For home buyers with kids, settling in a good school district is a must, right? Not according to Jacqueline Edelberg. In 2006, when she was deciding where to send her child to school, Edelberg checked out Nettelhorst, the local public option in her Chicago neighborhood. The problem: It was run-down and failing. Most of the students were bused in from outlying low-income areas; even local city officials recommended that Edelberg send her child elsewhere.
But after touring the school, Edelberg and another parent were asked by the principal what it would take for them to enroll their kids. So they submitted a list of must-haves -- and they insisted that these changes be completed within nine months. Some of the demands were low-hanging fruit, such as replacing the motivational posters in the hallways with kids' artwork.
"We knew if it took longer, neighborhood families would make other plans for their kids' education," says Edelberg. She and the other parent also agreed to help the school meet these challenges.
Although it was a tall order, it didn't take long for Edelberg's changes to make a palpable difference. Within a year, Nettelhorst had a waitlist and the school was on its way to being designated "high performing." And within a few more, developers started building condominiums in the neighborhood and boasting in promotional materials that they were located in the Nettelhorst district.
"The school has absolutely given families a reason to stay in the neighborhood," says Brad Lippitz of Chicago's Brad Lippitz Group. "It's become the nucleus of the whole area, and home buyers now seek it out."
"The important takeaway is that we're not a boutique example or an urban myth, and we're not rocket scientists," says Edelberg, who went on to co-write " How to Walk to School: Blueprint for a Neighborhood School Renaissance." In fact, she says communities all over the country are improving mediocre schools so quickly that their own kids can reap the benefits.
Here's how Edelberg and others achieved these goals in case you'd like to follow in their footsteps.
It takes a village
For Edelberg, the key to improving her school started with making it a more welcoming place. For one, she asked that the intimidating "No Loitering" signs in the playground be removed, and that the classroom shades stay open, day and night, to show off classrooms filled with kids' artwork.
"That way neighbors on the way home from work would see joyful classrooms," she says. "It's very hard to invite your neighborhood in when everything is locked down and shuttered tight."
From there, Edelberg galvanized local parents, assigning tasks to members of the school community with relevant experience to improve the school -- piece by piece.
"Our success depended on being a place where people wanted to be, and a place that locals felt invested in," recalls Edelberg. So to cultivate that connection, they invited local artists to make over the walls and asked neighborhood tradespeople (electricians, plumbers, etc.) to each do one thing, pro bono, at the school site. They also made the school's space available after hours to community groups and began hosting community festivals. On weekends, they set up a farmers market; within the classrooms, they had parents volunteer to help support teachers.
It didn't take long for this influx of community involvement to make a difference. Some teachers weren't in tune with the new vibe at the school and opted to leave. Others upped their game to meet the new expectations of the students, their parents, and the school administration.
The whole movement was led by a core group of eight parents -- some working full time, others occupied with young children -- that used a local diner as its headquarters for biweekly meetings.
"You wouldn't believe what even the busiest parents can get done with some training and strategizing," says Danielle Asher, director of the Parent Leadership Initiative in Commack, NY, which offers training in public speaking and organizing to parents interested in making changes in their school system.
A school's online impression matters, too
Another essential step to transforming a school: Improve the impression it makes online, because that's how many parents will research a school.
"The trick is to talk about the school in the light in which it wants to be perceived," says Matt Archambault, who works in online brand management for BrandYourself.com. A killer website, active Twitter feed, and a blog with real stories about the people and events of a school can all burnish a school's image.
Communication is also key when it comes to making change, whether it happens over coffee at a local diner, as in Edelberg's case, or by using new options such as Tendle, which offers school communities an online space for discussions and sharing ideas.
"Whether it's school performance or other trends that are circulating at an institution, knowing about the issues and having a place to discuss them is the first step to solving them," says Melanie Lekkos, Tendle's founder.
Show me the money
Of course, to raise a school's standing quickly, money is also important. Instead of "shaking parents down," Edelberg and her team opted to create a dozen or so proposals for projects they desperately wanted funded, including a new gymnasium and science lab. Over time, as donors and organizations expressed interest in helping out, the proposals -- with precise requests and guidelines -- were made available so people could pitch in. Other creative methods abound, too.
"Parents often think raising money isn't worth it, because it won't affect change quickly enough to benefit their own kids while they're still at a school," says Sarah Barrett, author of " A Mom's Guide to School Fundraising" and " The Party Book Kit," which outlines innovative suggestions for fundraising events. "But if the fundraisers are genuinely enjoyable and therefore popular, they'll raise money that can be used toward visible things like new playground equipment -- and that can improve the school's standing."
Barrett suggests partnering with local businesses to offer an evening that parents would most likely pay to participate in elsewhere, such as a wine tasting. Or for an event with more family-friendly appeal, she recommends cutting a deal with a video game truck at a time when it probably isn't booked, like a weekday afternoon.
Lastly, there are always the old-fashioned ways of getting things done, such as running for a seat on the school board.
"It's great for parents to be involved by showing up at parent-teacher nights and PTA fundraisers, but it's better for parents to get control," explains Regina H. Paul, president of Policy Studies in Education, an organization that provides consulting services and technical assistance to both public and private educational institutions. "And being elected to the school board is the best way to do that."
Ultimately, it is possible to turn a school around. But it takes serious commitment and vision.
"Nettelhorst's transformation was not all smooth sailing all the time," cautions Edelberg. In fact, during one early volunteer shift when she was helping paint a mural near the lunchroom, a teacher spit on her while passing by. Yet somehow, Edelberg and her team remained resolute.
"The school wasn't fit for any kid, let alone my own," she says. "But we just kept asking people to help by doing a little of what they already did professionally, like advertising or communications. And it worked."