How to Make a Struggling School Good (Maybe Even Great)

Hey Readers! Here’s an inspiring post by Jacqueline Edelberg, former Fulbright scholar and now author of  How bsnfznryab
to Walk to School: Blueprint for a Neighborhood School Renaissance
foreword by Arne Duncan and afterword by Rahm Emanuel (with whom I went to elementary school!). Her story on turning around a school has been featured on  NPR, CNN, 60 Minutes — a lot of media. But I hadn’t heard of it till now, and I’m so glad she dropped a note!

In my New York neighborhood, something similar did indeed transpire: A miserable school became an enviable one, with parents who’d shunned it now dying to get their kids in. It was an unswerving principal, Anne Marie Carillo, who did it for us. As you’ll see in the following essay, big change can also start with a group of fed-up moms.

You Can Make Your School Great, by Jacqueline Edelberg

My book has a very simple message: Every kid in every community deserves a great neighborhood public school. I led eight moms in a Chicago diner to make our dreams come true.

Faced with the totally insane public/private school gauntlet that frustrates parents across America, my girlfriend and I ventured inside Nettelhorst, our neighborhood’s underutilized and struggling public elementary school, to see get how terrible the place was. The new principal asked what it would take for us to enroll our children. Stunned by her candor, we returned the next day armed with an extensive wish list. The principal read our list and said “Well, let’s get started, girls! It’s going to be a busy year…”

We were eight park moms who galvanized neighborhood parents and then organized an entire community to take a leap of faith, transforming a challenged urban school into one of Chicago’s best, virtually overnight.

The eight of us each captained a team: infrastructure, PR, marketing, curriculum, enrichment, special events, and fundraising.  After nine months, we hosted our first Open House: 300 neighborhood families came, and 78 kids signed up for preschool that day!

How do you turn a neighborhood school into the heart of the community? Equal measures of elbow grease, hustle, moxie, some smoke and mirrors, and luck.

The infrastructure team recruited artists to transform the neglected, 120 year-old building into pure magic, all with a budget of ZERO. Take a virtual tour. It will knock your socks off. [Lenore’s note: It did!]

The enrichment team developed an innovative fee-for-service community school model in which established cultural purveyors come into the school to teach their craft. Instead of casting 650 kids out into the universe afterschool, why not invite 30 instructors to come to the school? Clever us, we found a way to free the soccer mom!

The special events team convinced the Chamber of Commerce to host all community events at the school: Halloween Hooplas, Little Bunny Egg Hunts, Pet Fests, you name it. We also started a Farmer’s Market with Bensidoun USA. The idea was to put “going to” and “Nettelhorst” in the same sentence, which hadn’t happened in 30 years.

Meanwhile, the PR and marketing teams worked over-drive to change community perceptions. We learned that you can re-brand and reposition a failing public school almost like cereal. The good news is that it’s not like you’re selling Ho-Hos or Twinkies: a viable public school is something that everyone desperately wants. Still, it took some work convincing a skittish population that viable doesn’t mean perfect. Did any of us have a perfect elementary school? Even though Nettelhorst just needed to be “good enough,” the process of so many creative minds coming together created a school that has become much more than the sum of its parts.

Money didn’t drive our efforts. Funny, nobody wanted to give money to a failing Chicago public school, and the park moms were already investing sweat equity, so we quickly disbanded the fundraising team. However, three years in, it’s back. That’s because we learned how to galvanize resources and create deep mutually beneficial partnerships. Now our development team rivals any private school. But, it wasn’t money that powered the Nettelhorst revolution. People powered it.

While the last seven years have been very good to my little school, the real story is that this change can happen at any school.

While some skepticism is to be expected, the latest criticism I’ve heard has me apoplectic. This, from an über-respected education expert — and a woman, no less! “I’m sure your little public school is great, and that you mommies have done a great job fixing it up, and that’s all great, but until your model is brought to scale, it really isn’t germane.”

Are you kidding? I thought we mommies already had gone to scale! Why do so many experts and policy wonks believe that parents can’t really impact school reform in any systemic way? “Little mommies”— HA! Have they even been to a neighborhood sandbox lately? Women change the world every day!

But we don’t need to wait for some fancy new educational initiative to fall from the sky. YOU have the power to create change in your community from the ground up. Our crowd wasn’t a bunch of nuclear physicists building a reactor. This is elementary school, people.

Everybody thinks that American education is so messed up, that there isn’t anything that people possibly do to fix it. But, that’s not true. There’s a ton of stuff we can do. It’s just a question of figuring out a game plan, and then putting one foot in front of another and doing it. Together.

