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How to walk to school

Investing in our neighborhood schools is a key element in creating excellent neighborhoods. Jacqueline Edelberg, co-author of a book on building strong neighborhood schools, will be speaking at Congress Elementary on March 12.
Principal Cheney with kids from Congress

Principal Cheney with kids from Congress /Courtesy of East Hills Council of Neighbors

Underwriting support from:
Congress Elementary kids

Congress Elementary kids /Courtesy of East Hills Council of Neighbors

What if your first school choice for your children was the public school in your neighborhood? With charter schools, private schools and school-of-choice options, many public neighborhood schools have fallen out out of the running as parents’ first choice for their children. But strong neighborhoods need strong schools.

“Really excellent neighborhoods share a handful of key ingredients: public transportation, affordable housing, a farmers market, a decent corner bar and a vibrant neighborhood school,” says Jacqueline Edelberg, co-author of the book “How to Walk to School” and a nationally recognized expert on neighborhood school turnaround.

Edelberg will be speaking at Congress Elementary School (940 Baldwin St. SE) from 5:30-7:30 p.m. on March 12, prior to her participation in the Neighborhood Summit the following day.

Edelberg will be discussing how she and fellow neighborhood parents banded together to jumpstart the dramatic turnaround of Nettelhorst Elementary, a neighborhood school in Chicago’s East Lakeview neighborhood. She’ll also provide a blueprint of ways that communities can improve their neighborhood schools.

"Engagement is the only thing that matters,” says Edelberg. She believes that many communities have the energy, talent and resources to turn their neighborhood schools around – people just need to know what to do.

Upon reading “How to Walk to School,” members of East Hills Council of Neighbors (EHCN) could see many parallels between their work and the book.

“Just as East Hills was beginning to get involved at Congress, someone loaned me a copy of How to Walk to School.' It dovetailed so completely with what we were trying to do in East Hills, it was totally inspiring,” Elizabeth Hoffman Ransford, Co-Chair of EHCN remembers.

In 2011, the EHCN started East Hills Loves Congress as a grassroots initiative with the goal of mobilizing neighbors to help strengthen Congress Elementary.

“At Congress, we started far ahead of where Nettelhorst was,” says EHCN Director Rachel Lee. “It has allowed for tremendous momentum the last few years. We’ve already got solid community involvement, improving test scores, and a great teaching staff - plus the commitment of the district behind us.”

The Nettelhorst Success Story

When Edelberg, a mother of two, first visited Nettlehorst in 2000, not a single student from the neighborhood attended the school. Its students scored poorly on state tests, the building was in bad physical condition, and 90% of its students were below poverty level. But after a three hour tour, the principal welcomed the Edelberg and another mother’ involvement, asking, “What do I have to do to get your kids to come here?”

The next day, she and her friend returned with a five-page wish list for Nettelhorst – and together with the principal, they got to work.

With a core group of parents, Edelberg began a grassroots effort to galvanize the community around Nettelhorst. (Fun fact: Stephanie Schrodt, one of the mothers involved in the Nettelhorst turnaround, lived in Grand Rapids before moving to Chicago.) Parents contributed their skills and volunteer hours. Local businesses provided materials for building renovations. Local artists contributed murals and artwork.

Six months later, 300 families attended the first Nettelhorst open house – and 78 children were signed up for preschool that day.

"The neighborhood school model succeeded in this country for a century, but it worked because community members from across the socioeconomic spectrum invested with their children,” Edelberg says.

Over the long term, the results of community involvement at Nettelhorst have been dramatic. Enrollment doubled. Almost all the children at Nettelhorst now live in the surrounding neighborhood. Test scores also rose dramatically: in 2001, roughly 35% of Nettelhorst students met or exceeded state math and reading standards; by 2010, the rate had jumped to 86%.

Putting the Blueprint to Work at Congress

Congress has been East Hills’ neighborhood school for more than 140 years, but it had dropped from many parents’ radar. Since 2011, East Hills Loves Congress has worked to put Congress back on the map of families living in East Hills.

From the beginning, the initiative made a concerted effort to counteract the “family drain” the neighborhood was experiencing by investing heavily in a relationship with the school and the school’s dynamic principal, Bridget Cheney.

Members of EHCN also shared “How to Walk to School” with John Helmholdt, Director of Communications for Grand Rapids Public Schools, and the Nettelhorst story struck a chord with GRPS administration as well.

"’How to Walk to School’ has played a key role in the development of the GRPS Transformation Plan focused on reconnecting our neighborhood schools with the residents and businesses in their area,” Helmholdt says. “What started with our friends and advocates at East Hills Council of Neighbors is now spreading to other neighborhood associations and neighborhood schools throughout the city.”

Over the past four years, East Hills Loves Congress has, among other things, succeeded in obtaining a historic designation for the Congress Elementary building; helped build a community garden; improved the aesthetic of the property with trees, fresh paint and signage; worked with community partner Creative Youth Center to add writing classes, created family engagement events such as a Kids’ Day, and worked with parents to gather their own “parent wishlist” for Congress strategic plan goals. In 2014, the East Hills Public Space Strategy devoted an entire section the work of East Hills Loves Congress.

Despite the many accomplishments of East Hills Loves Congress, Principal Cheney and the Congress Elementary students, the work is not done. As East Hills grows, the community must work together to ensure that its youngest residents continue to have a strong, vibrant, neighborhood school to help them learn and grow to their full potential.

The Nettelhorst model can be utilized in many neighborhoods across the city to build stronger schools for thousands of students in Grand Rapids. Anyone who’d like to learn how they can help support their neighborhood school is invited to attend and hear Edelberg speak on March 12.

"There are no magic bullets, and our blueprint for revitalization is not a one-size-fits-all model, Edelberg says. “Change may take longer, but the key is to start doing."

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