Written by Corinne Garcia Tuesday, May 24 2011
Snapshot: Jacqueline Edelberg
In 2001, when Jacqueline Edelberg had a 2 ½-year-old daughter and another baby on the way, she was sitting in her neighborhood park talking to another mom friend about future school opportunities for their children. Living in the heart of Chicago, middle class families often shy away from sending their kids to the typically run-down, poorly funded neighborhood public schools. Instead they opt for costly private schools, magnet schools that are extremely difficult to get into, or a move to the suburbs.
That day, these women decided to stroll down to their neighborhood public school called “Nettlehorst” to see just how bad it was. That was the start of Edelberg’s quest to revive her neighborhood school. Featured on Oprah and coauthor of How to Walk to School: Blueprint for a Neighborhood School Renaissance, Edelberg is spreading the word on how others can reform their own community schools.
Womenetics: What happened that day you first visited Nettlehorst School?
Jacqueline Edelberg: We walked into the school, and the principal at the time, Susan Kurland, asked what it would take for us to send our kids here. We went home, opened a bottle of wine, stuck the kids in front of Dora, and started a list. The wish list was huge. At that point nobody in the neighborhood went to school here. If you’re really going to be in competition with private or magnet schools, you need to have a similar product. Susan read our list and said, “Let’s get going girls; it’s going to be a very busy year.”
Womenetics: Did you see the school’s potential?
Edelberg: We were walking around this 120-year-old red brick building, and the roof had recently caved in. Some friends at the time were thinking about founding a private school, and we thought, well, you could do that, but it was going to be a huge undertaking, and they didn’t even have a building yet.
Surely we could fix Nettlehorst. We had a beautiful old building, a principal who seemed welcoming and smart, a bare-bones budget, teachers of some caliber. By and large, the thought was that we had the raw materials to make it work. We didn’t know the extent of how bad stuff was. We knew test scores were in the 30s. It truly seemed crazy, but crazy and possible.
Womenetics: What was it really like when you got to know the school?
Edelberg: For starters, there was an extraordinarily toxic teaching environment. The school’s population was 100-percent minority, test schools were in the 30s, and there was a skittish neighborhood population that had to be won over. Fixing the real problems was easy. The perceptual problem, like convincing the community, took 70 percent of the effort.
For a variety of reasons parents have rejected public schools in the inner city. Most of the messages they get is that the neighborhood school is not a viable option. Most of the stories they hear are either really positive or they’re about drugs, gangs, and violence. The middle ground is a free-for-all. The information they have is that public school is not a great choice. How do you convince really skittish population to walk into the door and invest in their children?
Womenetics: How did you approach the work of changing perceptions?
Edelberg: We talked to a lot of clever people. You can rebrand, remarket, and reposition a children’s public school as easily as a cereal. We were very smart about messaging, communication, organization, and rebranding, and we took it really seriously.
The talent pool sitting around the park was extraordinary. Because women are having children later and have education and work experience behind them, those skills can be brought to improving the school. The old model that says you’re going to be making costumes for the school play is no longer always relevant.
We needed accountants, attorneys, and communication specialists. It started with two moms, then the Roscoe Park [their neighborhood park] Eight, and we all captained teams and packed those teams with people who wanted to help. We’d ask what their work background was. If they said “sales,” it was like, “OK you’re on the marketing team.” There isn’t anything that anybody does in life that couldn’t be turned toward the service of fixing the neighborhood public school.
Our Nettlehorst community group runs very much like a business. The fundraising team has a PowerPoint presentation ready for anything a donor might be interested in. They run like a type-A business.
Womenetics: Did the neighborhood eventually rally behind you?
Edelberg: What we did that was so radically different is we mobilized a neighborhood – the people who had a vested interest in seeing a school succeed. Parents with young kids have got to have a viable public school; businesses had a vested interest because they want families to stay in the neighborhood; and homeowners without kids benefit as their property values rise. By mobilizing these people we were able to work very fast.
Womenetics: How did you approach the other changes to the school?
Edelberg: Here’s the secret: Money’s not the answer. Money’s great, but engagement is the only thing that really matters. Our entire project for three years was a on a budget of nothing. We had donated paint, and we became expert dumpster divers.
If the place looked like a penitentiary, it wouldn’t work. Why would neighborhood parents walk in the door? If we could get them in the door and get people to come in and sit down, and it seemed vibrant and pretty, and they looked over and saw their kid playing, they might think this could work.
Think about all the effort that goes into making kids’ hospitals; that matters for kids’ schools as well. We knew we had to have a place where people feel like staying a while. If you don’t create the environment people won’t stay. So we worked on that a lot initially with bright paint and murals. We just made it so you couldn’t help but feel happy when you walked in.
Womenetics: Was there any resistance to the changes within the school?
Edelberg: It was rough, and it was hard work. I actually had a teacher spit on me as she walked by. We had a lot of resistance; change is hard for a lot of people. But we powered through. I’m a tenacious person. There’s a certain entitlement in that we believed what was best for our kids was best for everybody.
Womenetics: How can parents get more involved in their own neighborhood schools?
Edelberg: Without even leaving their house, they can go online and support a certain project on the website www.donorschoose.org. But the most important thing they could do is get a copy of the book, gather up a few friends, walk into their principal’s office and say, “Hi, we’re here to help – tell us what your dreams are for this place, and we’ll tell you ours, and let’s make it happen.”
Principals can’t do it by themselves. You can help them and help mobilize a community in short order. That would be the biggest help. The social media tools make that so much easier to do in a happy lighthearted way. We didn’t have that when we started.
We’ve all been told that public school is beyond our control. If people knew they had the power to fix the school on their corner, that it belonged to them, then I think we could see real systemic change.
Womenetics: How did you translate this concept into a book?
Edelberg: We started thinking we should make a book after about six years. I always saw things as a house of cards and was worried about things unraveling. But six years in, it was pretty well fixed and its own ball of energy. We could leave the experience and it would be like some urban lore, or we could turn our example into some kind of handbook to help others. If we could somehow translate our experience, other movements would have an easier time of it.
Womenetics: What do you see when you walk through Nettlehorst School now?
Edelberg: For starters, every bit of color on the walls, we’ve done. The environment is radically transformed. I walk through, and one-third of adults in the building are parents, people who’ve carved out time to serve all the children in the school. I see parents having meetings in the community kitchen with coffee, people are willing to stay and talk, and they feel safe and happy.
In the afternoons, we created a fee-for-service community school model. Instead of casting 700 kids into the universe, we invite instructors into the school to teach their craft. They teach kids at their normal rate and with some scholarships, but parents don’t have to leave work at 3 p.m. and drive kids to a piano lesson. So, at the end of the day, kids are still enjoying Nettlehorst, and the halls are bustling.
Edelberg’s blog appears on The Huffington Post.
Corinne Garcia is a freelance writer and editor living with her husband and two young boys in Bozeman, Mont. She has also written for Women’s Adventure, Christian Science Monitor, Northwest Travel, Pregnancy, Fit Pregnancy, and Fit Parent.