Make no mistake: change requires work. Our experience fixing Nettelhorst wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns. Change is often messy and unpredictable. Our journey was a full-tilt crazy, hard, emotional rollercoaster, but overall, it was immensely satisfying, joyful work. And, the school itself is proof positive that our approach works.

If eight park moms could pull our little neighborhood school out of its 25- year nosedive, surely other driven moms — and dads — could do the same thing. If we could spark a national grassroots school reform movement that would pull us all out of the giant mess we’re in, now wouldn’t that be something? — Jacqueline Edelberg

Lenore’s note: Yes!

For more info, please go to

P.S. (From Lenore): Some folks are suggesting that this kind of activism is not Free-Range, but it very much is.  Free-Range is all about COMMUNITY. The more we build it, the more we interact with our neighbors and neighborhood, the safer everyone feels and the more willing we are to let our kids out into it. It’s that “olden days” feeling everyone longs for.

And who would ever argue against helping to create a good, local public school? It’s like arguing against Popsicles, puppies and summer! L.

44 Responses to How to Make a Struggling School Good (Maybe Even Great)

  1. Juliet Robertson July 7, 2010 at 7:46 pm #

    What a good news story.

    In my experience, parents are crucial to the success of any school along with a willing principal and staff who understand the benefits of working with and utilising parent parent.

    Great examples to also see are…
    The Coombes CE School in Berkshire, England – yes an ordinary state school with more than 600 pupils It’s so good that at least 3 books have been written about it over the past decade.

    Also Puget Sound Community School in Seattle. Small, alternative and a fantastic pupil, parent and community ethos

    Hooray for all!

  2. Kenny Felder July 7, 2010 at 7:53 pm #

    That is a wonderful and inspirational story!

    I went to first grade in 1972, the year bussing started in Raleigh, North Carolina. A bunch of us middle-class kids from North Raleigh were bussed into a small, dilapidated school downtown. And our Moms got busy. They painted the school (literally). They organized a drive to get books for the library, which had almost none. They replaced the rusty, decaying playground equipment. My mother spent hours every day at the school, helping struggling kids with math. The school was transformed.

    Now I’m a high school teacher in downtown Raleigh, and I see every day how a few dedicated parent volunteers make our school a better experience and a better education for all our students.

    It’s a wonderful thing that Mrs. Edelberg and company did for their school, and they should be really proud. The only sense in which it “doesn’t scale” is that it isn’t the basis for a national policy. It is the reason that schools with a great base of middle-class Moms, preferably quite a few of them without full-time salary-earning responsibilities, can become great schools. In the inner cities and in the rural areas where almost all the mothers are themselves uneducated, and/or strugging to put food on the table, this kind of transformation isn’t going to happen in this way.

    An army of Edelberg-Moms would be a *wonderful* thing for our schools, but we can take other steps too, as a country, to make sure all our children get the kind of education that her kids are getting (and that I got).

  3. Jennifer July 7, 2010 at 8:07 pm #

    I find this sort of inspirational and sort of depressing at the same time. It’s great that these people did so much to improve the school. But the message seems to be a lot like the super-mom one. In addition to parenting, holding down a job, and taking care of a home, now you can make sure your child’s school is a good one by devoting huge amounts of time and effort to it. So much for having the occasional bit of time to hang out and relax or spend time with adult friends.

    Also, where were the dads in all this?

  4. Penni Russon July 7, 2010 at 8:22 pm #

    I wanted to stand up and cheer at the end of this post. How inspiring.

    Our local school is shrinking, and it looks like next year my daughter might be the only girl in prep (first year of primary or elementary school). For some reason in my Australian city people have gone crazy shopping around for the “best” public school instead of sending their kids to the nearest one. The idea of driving past a perfectly good school with walls, roofs, teachers, sports fields and running water (in walking distance from our house) to get to another one was anathema to me. So instead we decided to invest the time and energy we might have spent carting our kids around the countryside into the small local struggling school and boy did we get lucky. It is such a great place and now I feel sorry for my next door neighbours every morning when I see them piling into the car. Man, we honestly see kangaroos hopping down the street on our way to school, and we don’t have to worry about running them down.

    I do see Jennifer’s point in terms of free range though – I don’t WANT to run the school. How did the various governments drop the ball on education so badly in the first world? When I was a kid in the 80s at my primary school there was a librarian, a music teacher (who took classes, choir, taught guitar, taught recorder, gave private flute tuition in lunch hourse, organised concerts etc), a phys ed teacher, a special ed teacher and a teacher devoted to enrichment and development as well as the ordinary classroom teachers. Now our school has to balance the budget for everything – basically it’s a small business run by a committee of staff and parents – and as a result the principal teaches a class, and we’re lucky if we get a music teacher for one day a week for two terms.

