How To Walk To School
November 14, 2011 § Leave a Comment
I recently finished reading “How To Walk To School” (HTWTS) by Jacqueline Edelberg and Susan Kurland. It is the true story of how a group of neighborhood parents (led by Ms. Edelberg) partnered with the principal of their local public school (Ms. Kurland) to build a neighborhood school. What transpires is an interesting series of events that demonstrate there are ways to reengage the urban middle class in public education besides launching a brand new school.
HTWTS tells the story of the Nettlehorst School in the East Lakeview Community on the Northside of Chicago. At the time when the story starts, Nettlehorst is located in a community that is gentrifying. Though the neighborhood had ‘bounced back’ – to use the author’s words – by 1999, nobody from the community attended Nettlehorst, their neighborhood school. All of Nettlehorst’s 630 students were bused in from other parts of Chicago. At the time, the students were mostly African-American and 90% came from families who lived below the poverty line.
Jacqueline Edelberg was a part of a community of young moms who socialized at a nearby park. Many of the parents felt great pressure and stress regarding finding the right elementary school for their children. For many of the parents, private school was too expensive and public school too risky. Meanwhile, there was this improving neighborhood school that nobody from the neighborhood attended. One day, Jacqueline walked into the office of the Nettlehorst principal, Susan Kurland. Kurland asked a simple question to Jacqueline and her friend, another mom: “What do I have to do to get your kids to come here?”
A little stunned, the two moms said they’d have an answer by the next day. They went home, cracked open a bottle of wine, and tried to imagine what the ideal elementary school might look like, how it would feel and what programs it might offer. Here’s the list they came up with:
- Stellar academics
- Low teacher/student ratio
- Recess, physical education, sports
- Healthy, organic lunches
- Music, art, drama
- Foreign language
- Involved, passionate, dynamic teachers
- A safe, clean and beautiful environment
- Parental involvement
- Extracurricular activities
- On-site, before and after-school care
- Fun playground, landscaping
- Well-stocked, cozy library
- State-of the art technology
- A well-equipped science lab
- Fun traditions, like a spelling bee or a spirit week
- An open-minded administration and great leadership
- All day kindergarten
- Nice kids
The first two on the list were non-negotiables. They wanted excellent academics and a low student-teacher ratio. They took the list back to Principal Kurland, who developed a strategic plan to achieve all of the attributes on the list. What transpired in the following 18 months was a herculean community effort resulting in an amazing school transformation. Ten years later, the school’s population comes from the community, and it’s school performance has increased dramatically. That’s the good news.
The more critical perspective on the Nettlehorst story is that it’s about a neighborhood that gentrified, and a school that followed suit. By the 2009 – 2010 school year, only 28% of Nettlehorst students qualified for Free and Reduced Lunch. True, no Nettlehorst students were displaced – it’s not like 4th graders who were bused in were suddenly kicked out for the children of local residents. But to call this a public education success story misses the point of where public schools have failed, namely in the education of students from low income families.
Still, I do think Nettlehorst’s story is one that could have implications for the New Orleans middle class. As one parent recently said at an EduChat – “Some of the public schools in New Orleans that aren’t yet excellent, aren’t that bad. What if we all organize, apply to one school a improve it from the inside as parents?” It’s definitely food for thought. I would like to see a New Orleans public school system that was more reflective of the New Orleans public. That’s not going to happen by starting new schools alone. Some new schools – like Morris Jeff, perhaps mine and others – will be needed to demonstrate what is possible, but partnering with existing schools is an essential piece of this next stage of urban education as well.
Below is a short, 10 minute documentary on The Nettlehorst School and the story of How to Walk to School.