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Should we just dump the worthless Chicago public schools and start over?
May 27, 2010 – part 1 of 2 parts

Dear Cecil:

I see where the teachers' union is organizing a lobbying campaign in Springfield to get more money for the Chicago public schools. What's the point? Everybody knows Chicago public schools suck. Why pour more money down a rathole? Wouldn't it be better in the long run to pitch the pathetic existing system and start over?   

— Mark, Edgewater

Cecil replies:

No, Mark, it wouldn't. I can see if we're going to improve education in this town, we're going to need to start with you.

I won't argue that many Chicago public schools, not to put a fine point on it, suck. However, not all of them do. I don't mean simply the selective enrollment and magnet schools everybody knows about — I mean a fair number of ordinary (OK, not that ordinary) neighborhood schools. Surely one of the more remarkable developments of our time is that, in some parts of the city, the local public elementary school has become a reason to move in, not out. In every case I know about, this was due to the efforts of a handful of determined parents, who eventually succeeded in getting the rest of the community on board. Having talked to some of the people involved, I won't say it's easy — but it's also not that hard. In fact, enough local schools have turned around, or are on the way to doing so, that I'd say a formula of sorts has emerged. This won't be of immediate interest to you, Mark, since the heavy lifting where schools are concerned is generally done by women, and you sound like a bit of a mope anyway. But you might like to know how it's done. 

1. You form a core group of parents.

Jacqueline Edelberg, who with co-author Susan Kurland describes the turnaround of Nettelhorst school, 3252 N. Broadway, in How to Walk to School (2009), says it all began with eight parents who got talking about school prospects in an East Lakeview park while watching their toddlers play. That seems to be a common scenario. Not wishing to move to the suburbs, pay exorbitant private school tuition or negotiate the byzantine magnet school application process, the group conceived the notion of looking into the local public school — a radical notion at the time. Nettelhorst was considered so dreadful that few children from the neighborhood attended; virtually the entire student body was bused in from elsewhere. While that may be the extreme case, it's not unusual to find Chicago public schools in middle-class neighborhoods with more than 90 percent low-income students — until recently, most parents who could afford something else simply refused to send their kids to CPS.

But finding middle-class parents willing to make the commitment is easier than it used to be. "I love the city," says Nancy Fetsch, a past board member of Friends of Blaine, which spearheaded local support for Blaine school, 1420 W. Grace. "I didn't want to give it up." 

2. You find a principal you can work with.

This is the essential next step — without it the process goes no further. Edelberg's group met with Kurland, then Nettelhorst's principal, and asked what they could do to help. Kurland was game, and perhaps also a little desperate, and asked what it would take to convince local parents to send their children to her school. The group came back with a list the next day. You'd think any CPS principal would be similarly welcoming, but if you encounter one who isn't (apparently it happens), CPS enrollment policies are such that you can generally send your kid to another under-enrolled public school in the vicinity. In short, you can shop around.

3. You find a pro bono lawyer.

Usually it's a parent. Maybe it's even you. Whoever it is draws up the paperwork for a tax-exempt "Friends of <school>" organization, which becomes the school's fundraising arm.    

4. You get the school spruced up.

Here's an important thing to understand. You might suppose the first mission of parents marching into a Chicago public school would be to redesign the curriculum or undertake some similar radical project. Nope — the curriculum is set by downtown, and anyway you've got a more immediate concern. A common reaction on entering many Chicago public schools is: what a dump. The decorating of the typical CPS facility looks like it was done by the same crew responsible for old CHA highrises and the Cook County Jail.

Needless to say, you don't want visitors to your school thinking this. Assuming the building engineer is cooperative — next to the principal, this is the most important person you need on your side at the outset — much can be accomplished with donated paint or artwork. One of Edelberg's early projects was to solicit an artist friend, Michael Bonfiglio, to create the mosaic spelling out the school's name above the door, as seen in the photo of Nettelhorst students at the top of this column. (Edelberg is fourth from left.)

If you want, you can really go nuts. Here's a video of Nettelhorst, which is crammed with so much donated artwork it makes the Vatican look austere. Few neighborhood schools have access to that kind of resources, but you can do a lot of with a fresh coat of colorful paint, and in addition many neighborhood schools have neglected treasures that need only a little polishing. For example, I was impressed with the gardens surrounding Waters school, 4540 N. Campbell, the most visible sign of an "ecology and environment" program started in the 1990s. Terri Versace, president of WatersToday, the school's support group, says the major outdoor improvement her organization pushed for was getting an ugly asphalt playground rebuilt with greenery and new equipment. It paid off; the campus looks terrific.

5. You start a public relations program.

This goes hand in hand with campus beautification. Private schools have professionally produced brochures and websites; public schools hoping to compete with them need the same. Design talent isn't hard to come by in middle-class neighborhoods; as it happens, many in the forefront of school improvement efforts are creative types. Versace, a graphic designer, created the WatersToday printed materials; her husband, a software coder, put together a website for the group plus another for the school. Wendy Vasquez, past president of the Friends of Ravenswood School, 4332 N. Paulina, has a background in advertising and was able to get work donated.

