Nettelhorst Elementary School’s Remarkable Turnaround

THE MOM BRIGADE: Nettelhorst was a failing educational backwater in Lake View when some determined moms got involved—and sparked a tremendous improvement

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A mural inside the school
A mural inside Nettelhorst Elementary school

 

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On a windy morning this past fall, 20 parents gathered inside Nettelhorst Elementary School in east Lake View, some with paper coffee cups and notebooks in hand. Greeting them was Jacqueline Edelberg, an apt choice for a guide given that the 43-year-old mother of two spearheaded the school’s remarkable turnaround and wrote a book about the experience.

With her auburn hair pulled back into a ponytail, Edelberg lifted a black-and-white tote bag bearing the words “Obama, Hope, Change” over her shoulder and ushered the group down the hallway. “Everything you see with an ounce of color, we’ve done,” she told the parents, explaining how, roughly a decade ago, eight mothers set out to perk up their ailing neighborhood school.

What began as a quick six-month makeover—painting halls, floors, doors, and walls and renovating the school library—evolved into what some call “the Nettelhorst revolution,” and it’s now one of the more celebrated tales in Chicago urban education. An early stop on the tour showcased one of the newest—and most impressive—parent-propelled capital improvements: a $130,000 kitchen designed by Nate Berkus, complete with stainless-steel appliances from Home Depot and white wooden tables and black chairs donated by Pottery Barn. “This is nicer than my kitchen,” Edelberg quipped.

The group then traveled to the French-bistro-inspired cafeteria, accented by a long mural of a café scene with boxes of faux flowers in the painted windows. Edelberg drew attention to the colorful soundproofing pads (donated by a dad) and the surround-sound system (donated by Audio Consultants) that pipes in jazz or classical music during lunch. “Wow, how amazing is this?” one woman asked her husband. Edelberg continued on, explaining how one parent was working on placing solar panels atop the school.

Later the group passed another colorful mural, donated by the National Museum of Mexican Fine Arts, and visited the so-new-it-still-smells-like-paint science lab, christened recently by Rahm Emanuel and funded by grants of $100,000 from U.S. Cellular and $50,000 from the Anixter Family Foundation. Then it was on to the air-conditioned gym, where a class of kids was shrieking, running, and laughing during a game of shark. There, the touring families saw a glimpse of the $100,000 fitness center, made possible by a donation from the Chicago Blackhawks: It’s filled with treadmills and exercise bikes, which are connected to flat-screen televisions equipped with Nintendo Wii games. There are stations where students can play the interactive video game Dance Dance Revolution. “Look at this,” one dad whispered. “Oh. My. God.” Pointing toward the bikes, Edelberg explained, “The TVs only turn on when the kids start pedaling.”

Parents would be hard pressed to find a smart fitness center or gleaming community kitchen in many other public schools in Chicago—in fact, some local schools don’t even have gymnasiums, auditoriums, or libraries. By many measures, Nettelhorst is an exception. Just 11 years ago, the facility at Broadway and Melrose Avenue was a failing school on the verge of closing. Shunned by the surrounding neighborhood (not one child who lived nearby attended), it was a catchall for kids from other, overcrowded schools, 90 percent of whom were considered below poverty level. Test scores showed that only 30 percent of students performed at or above grade level.

Then, in 2001, Edelberg and seven other determined moms teamed with the principal at the time, Susan Kurland, to turn the school around. “Desperate women will do all kinds of things,” Edelberg says. “We just wanted Nettelhorst to be viable. What has happened has surpassed my wildest dreams.”

Today the pre-K-to-8 school, with 632 students, is held up as a model of public education revitalization. So many neighborhood children attend Nettelhorst that the school rarely takes students who apply through the Chicago Public Schools lottery. Most important, test scores have jumped dramatically. In 2001, roughly 35 percent of students met or exceeded state math and reading standards; by 2010, the rate had jumped to 86 percent. Meanwhile, the demographics shifted. In 2001, the majority of students came from poor neighborhoods. Now about one-third of the students live below poverty level, according to data on a 2010 state report card.

In a city where mothers in Pilsen staged a month-long sit- and sleep-in to campaign for a school library, Nettelhorst serves as an example of what a committed group of parents can achieve. “You’ve got a community seizing the reins of a school,” says Timothy Knowles, director of the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute. “That’s a very powerful story for how more Chicago schools might flourish.”

But a decade into the experiment, Nettelhorst has found that the fiercest fundraising campaigns and the most involved families can only do so much. Despite the donations and the parade of politicians, Nettelhorst has yet to break into the top tier of elementary schools academically, with its test scores lagging behind some of its stronger-performing neighbors.

Principal Cindy Wulbert knows she has work to do. “We need to increase rigor,” she says.

