An academic by training, Jacqueline Edelberg earned her PhD in Political Science and taught at the University of Osnabrück in Germany as a Fulbright scholar. After the international teaching stint, Jacqueline returned to her beloved Chicago with her husband, Andrew ready to give birth to their first child. After a very complicated and difficult delivery, Jacqueline was relieved and fortunate to have a healthy baby. The experience ignited her maternal instincts and she wanted to focus completely on nurturing her infant daughter for the next six months.
While Jacqueline relished her new role as a mother, the pangs of career guilt began to set in for this professor-turned-mom who craved intellectual stimulation and challenge. Struggling with the proverbial question of “What do I want to be when I grow up?” Jacqueline took the advice of a dear relative who shared that raising a child is a special time in a mother’s life, and a very short one at that. She cautioned Jacqueline to enjoy this time with her daughter and to be confident that the work would always be there when she was ready to go back. Little did Jacqueline know that her future career would be to mobilize a grass roots movement rehabilitating neighborhood schools in her Chicago community and across the nation.
Mother Knows Best
Jacqueline took this wisdom to heart and started to believe that her skills would not go away and that her role as a mom was very important. In addition to her training as a professor, Jacqueline is also a fine artist, a painter who specializes in ketubahs, distinctive Jewish marriage agreements which have become a significant form of Jewish ceremonial art. Painting was something she continued to enjoy while pursuing the full-time career of being a mother.
From the time her daughter was an infant, Jacqueline’s husband Andrew agreed to pursue the research about where she would attend school. However, Chicago parents, like parents across the country, face the same sobering reality: given the scarcity of spots, it’s extremely difficult to get your child into an expensive private school. Entry into a respected public magnet school isn’t any better. In fact, Jacqueline points out, it’s statistically easier to get your high school kid into Harvard than to get your kindergartener into a selective enrollment magnet school. In Chicago, most middle class parents believe that their non-selective neighborhood public school is not a viable option.
Most parents assemble portfolios with glossy brochures and consultant recommendations to figure out where to send their kids to kindergarten and beyond. Andrew passed the baton to Jacqueline and the school research became her responsibility. Finding a suitable school for her daughter, Maya (and son Zack, who was on the way) was a top priority.
The Power of the Roscoe Park Eight
Struck with the possibility of moving out of Boystown, her fabulous Chicago neighborhood known for its architectural charm, rich culture, diversity and tolerance, Jacqueline convinced her friend Nicole to come with her to check out Nettelhorst, her neighborhood’s underutilized and struggling public elementary school. After a 3-hour tour of the 110 year-old building, the new principal, Susan Kurland, asked what it would take for them to enroll their children. Stunned by her candor, they returned the next day armed with an extensive wish list. Susan read their list and said “Well, let’s get started, girls! It’s going to be a busy year…”
And so the journey from the park to the school began. Jacqueline and Nicole recruited six more park friends to join the cause. The women called themselves the Roscoe Park Eight, and met once a week in a Boystown diner, to plan how to fix Nettelhorst so their kids could walk to school.
Eight Women in a Diner
This meeting of the minds may have started humbly in a diner but never underestimate the power of mothers on a mission. The talent pool amongst the mommy brigade was deep, ranging from lawyers and advertizing executives to artists and bankers. They decided to call their group, The Nettelhorst Parents’ Co-op, with the motto “We do more during nap-time then most people do all day!”
The Roscoe Park Eight set an ambitious goal: the Parents’ Co-op had just nine months to reinvigorate Nettelhorst. These women were scrappy, creative and spirited, and as Jacqueline admits, too naïve and green to know how difficult this endeavor really was.
Running on infectious energy, each park mom captained a Co-op team: infrastructure, public relations, marketing, special events, fundraising and curricula. Each woman was assigned a task that best met her skill set and experience, and each team had to succeed concurrently. The team captains then set out to recruit as many families as they could to join their fledgling cause.
How could the Co-op refurbish a school with a budget of nothing? The moms began cold calling people to solicit services, supplies and volunteers with skills and an interest in the project. In the beginning, fundraising efforts were futile since nobody wanted to contribute to a failing city school. The development team was disbanded and efforts were re-focused on getting the necessary goods and services donated for the cause.