You may say: hype won't change the fact that we're still selling a mediocre Chicago public school. Don't be too quick to judge. "We have a lot of great teachers at Ravenswood, but most of them were here before we arrived," Vasquez says. "The school had been improving for years." True enough — the school's test scores have risen steadily over the past decade, and today the percentages of students in different grades meeting or exceeding state standards are in the 70s and 80s.  Debi Prince, a past board member of Friends of Blaine, says, "It was always a good school. We just wanted people to know about this hidden gem." Today Blaine's meets-or-exceeds numbers are in the 90s.

6. You enroll your own kids.

This is the great leap of faith. To make it easier, some schools start a tuition-based preschool for three- and four-year-olds — a relatively inexpensive form of daycare. You need 18 kids minimum to get one of these going. The idea is that parents will get used to the idea of having their kids in CPS while preserving the private-school option for kindergarten if things don't come together.

7. You get the community involved in the school.

The concept is simple. "We were trying to put 'going to' and 'Nettelhorst' in the same sentence, something that hadn't happened in twenty-five years," Edelberg says. Nettelhorst currently hosts a wide range of community events and programs. The most elaborate is Jane's Place, operated in association with Jane Addams Hull House, which for a fee offers after-hours classes to the community in everything from yoga to boxing. At Waters, a sizable portion of the school's garden space is set aside for neighborhood use; Blaine formed a partnership with the Cubs.  

8. You settle in for three or more years of open houses and fundraisers, volunteering at the school, and meetings out the wazoo.

No question, getting the local school off the dime can turn into a major life project. "We had about 30 people involved, but often it boils down to about five," says Versace of her group at Waters. "You need the time and obsessiveness to do it." Assuming you do, though, why not? We're not all going to cure cancer. If you can help get a school fixed up, you're entitled to think you're making the world a better place. For more on how to go about it, contact Edelberg or Kurland through their website, howtowalktoschool.com.

9. You acknowledge you're not going to get any breaks.

By which I mean, no breaks other than those accruing to the middle class, to which I'm assuming you belong, Mark. Let's be frank — the concerns the typical middle-class parent faces are relatively trifling. Generally speaking your kids won't be dodging bullets or getting hassled by gangbangers; a lot of Chicago public school students deal with those problems and more. The attention of the CPS central office, and the public education system generally, is understandably focused on those that have it worst. That's most evident in the funding formula. A significant fraction of the money allocated to each school is based on the number of low-income students enrolled; as that number goes down, so does the funding.

The upshot is, the more successful a public school is in attracting middle-class students, the more successful it needs to be. That means a lot of fundraising and community outreach efforts. That's hardly an intolerable burden; parents of kids enrolled in private schools are commonly asked to do the same.

What's tougher to deal with in some ways is the notion that improving a middle-class school is easy, or that if middle-class parents enroll their kids in the local public school they're stealing resources from the more deserving. Here are two of the five reviews of Edelberg's book on Amazon:

In a ritzy neighborhood of Chicago, parents get together and decide to send their kids to the local public school. Since the neighborhood kids now attend, there's no room for poor kids formerly bused in. Test scores rise along with the socioeconomic status of the students. The former principal pats herself on the back and writes, or gets a ghost to write, a book. What does that teach us? That people like to take credit where none is due.

I would hardly call this a blueprint. Most neighborhood parks aren't full of doctoral educated moms taking time off from the corporate grind. I think this is just gentrification — plain and simple. Neighborhood becomes more wealthy and they want their kids at the local school and pay to make it happen … [N]ow, the school has become a neighborhood school that is as elite as the private and magnet schools they maligned through most of the book. I would say the school is not really a place for learning for all, but a place for people who can afford to live in that zip code.

Isn't that great? On the one hand we've got people like you, Mark, who think improving the public schools is impossible. On the other we've got sniffs like the above who assume that, once a school does improve, making it happen was a piece of cake — a matter of writing a few checks. If it were all that effortless every affluent neighborhood in town would have great public schools, and they manifestly don't. Do middle-class advantages make the job easier? Absolutely. Do they make it easy? Go try it for a while. Then you tell me.

There's no question that once a neighborhood public school becomes successful and everybody wants to send their kids there, things change. Blaine, for example, was one of the earliest north side schools to make the transition; Friends of Blaine was formed in 2002. At the moment the school's ethnic makeup is a rich mix — although whites are the largest single group, the student body is predominantly minority.

But with an enrollment of more than 800, Blaine is approaching capacity. Up to this point the school has accepted students from outside the attendance boundaries; these students are mostly minorities. Inevitably their numbers will decline as they're replaced by kids from within the boundaries, who are mostly white.

Something similar is happening at Nettelhorst — as with Blaine, the school has become a reason to move to the neighborhood. I'm told the lower grades are already full; someday the entire school will be. At present Nettelhorst's diversity is one of its most attractive features — who can fail to be charmed by the rainbow coalition in the photo above? Eventually, though, most of the students will live within the attendance boundaries in a community that's overwhelmingly white. The implications of that are a subject to be considered next week

— Cecil Adams

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