How to Walk to School, Jacqueline Edelberg and Susan Kurland, Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2009
A while ago I read the thought-provoking How to Walk to School by Jacqueline Edelberg and Susan Kurland. It is both a blow-by-blow narrative of a group of mothers' heroic effort to reclaim and reform Nettelhorst, their neighborhood school, and a blueprint for other schools/parent groups to do the same. The story is compelling, and in many ways, inspiring. In the current, convoluted system that is the Chicago Public Schools, parents must navigate a complicated system of neighborhood, charter, magnet and gifted programs, in the hopes of finding (and being eligible for/accepted to) a program appropriate for their children. In the book, these dedicated parents, working closely with the remarkable principal of the school, manage, through Herculean effort, to turn their local school from one that most neighborhood parents would not even consider into a school that was not only desirable and successful, but which also became a vibrant community institution.
I've had a hard time clarifying what I wanted to say about this book. This post has sat in draft form for months, and even now I'm not sure I'm getting it right. But the truth is, it was hard to read the book and not feel angry at a system which is so clearly failing children and families. So today, I am taking the liberty of stepping away from the role of book reviewer and getting up on the soapbox instead.
This winter, WBEZ Public Radio ran a fascinating story entitled "Diverse Neighborhoods, Segregated Schools." The story addresses the impact of the school system on those left out of the selective process, finding they are often lower-income, African-American kids attending neighborhood schools like Smyth. Smyth is 98% African-American, less than 2% Hispanic, 98% low-income, and with fewer than 50% of students meeting/exceeding standards on the state tests. The neighborhoods around Smyth school may be economically and ethnically diverse, but the white, middle class parents in the neighborhood don't see Smyth as an acceptable choice for their children, and find placements elsewhere.
WBEZ reports, "And Smyth is struggling. It posts some of the worst test scores in the city. In fact, scores here are 20 points below the district’s average for both African-American and poor students. [One nearby parent] never even considered sending his daughter here. That stirs up a lot of emotion in Delora Scott-Wimberly, a Smyth parent who’s had to explain to her seventh grader why white people won’t send their kids to her school."
The Nettelhorst reform was undertaken by middle/professional-class parents coming in from the outside, bringing determination, talents, connections, and incredible amounts of volunteer time to make it happen. The changes they made were not entirely beneficial for all of Nettlehorst's existing students. For example, many students who had received transportation from the school district lost that service as a result of the eventual change in the school's status, necessitating unwieldy multiple-transfer trips using public transportation, and also sometimes preventing them from participating in after-school activities. Over time, the makeup of the student body changed dramatically as a result of the school's success, from one that was primarily made up of low-income minority students bussed in from around the city to one that, according to its latest "school report card," is now 60% white, 15% African-American, 15% Hispanic, 8% Asian, 30% low-income, and achieving high state test scores (better than 80% meeting/exceeding standards).
I don't begrudge Nettelhorst its success - those parents worked hard, and truly created an improved educational environment for the incoming classes of students - but the mere fact that such a reform was necessary is a sign the system just isn't working. Would parents at a school like Smyth be able to marshal the resources to undertake such changes? What happens to students and families post-reform - who benefits, and who is left out? When spaces in a newly-reformed school are filled by new neighborhood enrollees, what happens to the non-neighborhood children who might have otherwise been eligible - do they have equally good options?
Our family is only temporarily in Chicago; we are heading back home soon to a well-regarded suburban school district. But I know cities all over the country face similar issues, including neighbors back home. I sure don't claim to have the answers, but after reading this book, I couldn't help but wonder what justice there is in a system in which permits one group of parents/students to win and another to lose. In a system in which parents of all kinds feel worried and uncertain about the kind of education they can secure for their children. In a system in which those schools with talented, connected parent fundraising organizations thrive, and the others are left to fend for themselves. And finally, what justice is there in a system that leaves some students wondering why they just aren't considered to be good enough? As school districts across the country face drastic budget cuts, let's take a moment to consider whether we as a society are truly doing right by our children. All of our children.