In a matter of months, the community donated over half a million dollars in goods and services, contributed inch-by-inch and a gallon of paint at a time. The beauty of this project was that anything you had to offer for the cause was perfect. If you had a gallon of neon yellow paint, great! Nothing was turned down and nothing was wasted. The community joined in, and now, there isn’t an inch of the school that hasn’t been touched by a neighborhood artist. The whole school is an inspiration!
The community buy-in was extraordinary and people started calling from distant parts of the city to contribute to the reinvention of Nettelhorst. The Roscoe Park Eight truly harnessed the goodness of a neighborhood. The story has been featured on Oprah & Friends, NPR, CNN, 60 Minutes, Education Weekly, and in the local Chicago media.
Sustaining the Cause
Eight years into the project of fixing Nettelhorst, Jacqueline wrote a book about her experience: How to Walk to School: Blueprint for a Neighborhood School Renaissance (Foreword by Arne Duncan and Afterword by Rahm Emanuel). The book chronicles the highs and lows of motivated neighborhood parents galvanizing and then organizing an entire community to take a leap of faith to transform a challenged urban school. They successfully turned Nettelhorst into one of Chicago’s best schools, virtually overnight. Jacqueline proved that that the fate of public education is not beyond our control. In the book, she provides an accessible and honest blueprint for reclaiming the great public schools our children deserve.
The original eight moms wanted to create a sustainable school that could thrive into the future, and now, Nettelhorst is one of the most desirable schools in Chicago. Enrollment has doubled; test scores have tripled; and parent involvement is off the charts.
The original fundraising committee may have been unsuccessful at first, but now that the school is thriving, development efforts are a well-oiled machine. For example, parents forged a deep, mutually beneficial partnership with Stanley Cup winning Chicago Blackhawks. With a $210,000 donation, the Blackhawks built a state of the art fitness center in the school and an outdoor hockey field. Players, coaches and team managers frequent the school teaching kids about sportsmanship, discipline, and maintaining healthy lifestyles.
Thanks to the work of driven parents, the school now has the financial wherewithal to maintain the building, and to provide innovative programming to enhance an already solid curriculum.
Labor of Love
While the moms contributed sweat equity to this cause eight years ago, and did all of the work pro bono, Jacqueline is still on a mission to continue with the renaissance of neighborhood schools nationwide. She is obsessed with sparking the national grass roots movement since 90% of America’s neighborhood schools are in sad shape. According to Jacqueline “If everyone just fixed their own neighborhood school, we could see real, systemic change across the country.”
Jacqueline has led workshops for the Community Schools Initiative, Northside Parents Network, and Chicago Public Schools on how public schools and reformers can stimulate communities to improve public education. She has consulted with schools and neighborhood groups on issues of strategy and organizational development. Her goal is to insert this idea into the national dialogue about education.
The story is inspiring on so many levels, but in addition to reinventing a school that was literally falling apart at the seams, Jacqueline reinvented herself in the process and established a brand new career. Harnessing her transferable skills from the academic and artistic arena, this mom has a passion for changing neighborhood schools across the country so kids can walk to school in their own communities.
Take Back the Schools
The next step for Jacqueline is to generate a steady income as a change agent consultant for neighborhood school reform. As the story of Nettelhorst spreads, she’s gaining momentum on a national level. If you have an interest in reforming your neighborhood school, be sure to contact Jacqueline. How to Walk to School provides a blueprint that any community can duplicate– with a little elbow grease and a lot of passion.
While doing a good deed that would enable her own children to walk to school, Jacqueline unearthed an accidental career that has inspired her to continue this work in other communities. Her success proves that good things do happen, often when you least expect them.
Jacqueline’s Action Steps for Reforming Your Neighborhood School:
- Form a group of core parents.
- Find a Principal you can work with.
- Find a pro-bono lawyer.
- Get the school spruced up.
- Start a public relations program.
- Enroll your own kids in the school.
- Get the community involved in the school.
- Settle in for three or more years of open houses and fundraisers, volunteering at the school, and meetings out the wazoo.
- Acknowledge you’re not going to get any breaks.
How to Walk to School the Book & Blog http://howtowalktoschool.com/
Nettelhorst School Video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XPZr6BYJSGc