Jacqueline Edelberg Shares Blueprint for School Reform Based on ‘People Power’

Jacqueline Edelberg Shares Blueprint for School Reform Based on ‘People Power’

Jacqueline Edelberg
“People powered our revolution,” says Jacqueline Edelberg, a parent who made change happen at the low-performing school in her Chicago neighborhood. Now a nationally known expert on education because of what she accomplished at Nettlehorst School, she brought her blueprint for reform to associate professor Diane Schanzenbach’s Contemporary Issues in Education class on February 22.

With hard work and community support, Nettlehorst accomplished a major transformation that is replicable at other schools, Edelberg says. She wrote the book How to Walk to School with Nettlehorst principal Susan Kurland to guide parents seeking to improve their local schools.

Schanzenbach invited Edelberg to her class in part because she “wanted the students to think about how non-policy actors can influence education policy.” Schanzenbach says, “She wrote a fascinating book about the nuts and bolts of working to turn around a school, and that voice was otherwise missing in a class that mostly covered big-picture policy questions.” After Edelberg’s talk, SESP undergraduates in the class expressed some skepticism on a policy level but also affirmed her methods as offering a solution for many schools.

Edelberg’s inspiring saga began in the principal’s office and the park. Eight years ago, after rejecting the suburbs, she was faced with the difficulty of getting her children into a private or magnet school in the city. Nettlehorst seemed unappealing because it had test scores in the low 30 percentiles, 50 percent student turnover and a local school council mired in lawsuits. When Nettlehorst principal Kurland asked her, “What would I have to do to get your children here?” Edelberg presented a five-page typewritten list, and Kurland said, “Let’s get busy.”

“Moms sitting around the park” figured out how to fix the elementary school in Lakeview, which “suffered from some very real problems and some perceptual problems,” says Edelberg. She claims the perceptual problems were much tougher.

Several teams worked on the school. The infrastructure team had artists paint the 120-year-old building with donations of paint. “In short order, we turned a scary building into something magical,” says Edelberg, an artist who spent eight years painting the school.

To inject energy and vitality, the support services team devised ways to add art, culture and sports to a school without resources. For example, the group partnered with the Chamber of Commerce to hold events, contracted with a company for a farmer’s market and collaborated with Jane Addams Hull House to have community members lead after-school programs. “The most important thing we did was we became a community school,” says Edelberg, who stresses great partnerships and no costs for the taxpayer. “It gave us the rubric to absorb the goodness of the neighborhood.”

Meanwhile, the academic team did research and found the academics OK, but wanted parental access to classrooms — a request granted by the principal. “Parental pressure forced teachers who didn’t share our academic vision to leave,” says Edelberg. “It doesn’t take many bad teachers to contaminate a staff … and a union that protects them is unconscionable.”

A marketing and public relations team made strategic decisions for rebranding the school. “It’s complicated, particularly when people have firmly entrenched perceptions. … We knew that we had to control the story of Nettlehorst,” says Edelberg. Instead of fundraising, the parents acquired $500,000 in donated goods and services. “Remarkably, most people will go out of their way to help a Chicago public school, if asked,” says Edelberg. One parent even developed “shovel-ready” proposals for donors, such as for an auditorium, teaching kitchen or science lab.

After the intensive effort, now Nettlehorst has some of the highest test scores in the city. Good schools take effort to make and require community support, says Edelberg, who emphasizes the short window of opportunity for changing schools and the lack of time to wait for incremental change. “People think education is beyond our control, but that’s not true. People just don’t know that their neighborhood school belongs to them! ... If everyone just fixed what was in their own back yard, it could make a huge difference.”

Despite her success, Edelberg gets the criticism that her model can’t “go to scale” as public policy, and some of the SESP students questioned the feasibility of Edelberg’s model in low-income areas. Acknowledging that “we were extraordinarily entitled,” Edelberg still maintains that “change can happen everywhere” because parents are committed to making things happen for their kids. She refers to examples of other Chicago schools that succeeded with her blueprint, and she defends the idea that the blueprint can help many schools, though not all.

Many SESP students conveyed their concern about the neediest schools. Scott Belsky, for example, objected, “These are incredibly middle-class ideals. Parents can’t be seen in the hallways if parents have jobs.” Edelberg responded that her solutions could fix a large portion of the problems, though not for the lowest schools. “I can’t solve generational poverty, but if each of us who has a kid fixes our own stuff, we can come closer,” she says.

Katie Reberg questioned, “Why does education have to be fixed with one system?” Similarly, Curie Lee concluded that with “a focus on the middle,” in a small sphere “you can make a difference.”

Edelberg concludes that school change was created with hard work and luck. “Change happens because people get together and make it better.” 

By Marilyn Sherman
Last Modified: 3/22/11