By Carrie Golus, AB’91, AM’93, courtesy of University of Chicago Magazine
Photo credit: Courtesy Angie Garbot/The Core

The neighborhood school model has served our country well for a hundred years. There’s no need for a radically newfangled approach.”
—Jacqueline Edelberg
AB’89, PhD’96

It took Jacqueline Edelberg, AB’89, PhD’96, 15 minutes of internet research to realize the school situation in Chicago is “really dire,” she says. She and husband Andrew Slobodien, AM’90, could just about afford to send their daughter to private school, “as long as we never ate out or went on vacation again.”

Then there was their neighborhood school, Nettelhorst Elementary. Built in 1892, the East Lakeview school was among Chicago’s most prestigious elementaries until the 1950s. But by the late 1990s—when Edelberg first began trying to find a decent kindergarten for Maya and Zack, now ten and eight—it was a dumping ground for unruly students bused in from overcrowded schools.

Edelberg and another parent decided to visit anyway. They found the new principal, Susan Kurland, to be remarkably open. After a three-hour tour, Kurland asked point-blank what she would have to do to get their kids to enroll.

The Revolutionaries Make Demands

The next day, they returned with a 19-point list: rigorous academics, low teacher-student ratio, recess (many Chicago Public Schools go without), a well-stocked library…and on and on. “Let’s get going, girls,” Kurland said. “It’s going to be a very busy year.”

Inspired, Edelberg mobilized seven neighborhood parents into the Roscoe Park Eight, named after a playlot on nearby Roscoe St. Within weeks, 200 more families joined. The reformers began transforming the school’s culture, beginning with its dour environment. They scrounged for goods and services from local merchants and applied for grants and corporate sponsorship.

Six years later, test scores have tripled and families move to the neighborhood so their children can enroll. “I would put my kids’ education on par with any private education in the city,” says Edelberg.

The Nettelhorst project encompassed public policy, urban planning, even arts education, says Edelberg, who has taught at Chicago, Loyola, DePaul, and Osnabruck University. “My training at the U of C”—where she took art as well as political science—“served me very well.”

A Blueprint for Change

In 2007, when it would seemingly take “an act of sabotage” to undo the reforms, Edelberg decided to write a book. How to Walk to School: Blueprint for a Neighborhood School Renaissance, co-written with Kurland, will be published this fall. The book includes a foreword by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, U-High’82, and afterword by Rahm Emanuel.

Edelberg hopes How to Walk to School will help shift the national discussion on public education, which has become snagged on vouchers and charter schools. “The neighborhood school model has served our country well for a hundred years,” she says. “There’s no need for a radically newfangled approach.”

Carrie Golus, AB’91, AM’93, courtesy of University of Chicago Magazine

Originally published on August 10, 2009.