How to Walk to School offers a compelling blueprint, but not a foundation

October 30th, 2009  |  Published in chicago

Moving to Chicago with two 9-year-olds, I had my first adult experience with “shopping” for schools. My household didn’t have the resources to consider private schools and were moving long after the deadline for applications to the Chicago Public Schools’ (CPS) selective magnet schools. So, the search for a good school was focused on the neighborhood schools where admission was guaranteed if a family lives within the school’s district boundaries. Knowing little about the city’s schools, websites provided information about test scores, programs offered, racial demographics, and, in some cases, parent reviews. The calculus of evaluating this information was extremely challenging. What needed to be read between the lines of parent reviews? Were there schools that deeply reflected diversity when a map of the highest rated schools and the racial makeup of the student bodies so clearly reflected the harsh rigidity of Chicago’s racial segregation, white flight, and gentrification? All of the factors seemed so difficult to weigh. How was I to compare the lively artwork (with notable connections across the curriculum) with the teacher who referred to some of her students as her “fragile babies” with the frantic parent distraught over pre-school admissions? Being only a quasi-parent complicated matters further. Ultimately, I wasn’t as intimately familiar with the needs of children that I had been living with as their mother. Furthermore, I found it hard to reconcile my abstract ideology with their concrete needs. I kept thinking of the choice in terms of my parents’ stories of changing race and class dynamics in the Flint, Michigan schools of their childhood and the subsequent flight of white, middle-class families from the schools and the city. I couldn’t stop thinking of the choice for these two kids in the broader context of how parents who could make choices about their children’s education ultimately made those choices. For better and for worse, even taking such larger dynamics into account, most parents make decisions based on the difficult projection of what will make their children most happy. As their mother firmly pointed out to me, the kids “aren’t an experiment.”

We ultimately moved to the Lakeview neighborhood, within the boundaries of the Nettelhorst school. On paper, the school seemed to have solid academics, a lot of arts programming, and visual first impressions showed a good playground, and vibrant exterior. The first time I visited the school, I was most struck by how designed the interior looked. It was neither sterile nor amateurish. It looked good. Slowly I heard bits and pieces of how parents in the community had invested in the school, shifting it from a school that faced many of the same problems as the majority of Chicago public schools into a highly desired, media acclaimed success story. The story of the changes seen by Nettelhorst seem almost mythical, so even if “How To Walk To School” does little to downplay the school’s mystique, it does provide a more comprehensive view of the school’s evolution.

“How To Walk To School” is co-authored by two of the key players in the school’s redevelopment. Jacqueline Edelberg is a parent who organized other East Lakeview parents to invest energy and resources into the neighborhood school while Susan Kurland is the former Nettelhorst principal who worked with community parents to bring changes to the school. Edelberg’s strategy for building a stong neighborhood school involved first organizing a small group of resourced neighborhood parents willing to commit to investing their energy, resources, and child’s attendence into the urban neighborhood public school rather than a private school, public magnet school, or a public school in the suburbs. These parents then built a strong relationship with an administrator (Kurland), who was willing to let the parents have broad access to the school to begin altering the school’s image in order to make it more appealing to other resourced families as an alternative to private or magnet schools. These parents also built relationships with cultural and community groups to provide services and programming at the school. This, once again, made the school more attractive to neighborhood parents and also to potential funders. Throughout the ongoing process of building a neighborhood school, the parents had to navigate the capricious funding and organizational dynamics of Chicago public schools. They also had to leverage their social capital to build relationships with everyone from neighborhood businesses to well-connected foundation board members to fund every aspect of the school’s changes. Finally, those working to bring about changes to the schoool had to adopt fundraising tactics from elite private schools and public relations strategies from the business sector to compete for scarce education funding dollars.

These strategies provide some surprising insights. The initial focus on attracting investment from resourced parents caused the original core group working to change the school to act first to make changes that some would argue as superficial. One such change was to remove the familiar posters encouraging students to read or discouraging negative behavior because such signs might trigger resourced parents’ negative preconceptions about the school.

