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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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Ten years ago, Edelberg was not happy with the elementary school options awaiting her two-year-old daughter. Neither were her friends, many of whom had infants and toddlers. The choices seemed clear: move to the suburbs, pay private-school tuition, or navigate the Chicago Public Schools lottery in hopes of gaining admission to one of the city’s coveted magnet schools. But the odds were not in their favor—some magnet schools accept less than 5 percent of applicants. So when Edelberg and a friend toured Nettelhorst, the principal sensed an opportunity. “What do I have to do to get your kids to come here?” Kurland asked. Edelberg, a former political science professor who earned a doctorate from the University of Chicago, and her friend returned with a five-page wish list. “Well, girls, let’s get moving,” Kurland said. “It’s going to be a very busy year.”

What transpired was an unusual alliance between the parents and the principal, through which families were granted unusual access within the school. Edelberg and her friend joined forces with six other mothers with children too young for school, who were banking on their efforts. “We only set out to make it good enough,” says Edelberg, whose daughter is now a Nettelhorst sixth grader (she also has a fourth-grade son there). “When everyone was rejected from the magnet schools, Nettelhorst had to be their panic option.”

The band of moms divided into groups—public relations, infrastructure, and curriculum, among others—and recruited more friends to help. From a public relations standpoint, they started by tweaking the ailing school’s environment, removing signs about loitering and trespassing and replacing “Say No to Drugs” and “Stay in School” posters with children’s artwork. They blanketed the neighborhood with eye-catching post cards (donated by local real-estate agents who received a plug) and posters saying “Think Global, Nap Local.” Another poster depicted a petrified mom, `a la Munch’s The Scream, with the tag line “Panicked about school? The choice might be right under your nose.”

Looking to renovate the library, the group cold-called businesses in the Lake View phone book. “For every three people who said no, one person would give you two rolls of carpeting,” Edelberg recalls, noting that the group of moms rallied around the mantra “We do more during naptime than most people do all day.”

When the mothers convinced an artist who painted murals at the Shedd Aquarium to create an Atlantis mural along the lower-level walls of Nettelhorst, “that’s when we started to think, You know, we could pull this off,” Edelberg says. “She turned what was a dungeon into something magical. Where some might say it’s just a paint job, environment matters profoundly. The normal theory is that you change a culture, then the climate. We changed the climate first. It’s hard to be disenfranchised in a climate of care.”

Try telling that to the teachers at the time. When the moms started their work, some teachers rebelled. In their 2009 book How to Walk to School: Blueprint for a Neighborhood School Renaissance, Edelberg and Kurland described a troubled teaching environment in which one teacher uttered profanities at students (and their parents) and another was served with a restraining order after hitting students.

Although representatives from the Chicago Teachers Union say they cannot comment on the school’s environment ten years ago without more time to research, Jackson Potter, the union’s staff coordinator, says the school’s turnaround seems related to the demographic shift of its student population, from poorer to more affluent. “Every child deserves a quality school in their neighborhood,” he says, noting that not every school can raise $100,000 from parents for teacher salaries. “The message should be that CPS has an obligation to provide equitable access to resources.”

In their book, Edelberg and Kurland say that some teachers supported the movement, but others rebuffed the goodwill gestures of the moms—throwing away baskets of peaches they delivered to each classroom, giving away gift certificates donated by a nearby hair salon. Some teachers resented how the mothers seemed to be taking over the school, including playing an active role in the hiring process.

At one point, Kurland told the group to take a respite and stop painting. “This pace is going too fast,” Kurland said. “My staff is going to break.” Edelberg and her crew stayed away for ten days and then resumed their work, later striking partnerships in the community and lining up afterschool programs in music, dance, and martial arts, among others.

As parental involvement and parental pressure increased, many “subpar” teachers opted to leave within the first two years, Edelberg says, but the process took a personal toll. “I became exhausting [to be around],” she says. “It was always blah, blah, Nettelhorst. It was a compulsion for me because I saw it so clearly. I saw it could be done.”

The first year of the movement, 300 families attended the school’s open house, and 78 signed up for the tuition-based preschool. The year before, the school board had stopped mandatory busing of kids from overcrowded schools. Any of those students who wished to continue at Nettelhorst would have to arrange their own transportation. (As a result, the school’s demographic makeup has changed. In 2001, Hispanics and African Americans made up 78 percent of the student body. Today the figure is less than one-third, and almost two-thirds of the enrollment is white.)

It took four years for the neighborhood’s perception of the school to change. By the fifth, the movement was cemented. “It became its own ball of energy,” Edelberg recalls.

One of the biggest coups was the Berkus kitchen, which opened this past fall. “I get calls and e-mails every hour to be part of charities,” says Berkus, the designer and TV personality, who is no stranger to the power of a makeover. He volunteered his time after taking the school tour given by a parent and personal friend. “This was one of those moments where everyone wanted this to happen so badly and no one was blocking the way. There were no politics involved. That doesn’t happen very often. I wanted to be involved.”

So did others. In turn, Nettelhorst needed to streamline its growing collection of volunteers into one overarching organization. So in 2007, parents created the Nettelhorst Community Group. In July of that year, Kurland retired. “I miss it every day,” says Kurland, who for a time mentored other principals at the University of Illinois at Chicago and now serves as the interim director of Gallery 37, an advanced arts program offered to CPS high-school students.

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