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
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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The same openness with parents exists today under the leadership of the new principal, Cindy Wulbert. “She calls us her assistant principals,” says Rachel Gross, a 40-year-old mother of three boys who attend Nettelhorst and the president of the Nettelhorst Community Group. A former technical writer, Gross runs the parent group like a business. “This is my job,” she says. “I like to say I work pro bono. The key to our success is we treat it as our profession.”
Sometimes, however, the group’s corporatelike focus has caused conflict within the school. Three years ago, the organization’s fundraising arm waged an aggressive campaign targeting all families at the school. They printed a professional-quality brochure about Nettelhorst that referenced tuition levels at private schools and then suggested $1,000 donations per student from the families that could afford it. Some parents protested.
“It’s been an education,” says Gross, who admits that the campaign took a kinder, gentler tack the following year. “You have to have a thick skin, but we did not back down.”
Gross estimates that Nettelhorst raised $35,000 from parents in the first campaign. She hopes to collect close to $100,000 this year—the money is already earmarked to pay the salary of one teacher and an assistant. To help spread the word, group members have sent schoolwide e-mails, flyers, and FAQ inserts.
Ted Ganchiff, who leads the fundraising charge, admits his tactics might sound pushy. “It’s aggressive—but I don’t think it’s too aggressive,” he says. “If you look at the results, I think it’s worth the pain. If we’re not aggressive, the kids won’t get what they deserve. It’s awkward and uncomfortable to ask people for money for public schools, but it’s bad everywhere. This is way bigger than Nettelhorst. If we don’t pursue what we pursue, we don’t get what we get.”
Timothy Knowles says that Illinois parents are often forced to fork over cash to save school programs. With the “abysmal economy and Illinois [ranking] 49th out of 50 in state funding for education, if you want to save the art program, you have to buy a teacher,” he says. “It’s the new normal for us.”
As with Edelberg, Ganchiff’s role as chief fundraiser has become all consuming. “I’ve been doing nothing with the rest of my life in the last four years,” jokes Ganchiff, 42, whose son is in third grade at Nettelhorst. With his wife, he owns Spinforce, a marketing business that counts Hewlett-Packard among its clients—but Ganchiff estimates that during some weeks he has spent 60 hours working for Nettelhorst. “You cram it into every spare minute,” he says. “And I’m not the only one.”
Charged with renovating the school’s shabby auditorium, Ganchiff found his first task daunting. “It was atrocious; it was almost dangerous, really,” he says. “If you sat down, some of the seats would fall out and your butt would hit the ground. And this was supposed to be a fine and performing arts school.”
Helping to orchestrate the roughly $400,000 project (propelled by a $300,000 state grant secured by local lawmakers) was like “running a marathon,” says Ganchiff. “But when it’s done, it’s one of the best things you could have done with your life.”
The first thing he learned to do was to ask for help. “If you will not ask, you will not get,” he says. In the beginning, Ganchiff e-mailed a list of targeted foundations and corporations to parents and asked them for contacts. Parents weren’t pressured to reach out directly. Instead, they needed only to submit names, and a parent “relationship manager” handled the communication from there.
Ganchiff aims to create an environment where giving is the norm, such as in religious services. “[At church] no one is surprised when the plate comes around,” he says. In addition to a financial donation, each family is also asked to donate ten hours per year to the school—outside of their own child’s classroom.
Some parents, meanwhile, have found both the fundraising and the push to volunteer taxing. “It’s very intense,” says one mother, who did not wish to be named. She remembers conducting conference calls in the evening. “To be honest, it’s a little overwhelming. But then again, they kind of have to be that way, don’t they?”
At the same time, the principal is staging her own push—raising the academic bar. Comparing Nettelhorst to nearby Blaine Elementary School, on West Grace Street, which boasts higher test scores and a longer-standing reputation, Wulbert says, “We’re where Blaine was three or four years ago.” According to data on the 2010 state report card, where roughly 86 percent of Nettelhorst’s students met or exceeded state standards in areas such as reading and math, Blaine’s achieved 94 percent. (The city’s highest-performing elementary schools typically score in the 90th percentile, Wulbert says.)
Specifically, Wulbert is working with teachers to “differentiate” students, or break them into smaller groups once they have mastered the task at hand. “If they have gotten the skill, they should not be doing lower-level work,” she says. “They need to move ahead. That’s the trick to moving test scores higher.”
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Meanwhile, the spotlight has been so strong on the school that Wulbert tries to keep a modest profile with other CPS principals. It isn’t easy. They want to know: How did Nettlehorst win the U.S. Cellular grant? How did the school raise all that money? How did it get the partnership with the Blackhawks?
Nettelhorst shared its secrets recently when Ganchiff led a public fundraising symposium, which attracted some 100 representatives from 70 city and suburban schools. The heart of his message was that schools need a business plan with a five-year vision. Having a well-oiled parent machine—complete with its own fundraising arm, public relations faction, legal team, communication experts, and accountants—doesn’t hurt either.
It’s a strategy that has worked well for Nettelhorst so far. That was apparent on the day Edelberg led parents on the tour, which included stops at the school’s mirrored dance and yoga studio, where students were attempting the downward-dog position; its 425-seat auditorium, where children were singing about pumpkins; and the library, containing books donated by the Chicago Cubs. “This is the work of hustle,” Edelberg later told the group. “We hustle. Money didn’t power this revolution. People powered it.” The only part of the school that the tour skipped? The computer lab, which was locked. “We don’t have the computer partnership we would like,” Edelberg said as the parents walked by the closed door. “So if anyone’s friends with Paul Allen [Microsoft’s cofounder], let me know.”