As the teachers unions, politicians, and policy wonks duke it out over who's really to blame for the crisis in American public education, normal people can respond with, guess what? Action.
The fate of public education is not beyond our control. My book, How to Walk to School: Blueprint for a Neighborhood School Renaissance has a very simple message: Every kid, in every community, deserves a great neighborhood public school. I led eight moms in a Chicago diner to make our dreams come true.
Faced with the totally insane public/private school gauntlet that frustrates parents across America, my girlfriend and I ventured inside Nettelhorst, our neighborhood's underutilized and struggling public elementary school to see just how terrible the place was. The new principal asked what it would take for us to enroll our children. Stunned by her candor, we returned the next day armed with an extensive wish list. The principal read our list and said "Well, let's get started, girls! It's going to be a busy year..."
We were eight park moms who galvanized neighborhood parents and then organized an entire community to take a leap of faith, transforming a challenged urban school into one of Chicago's best, virtually overnight.
Each mom captained a team filled with parent recruits from our little park: infrastructure, enrichment, special events, PR, marketing, curriculum, and fundraising. Each team had to succeed concurrently to make the project work. By our lights, we had just nine months to pull it off. Talk about real heroes: literally thousands of people joined together, rolled up their sleeves, and got to work.
The infrastructure team enlisted local painters and artists to transform the neglected, 120 year-old building into pure magic, all with a budget of ZERO. Take a virtual tour. I promise, it will knock your socks off.
The enrichment team partnered with some of the city's most respected cultural, recreational, and academic providers for an innovative fee-for-service community school model. Every afternoon, scores of instructors come into the school to teach classes ranging from field hockey to belly dancing. We found a way to free the soccer mom!
The special events team worked to turn Nettelhorst into the heart of the community. We partnered with the Chamber of Commerce to host neighborhood events at the school, like the Halloween Hoopla and the Little Bunny Egg Hunt. We became a water station for the Chicago Marathon and started a weekly farmers market. In short order, our school became a go-to-destination, even if neighbors didn't have kids.
Far and away, our biggest challenge was changing deeply entrenched community perceptions. Fortunately, our marketing and PR teams learned that you can rebrand and reposition a failing public school as easily as breakfast cereal.
Our principal gave the curriculum team carte blanche to review curriculum and financial plans, weigh-in on hiring decisions, and document teaching styles. Within two years of our reform movement, the school's extremely toxic teaching climate improved dramatically and test scores tripled, across every demographic—all without tracking, gifted programs or selective enrollment. My kids (age ten and twelve) have attended Nettelhorst since preschool, and I'd put their education on par with any private school in the country. Our teachers are that good.
When we began fundraising in earnest, almost four years into the movement, our team learned how to galvanize resources and create deep mutually beneficial partnerships. But as serious as our funding woes were, and continue to be, money didn't power the Nettelhorst revolution. People did.
After nine months, we held our first Open House for the neighborhood: 300 families came, and 78 kids signed up for preschool that day! Today, Nettelhorst is full of neighborhood kids, and has become one of the most desirable schools in Chicago.
While the last eight years have been very good to my little school, the real story is that change can happen at any school.
While some skepticism is to be expected, the latest criticism I've heard has me apoplectic. This, from an über-respected education expert and a woman, no less: "I'm sure your little public school is great, and that you mommies have done a great job fixing it up, and that's all great, but until your model is brought to scale, it really isn't germane to the public policy debate on education."
Are you kidding? I thought mommies had already gone to scale? Why do so many experts believe that parents can't really impact school reform in any systemic way? Little mommies, HA! Have they even been to a neighborhood sandbox lately? Women change the world every day!
Make no mistake: change requires work. Our experience fixing Nettelhorst wasn't all rainbows and unicorns. Reform is often messy and unpredictable. Our journey was a full-tilt crazy, hard, emotional rollercoaster, but overall, it was an immensely satisfying and joyful ride. And, the school itself is proof positive that our blueprint works.
We don't need to wait for some fancy, new, educational initiative to fall from the sky. Here's the secret: the superman your school is waiting for is you. YOU have the power to create change in your community from the ground up. Our crowd wasn't a bunch of nuclear physicists building a reactor. This is elementary school, people. So, gather up some friends, walk right into your neighborhood school, and ask the principal what you can do to help.
If eight park moms and one visionary principal could pull our little neighborhood school out of its twenty-five year nose-dive, surely others could do the same thing. If we could spark a national grassroots school reform movement that would pull us all out of the giant mess we're in, now wouldn't that be something?