Art and Heart Transform a School

By Carolyn Edlund

In her own words, Jacqueline Edelberg describes herself as “a professional artist who led eight moms in a Chicago diner . . . neighborhood painters and artists transformed our school, top to bottom, and in so doing, transformed our entire community.” She spoke about this amazing project and it’s national effect.

AS:  What was the situation at your neighborhood school before the transformation, and how did you decide to act?

JE: When my daughter Maya was two, I consciously chose to ignore all the desperate park chatter about schools. Parents angled to get their kids into prestigious private schools, but in listening to the conversations, it became clear that most of these anxious parents were not social climbers seeking the perfect school.  Rather, they were rational city-dwellers who, quite simply, found themselves with few academic options.

In Chicago, choice public schools admit students by lottery or testing, and the competition is fierce. The city’s entire five-year-old population is in frenzied competition for a few hundred spots. It’s statistically harder to get your kindergartener into a top public magnet school than it is to get your high school senior into Harvard.

Given the cost of private school, the uncertainty of admissions, the problems associated with public school, including budget cuts, high class sizes, low test scores, busing, concerns of violence, etc. it is no wonder that so many Chicago families decide to call it quits, and move to the suburbs.

My girlfriend and I ventured inside Nettelhorst, our neighborhood’s struggling public elementary school to see get how terrible the place was. The new principal, Susan Kurland 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. Susan read our list and said “Well, let’s get started, girls! It’s going to be a busy year…”

AS:  There were many parts to the revitalization, and painting the school was one of them. What else did you tackle?

JE: What  would it take to make a neighborhood return to its public school? We imagined what the ideal elementary school might look like, how it would feel, and what it might offer. We cobbled together an elaborate wish list: low teacher/student ratios, accelerated academic programming, foreign language instruction, conceptual math, unfettered parental access, beautiful classrooms and public spaces, stellar enrichment programs, and so on. If the school was going to be a real choice, it needed to deliver on all these fronts. Even the most risk-tolerant parents wouldn’t be willing to risk their children’s education, so we rolled up our sleeves.

Renovating the school was a huge piece of our mission. When we arrived on the scene, the school looked like a penitentiary, but the 120 year-old building had great bones. Parents, teachers, students, and business owners rolled up their sleeves and got to work, all with a budget of zero.  Today, there isn’t an inch of the school that hasn’t been licked by a neighborhood artist. It’s pure magic.

AS:  You’ve had great results, not only in boosting enrollment, but energizing a community. What happened?

JE: Library Journal said we did it because we had “right mix of parent-teacher patience, willpower, community involvement, pluck, creativity, collaboration, and ability to overcome adversity.” I think it came down to the fact that we asked. We asked people to become involved. We asked people to invest with the energy and their children. We asked people to help. And they did.

AS:  This has led you to write your book, “How to Walk to School”. Tell us about the national implications of project and where you want to take this idea.

JE: When I wrote  How to Walk to School: Blueprint for a Neighborhood Renaissance, I never envisioned the enthusiasm with which it would be received.  I’ve found that creating wonderful schools for our children is not just a priority for parents nationwide — it’s a mission, a passion.

So many stars are in alignment right now. When I was in DC in September, I met with staff of all the democratic Senators on the Education Committee, and change is in the air: PBS just aired a documentary that follows two Chicago principals through the academic year. This Spring, “The Lottery,” a feature-length documentary airs that explores the struggles and dreams of four families from Harlem and the Bronx in the months leading up to the lottery for Harlem Success Academy, one of the most successful schools in New York. The call for universal preschool is getting louder as Jumpstart’s Read for the Record adds some real star power. Innovative empowerment zones, like the Harlem Children Zone, point to new willingness for policy makers to think outside the box. And, with backing from the Department of Education, Community Schools (of which Nettelhorst was Chicago’s first) are poised to become the national model. At long last, it seems as though our country is on the cusp of real school reform.

AS:  All the hard work at your school involved a lot of volunteerism. Can you speak about how other artists can get involved in acting for the benefit of their own communities?

JE: There’s a ton of stuff we can do.  One of the joys of needing everything is that anything you get is just perfect. Most public schools are unbelievably ugly. As an artist, our ugly duckling presented the most delicious canvas imaginable.

If you’re a creative type, gather up some artist pals, walk into a school, and ask the principal if there’s anything you can do to help. Don’t wait for an invitation. If you’re a painter, paint. If you’re a graphic designer, design a post card. A welder? Make a whimsical fence. Whatever you do, there is a public school nearby that desperately needs some love and affection.

If eight park moms could pull our little neighborhood school out of its twenty-five year nosedive, surely other driven parents 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?

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