Photo by: Minibigs

YOU are Superman

Photo by: Minibigs

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 powerful call to action with, guess what? Action.

The fate of public education is not beyond our control. My book, 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 cultural, recreational, and academic 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 eleven) 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?

To learn more, check out How to Walk to School

Jacqueline Edelberg is a community organizer, writer, and nationally recognized fine artist. Her earlier posts are: A Neighborhood Renaissance, How to Get Involved to Improve Your Child’s School, and How Enticing is Your Neighborhood School? Create Some Chemistry.

Editor’s Note: This is the second post in our Spotlight on Education, and it originally appeared on The Huffington Post.

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YES!!!!! *uproarious applause* that's what I've been talkin' about for a couple of years now!!!! I'm thrilled to know others out there are doing it! You are fortunate to have found a team of believers. I've talked to many a people about this and have been met with the same faithless naysaying that the "grand scale" educator spouted at "your little public school". Kudos to you for writing this with the same impassioned tone I feel and often use to speak about this...

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If parents got involved only half as much as you got involved in their children's education all across this country, many of the problems facing public schools would go away.

Yes! As a public school teacher and NEA member, I welcome parents as parents are the KEY to successful kids. The other key component that is crucial was the small neighborhood school. Schools that are too large, it is too easy for people to become lost. These large schools become factories, not communities in which people learn. Parents and educators must works together within the community to not only give their kids the best, but also demand the best from them...

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Now if only we can overturn No child left behind. Who wants to start a petition?

I enjoyed the article! I know I will be one very involved mom in my kids classroom and I know I will be butting heads with anyone who crams curriculum and focuses on "the test" rather than teaching these kids the basics and teaching them well. (My child enters kinder next fall)...

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What a wonderful article. I too struggle with what i can do with my child's School. What I have found in the last 4 years of being involved in my child's school is the need, no make that the requirement that all parents particiapt in some shape or form in the school.
As a full time working, single-mom. I cannot provide the time necessary to make the changes that was presented in this article. I have, however particiapted in many ways that I can...

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Wow, what a great story! For those of us who have fought the entrenched public school bureaucracy in our communities, and finally gave up and sent our kids to private schools, we are in awe.

The biggest barriers are sometimes not educational, but political, and I'd love to know how you overcame those. And what happens when your kids transition from elementary to middle and high school? Are the same transformations possible?

Fascinating and inspiring story.

My neighbor has 3 kids @ Nettelhorst and suggested I buy your book. I am just about 30 pages in - but am so inspired and impressed by what you did for that school but more so what you want to do for OTHER SCHOOLS.

My daughter attends COONLEY in North Center and that school also has recently turned around with neighborhood support and an awesome principal...

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Parents are the most important part of kids getting a good education. Communities wouldn't have to jump thropugh so many hoops to raise funds if the schools weren't so heavy in non-teaching personnel. My kida school has more administrators, councelors, etc than teachers. Far more money is spent on non-teachers and non teaching expenses (busing, etc) than on educating our kids. We could even reduce taxes if we went back to the staffing levels of 50 years ago when kids got a better education.

Thanks everyone for your kind comments!

If you're in Chicago, I'll be speaking on Oct 17, Sun, 3:00 p.m., in Hyde Park, at the Church of St. Paul & the Redeemer, 4945 S. Dorchester, and then, on Oct 28th (time TBA), at the Power of Parents Conference, McCormick Place. If you're in Baltimore, I'll be at Enoch Pratt Free Library, Wheeler Auditorium of the Central Library, 3rd floor, on Jan 19, Wed, 7 p.m...

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Parents should be the number one driving force in their childs education. So many parents work hard teaching their kids the basics getting them ready for kindergarten, then stop cold turkey when once they enter school. I am a teacher at a school with excellent parent involvement. Although I think we have excellent teachers, it is the parent support that has made a top ranked public high school.

Wow! What you, your friends and the principal did can be repeated in other schools across this country! Your enthusiasm and can do attitude come through even though you obviously had some bumps and opposition. Parent involvement IS the key. There will always be the "expert" naysayers who are threatened to have the "power" out of their hands...

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I absolutely applaud your efforts and accomplishments. But as much as I agree that parental involvement can work wonders, I also think (and realize I haven't read your book, just this article) that in your situation, there were a variety of factors that you were fortunate enough to have work out for you. The biggest being a receptive and visionary principal. The second being an army of parents to fill committees...

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This is amazing!

I am finding a new problem with my child's school! He entered kindergarten, and we are lucky enough to have him in the Frisco (TX) school system, which is THEORETICALLY one of the best (with very wealthy funding from that city). People move there SO their kids will go there. And we are in a brand new school, just opened this fall.

BUT: I had parent/teacher conference this week (Monday night)...

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Wow! I too am inspired. I too believe in neighborhood schools where parents are the impetus to change and get involved. Students today need a small student to teacher ratio to learn critical thinking skills and hold their varied interests. We have the knowledge to teach to varied learning styles, but need the time to plan and implement such curriculum. Keep the revolution alive!

Congratulations - both on improving your school and publishing your book (which I'm ordering today). I know firsthand what work you've done and having the tenacity to see it through is remarkable.

I see the comments here and wonder why everyone thinks that your story is so different from theirs. Every single school (public, private, charter, etc.) can benefit from organized reform. Every single school can benefit from focus on student achievement...

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