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A mural inside Nettelhorst Elementary school
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