is that you have realized that parenthood does not take a break when your child walks out the door for school and start up again when they come home. The condition of your childrens education flows over into the community and all through the country. You certainly respect yourself, your child, your city and the buildings and people that make up it up...

See entire comment

This sounds like a great adventure and I will be looking for the book. My children aren't quite school age yet. But some of my friends are talking about homeschooling and it just doesn't make sense to me (except in some very specific situations). I can teach my children a lot but never everything they need to know. They need to learn more than academics, they need to learn how to get along with teachers and peers and learn in different settings...

See entire comment

I want to add that this is not only and educational and social issue but an extremely economic one as well! Please read The The Two Income Trap by Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren Tyagi. The demand for a wonderful neighborhood school is high and the supply is low. So guess what: we as families are stretching way beyond our means to buy into a neighborhood with a great school...

See entire comment

I clicked on the link to purchase the book, but would prefer to purchase the Kindle version. I noticed there is a Kindle version on Amazon, but would prefer that Mamapedia receive the affiliate commission. Can you please add the Kindle version (if possible) to your aStore and then provide the link? thanks

I really think that the emphasis should be on math, reading, science. I was at Nettelhorst last year for a visit...

See entire comment

Leave a Comment

Required (will not be published)
Required (to prove you're human)
Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on topic and not abusive
For Updates and Special Promotions
Follow Us
Want to become a contributor?
Want to become a contributor?

If you'd like to contribute to the Wisdom of Moms on Mamapedia, please sign up here to learn more: Sign Up

Recent Voices Posts

See all