The Nettelhorst Revolution

Jacqueline Edelberg came to town to talk about innovation—a key word in education—but she actually put forth a surprisingly retro idea: the neighborhood school.

'Edelberg, with school principal Susan Kurland, wrote a book about their experience with a Chicago public elementary school. Theirs is a story about the energy and creativity that is unleashed when moms, whose bonds were forged on the play lot, connect with strong, capable school leadership.

"We believed that we were entitled, that the system should work for us," Edelberg said.

I had the same conviction when my children were about to enter school: I live here and pay my taxes, why shouldn’t my children go to school here.

The book, titled How to Walk to School: Blueprint for a Neighborhood School Renaissance, was Edelberg’s topic when she spoke to about 25 people at the Lee Road Library in June.

Eight years ago, the Nettelhorst School and the East Lakeview neighborhood were alienated from each other. Almost all the children were bused in from seven overcrowded schools. The turnover of students was over 50 percent a year, and only 30 percent were functioning at or above grade level.

Edelberg loved her neighborhood, which she compared to Tremont in Cleveland. Rather than move to the suburbs, a group of eight moms decided to meet with the principal, Susan Kurland.

"What do I have to do to get your kids here?" Principal Kurland asked, after hearing them out. The women returned the next day with a five-page list. "Let’s get busy," Kurland said. "We have a lot of work to do." A partnership was born.

The building was uninviting. Artists painted the halls and classrooms with murals. "We woke it up," Edelberg said. "Schools should be delicious. We rebranded it. We got the message out that the school was open for business. We gave tours to anyone." The group raised $500,000 in donated services and items, such as paint, artists’ time, plumbing and electrical work and carpeting.

At the end of nine months, 78 parents signed up their children for preschool. They kept on working. They made the school the center of the community. It became Water Station #8 for the Chicago marathon. They brought in a market. Parents volunteered in the classroom, which also served to enhance their trust in the school.

Less competent teachers left within the first two and a half years. Test scores of 9- to 11-year-olds were on a par with any private school. As the neighborhood children filled the classrooms, the district stopped busing.

Nettelhorst became a community school. Artists and musicians were given free space if they contributed to the curriculum. Extracurricular classes, such as karate and ballet, were held after school.

"The idea was to absorb the goodness of the community," Edelberg said. "But," she insisted, "money did not power the Nettelhorst revolution. People did. Nettelhorst is a product of good leadership and the neighborhood buying in."

Many forces erode neighborhood schools: busing, working parents, security issues, poverty, the divisiveness of race and class, mobility and more.

Public schools are in a tough market, competing not only with private and religious schools, but also with charter schools and voucher programs. Edelberg, however, is not daunted. Nettelhorst, she believes, can hold its own with any school.

Joan Spoerl, whose son will enter Fairfax in the fall, initiated the invitation to Edelberg to speak in Cleveland Heights. "She is me eight years ago," the author said, looking over at Spoerl. "[Potential school advocates] are at every sandbox in America."

Is the Nettelhorst experience unique? Of course it is. But every school is a living organism, and each must solve its own problems. To the public school naysayers, Nettelhorst is a shining example of what can be done. For more information about Edelberg’s book and the Nettelhorst revolution, go to

Join the book discussion July 14 and August 19 at 7 p.m. at the Lee Road Library.

Eleanor Mallet’s column, "A Heights Observer," explores the nooks and crannies in the Heights. She can be reached at

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Volume 3, Issue 7, Posted 2:16 PM, 06.22.2010