In fact, according to Knowles, landing the nationally syndicated talk-show host Nate Berkus may be easier to orchestrate than a 10 percent increase in test scores. “There’s no doubt it’s easier,” Knowles says. “To improve a building you need money and clout,” whereas to exact educational change you need strong leadership, committed teachers, and parental involvement. “It doesn’t happen overnight.”

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Photograph: Anna Knott

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4 years ago
Posted by carolynfeig

Hello,
A friend who lives in Chicago and is an alumna of Nettekhorst sent me her hard copy of this article. I too am an alumna of Nettelhorst and would like a copy of the January issue of Chicago magazine with the article. Please tell me how I can purchase just one issue.
(I live in Maryland.)
thanks. Carolyn Feigenbaum

4 years ago
Posted by adiatc

This is wonderful! This can happen to schools on the south and west sides of Chicago if the parents cared about their children's education! Stop making excuses and expecting the government to bail you out! You have to demand and work to change!

Too bad many of those parents on the other sides of town won't read this.

4 years ago
Posted by sir arthur spamley

The moms were writing curriculum! That's hilarious, and incorrect. The author of the article apparently believes that alignment, sequencing, pedagogy, and compensatory strategies are innate to mothers. I love that the teachers threw out the peaches. I'm sure they were like, "Peaches? Fresh peaches? Those are too good for my little slaves." Then the teacher took a bite, spit it into the face of an average genius school administrator mom, and dumped them onto the roaches she kept in the garbage can.

I'm sure the mom's raised money and did something with a kitchen designer. They probably worked out some or even most of the painting. But don't get crazy here. I think having a few more middle and upper middle income students probably helped just a little. I should also point out that gains in test scores at this middle school mirror those of Chicago as a whole because the passing test scores were lowered. Basically, the school in the article followed Chicago's scores as a whole (indicating that the school did nothing special and the gains were the result of poof, nothing controllable), even though THE POVERTY RATE OF THE SCHOOL WENT FROM 83% IN 1999 TO 34% IN 2010! Come on! Chicago's poverty rate (the best predictor of academic achievement) actually went up! The school became middle or upper middle class practically over night. Come on, morons. That alone should ensure at least a 90% pass rate on state tests, which this school doesn't have.

This article shows not the slightest concept of what education is. It's as if the people who wrote it and starred in it think that no one ever cared, but they did, and wow, everything just became a "remarkable turnaround." Idiots.

4 years ago
Posted by hast345

Arthur -- Well put. Your use of multi-syllable establishing words sets up what is indeed an informed and inspiring guidepost for all educators and parents. Add to this your clear knowledge of the impact of socioeconomic factors on early childhood education (as well as the use of test scores as an indicator of whole-person development), as well as your obvious compassion and desire to see that the nation comes together to solve its problems, and the outcome is a template for all who would intend to make ours schools (and our country) great once again. If only more people were like you, and could move away from spiteful, angry and kneejerk venom! Your use of capital letters and exclamation points shows that you yourself must have attended schools of some reputation, and I love how you tie it all up with an inspiring and informed insult -- these parents and principals truly are "idiots", and they -- and the rest of us -- would do well to use you as a model for shaping the future! Keep up the great work!

4 years ago
Posted by hast345

Arthur -- Well put. Your use of multi-syllable establishing words sets up what is indeed an informed and inspiring guidepost for all educators and parents. Add to this your clear knowledge of the impact of socioeconomic factors on early childhood education (as well as the use of test scores as an indicator of whole-person development), as well as your obvious compassion and desire to see that the nation comes together to solve its problems, and the outcome is a template for all who would intend to make ours schools (and our country) great once again. If only more people were like you, and could move away from spiteful, angry and kneejerk venom! Your use of capital letters and exclamation points shows that you yourself must have attended schools of some reputation, and I love how you tie it all up with an inspiring and informed insult -- these parents and principals truly are "idiots", and they -- and the rest of us -- would do well to use you as a model for shaping the future! Keep up the great work!

4 years ago
Posted by PA

This is wonderful! This can happen to schools on the south and west sides of Chicago if the parents cared about their children's education! Stop making excuses and expecting the government to bail you out! You have to demand and work to change!

Too bad many of those parents on the other sides of town won't read this.

Wow!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Was this posted in error, or did you really want to put your superiority complex on display? Actually, maybe you're right. Maybe they should stop trying to find a job, or give up the two or three jobs they have to figure out how to better their child's school - even though they probably have no idea what a good school is because they have never been inside one. Well, perhaps their forefathers told them folktales about good schools and education? Oh wait, that's right. Their forefathers weren't allowed to go to school, or read books. They weren't even considered people, and they are expected to paint an optimistic picture of what education can be for their children and their community?

You know, they could network with all of their friends in the corporate world for donations. While they're at it, they should probably go through their rolodex and find old classmates that are now working in the advertising industry and would be willing to donate services. Politicians would be a good resource as well. All they have to do is pick up the phone, right?