Strangely, though written by Edelberg and Kurland, the story is told in the third person. While the authors try to be open about their orientations around the complicated issues that converge in public education, the third person voice ends up sounding more detached than objective. If, as the authors repeat throughout the books, school changes such as the ones happening at Nettelhorst can be initiated by average parents, everywhere, it is difficult to understand why they chose to awkwardly obscure their personalities, perspectives, and prejudices.

Narratives about public education often focus on a polarized cast of characters: parents, teachers, principals, school district administrators, politicians, and students. How to Walk to School tells a story about public education that is largely focused on a small group of parents and a principal. While such a focus makes sense in terms of the perspectives of the authors, no story about public education exists without the other players. Conflicts and challenges with teachers and other parents are frequently mentioned, but briefly, and as minor obstacles that could be powered through or circumvented. The approach taken by Edelberg and other neighborhood parents is a starkly unilateral one. Though the results of their efforts are impressive, the singular perspective of the book left me wondering if their were high costs to the approach of the Nettelhorst reformers that go unmentioned. The model and outcomes of the changes happening at Nettelhorst are interesting and significant, so it seems like the story deserves a more objective perspective that also includes the voices of those at odds with or marginalized by the changes in the school. Certainly, if the book is truly to act as a blueprint for other parents who want to enact change in their neighborhood schools, greater focus on the interpersonal, social, and ideological conflicts implicit to any kind of change would have been useful. With most of these challenges largely glossed over, the book may inspire others who wish to bring change to neighborhood schools but gives little perspective about how to improve on the process.

Divisions in race and class and the pain and animosity associated with these social rifts scar public education systems in the United States, particularly in cities with a long history of racial and economic segregation such as Chicago. In How to Walk to School, race and class loom as uncomfortable subjects. The ultimate result of the changes in Nettelhorst is that the neighborhood public school became a great educational option for middle to upper-middle class families who likely would have had a relatively large number of options for a quality education.

The authors of this book would likely admit that the strategy that they outline is a pragmatic one. However, it may be overly cynical. Early on, rather than changing neighborhood parents’ underlying prejudices about the school and the out-of-neighborhood students who filled it or mediating conflicts between students and school neighbors, those working to change the school chose to instead paint a more pleasant veneer over the school or limit interactions with students having just endured or preparing for a long bus ride home. Furthermore, while the book does not dismiss efforts towards fundamental shift in the amount of money directed by governments to public education, it believes that such changes are unlikely or slow to come and individual schools will have to help themselves.

The authors are quick to criticize “magic bullet” solutions such as CPS’ past dramatic restructuring of city schools. Just as these strategies can’t hope to solve for the diverse and deep problems of the district’s schools, Nettlehorst’s transformation doesn’t mean that the school is perfect. Sustaining quality public education remains a nuanced confluence of factors. The experience of the kids that I live with, transferring from a less resourced school to Nettelhorst, have been positive, but not idyllic. Ample funding for numerous arts programs hasn’t proven to be a match for a single excellent art teacher. Conversely, the visionary teachers who had such an equal, intimate relationship with their students at their old school had difficulty creating the calmer learning environment that they’ve found at Nettelhorst. Still, this doesn’t mean that the students don’t have to contend with capricious friendships, social hierarchies, and childhood cruelties. While the school has close relationships with the neighborhoods queer community, this doesn’t mean that students don’t bring their own family’s discomfort with different sexual orientations.

Perhaps, though, the most important change that results from the blueprint offered by How to Walk to School is not in the monetary resources of a school, its student demographics, or its curriculum, but a greater human investment, in terms of time, attention, and concern for public education from parents, administrators, neighbors, and the community. While this book stops short at exploring how this investment can help address challenges facing schools that can’t be improved with resources, such investments, if made carefully and with ample vision, might give way to broader transformations.