Before you make assumptions and presume what people "care" about, try and make an effort to understand those people. Go to Francis Parkman Elementary School on the south side and talk to the parents when they come to pick up their kids. Talk to the kids, and then tell me that they just don't "care."

As for parents on the south side reading this article, you may not realize that many of them can and do read, and even though many of them were cheated out of a good education, they still have a much better connection with humanity and the realities of economic disparity that people in power will ever care to learn.

I have met Ms Edelberg, and have the utmost respect for all of the hard work she and other moms have put into this effort, but you have to realize that in a poor neighborhood, this is not as feasible or even dreamable. There are roadblocks everywhere, starting with the school.

As an educator, I know the power of parents to reform, but I am also in touch with the realities. I'm sorry that more people are not educated in the realities, so they can work towards social progress. Criticizing people for something that has been inflicted on them is not going to change anything.

4 years ago
Posted by LAB

This is a story of gentrification. Lakeview was a tumble-down neighbourhood when I lived in Rogers Park in the mid-1980s. Rogers Park was a very diverse neighbourhood just beginning its gentrification back then. Further reversed, I just watched an episode of Good Times and a reference was made to Rogers Park as being in the "Detergent District" and one character did not want to be bussed to an all white neighbourhood to go to a "better" school than was available to him from his Cabrini Green tenement. How a neighbourhood becomes great, takes a grand fall, and resurges as the money ebbs and flows throughout it. The sentiment throughout CPS is still very much as it was 35 years ago -- sink all of the money into the magnet schools and let the neighbourhood schools fend for themselves. As for the teachers' not accepting what was happening at Nettlehorst, that was typical, too, because they were only there for the paycheck. I guess they forgot for whom they really worked. This took these parents a monumental effort and they were successful; yet if they do not continue their involvement, this whole accomplishment will fall apart. Can't blame Whitey this time around, now can they?

4 years ago
Posted by beesusie

I agree totally with the comment PA made. In the past I had two children in CPS magnet schools. One was in an affluent area where many neighborhood children could attend. The other targeted had many more students from a minority group that was in general not affluent. Both schools had many dedicated parents. Personally, I liked the overall caring atmosphere of the school that had many more parents from a minority group.

However, when fundraisers were held and compared there was no comparison in the money raised. One school might raise $50,000 and the other $9,000. As the article said, you can hire a teacher with $50,000.

Think about it, though. If you care deeply for your children yet must work to provide the basic necessities, you cannot spend 40 hours a week volunteering even making phone calls (they cost money). If you have no one at home to watch the kids you cannot go to the school on nights and weekends. If you don't have a car transportation may be a challenge. MANY parents simply do not have time, finances or connections to participate at this level.

I am glad that these parents and others at other schools can pull this type of reform off, but it is really sad that this also results in the "rich getting richer, and the poor getting poorer." CPS should implement a system where the wealth is shared.

Years ago I saw a documentary on California public schools. The same thing happened there. Schools only a few miles away were in direct contrast to each other. One was like Nettlehorst is now and the other shabby, run down and dangerous (as Nettlehorst was 10 or 15 years ago--check reports on their roof.)

No one would wish that the schools with more affluent and educated parents were uninviting and unimproved, but I strongly believe there should be a system of sister schools benefitting at least somewhat from the fundraising efforts of the richer schools since no one in the system seems to care. Parents in all schools simply do not have the wherewithall to make something like this happen.

4 years ago
Posted by Nikki4th

Devoting that much energy, the parents would have been better off just starting a private co-op school. Still, good for them.

My question is with the enormous sums of money going into the system from the taxpayers, why are they not showing up at the local school? (just a rhetorical question, this is Illinois after all.)

2 years ago
Posted by brii

To everyone who is criticizing this article in any way, you have no clue what you're talking about. Have you been inside Nettelhorst? Have you spoken with the people who made all this happen? Have you, hmm, I don't know, gone to school there?! I have, and I can tell you that this is truly an inredible accomplishment. I started at Nettelhorst as a kindergartener the year all this started to take affect. I transferred in sixth grade and since then have gone to two other schools, and neither one of those has come anywhere close to comparing with Nettelhorst. Its an amazing school.
@NIKKI4TH- Yes, individually they would have been better off just starting a private school. But these parents were thinking about other people, not just their own children. They wanted everyone to have the opportunity to attend a school like this, not just those who could afford to pay for a private school. That, I think, is part of what makes all of this so great.

1 year ago
Posted by 3d420.com

I was a student at Nettlehorst in the mid-late 1960's. I still have nightmares about it. We were treated like prisoners or worse. There was little supervision, and even less education. Nettlehorst turned me from an eager student to a depressed angry statistic. Epic fail.

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