  5. liz July 7, 2010 at 8:37 pm #

    As any teacher will tell you, parents are the key to a successful school. However, very few news reports about schools good and bad consider the effect of parental involvement. My husband is a kindergarten teacher, and the whole year can go by without him ever talking to, much less seeing in person, certain parents. (And of course, these are the parents he most needs to see.) He sends notes, makes phone calls, makes himself available for conferences 14 hours a day, hosts parents nights activities…and still some parents never show. What is that telling their child? I’m delighted these eight moms made such a difference, but what every classroom needs is a parent per child, involved to whatever extent they can be.

  6. Lainie Levin July 7, 2010 at 9:00 pm #

    What timing! I just checked this book out from the library yesterday. This makes me even more excited to read and enjoy.

  7. Sander de Regt July 7, 2010 at 9:43 pm #

    Hmm…even though it’s a great story, it feels a bit strange to advocate this on a site that’s almost dedicated to lessen the amount of hovering from helicopter parents. Doing homework with your kids and watching tv with them to see if what they’re watching is appropriate is too much, but completely overhauling a school to make it suitable for your kids isn’t? It’s like babyproofing a complete school.

    All kidding aside, it’s wonderful what these people have accomplished.

  8. Vince L July 7, 2010 at 10:05 pm #

    We had this kind of motivation and desire to improve/work at my daughters day-care. The problem was that as the kids aged out so did the parents. Not many of the new parents wanted to get involved (“I am already so busy.”). The sad part was 2 years after we left (we got active in grade school then middle now H.S.) the daycare closed its doors. There apparently wasn’t enough desire to keep a good thing going. Too many parents (let alone kids) feel entitled to something good vs having to work for it. Too many parents (not that come to this site I am sure) don’t want to get invloved in anything outside thier little world. Kudos to these folks and thier successful dream. Let’s check back in 5 and 10 years and see how it is going.

  9. Karen Allendoerfer July 7, 2010 at 10:14 pm #

    I love this story too, and I congratulate the moms who made this work, but I have to agree with Jennifer, Penny, and others. I already have a full-time paid job and two kids. I don’t want to have to run a school in my “spare time.”

  10. Sarah July 7, 2010 at 10:14 pm #

    That is amazing! It is simply amazing what we can manage when we decide not to wait for the gov’t to do it for us. Way to go Mom’s!

  11. Donna July 7, 2010 at 10:29 pm #

    A similar thing happened in my neighborhood elementary school. The neighborhood surrounding our elementary school is filled with 400k-800k homes (I live a little farther away in the 200k range houses) occupied largely by college professors and yet none of those kids went to the neighborhood school. They either went to one of the numerous private schools or, since there was controlled school choice across the district, actually managed to lottery in to one of the spots in the “better” schools in town.

    Then a couple years ago, the county decided to tear down the school and build another one (historic front was left as a facade so it looks virtually the same but it’s an entirely new school). The local neighborhoods decided to come out and support the school. A school that was formerly 100% free lunch eligible is now about 50%. A school that formerly dismantled the PTA for lack of attendance now has a vibrant PTA. A school that had to ship kids to another school for tutoring has a full tutoring program of it’s own. Until school choice was dismantled this year, it was actually a chosen school for people outside the neighborhood. It’s now almost always chosen as the school to test any new programs. There are rock classes hosted by local bands (including the rare visit from members of REM). There is some grant for fresh produce in the lunch room.

    The school is far from perfect. It’s an inner city school with, regardless of the nice neighborhood it sits in, a large poor minority population. About a third of the families are non-English speakers. The upper grades (kids in school pre-rebuild) are still predominantly underprivileged since parents were willing to give the school a chance to start at kindergarten but not willing to pull their kids out of schools in which they were happy and thriving. However, continued effort on the part of the parents and community will continue to improve the school.

    I don’t think that this is anti-free range at all. I don’t actually mind being involved in my kid’s life. I didn’t have a kid to idly sit by and do absolutely nothing while expecting the world to handle my child without me. I’m willing to put some effort into getting her a good education and making her life fun. I’m not willing to hover, play with her 100% of the time, do her homework for her, pick her friends, manage her social life, write her college applications and get her a job but I don’t think putting in a little effort into her education is too much to ask.

  12. MFA Grad July 7, 2010 at 10:50 pm #

    Oh, this is a great story, and really close to home for me, literally – Nettlehorst is right up the street from where I live. I go to the French/Farmer’s Market there every weekend when in season – proximity to the market and the great produce/crafts there is one of my favorite things about living in that neighborhood. I moved there 4 years ago and noticed that the school looked wonderful – East Lakeview is a fantastic Chicago neighborhood to begin with and the school looked like it fit in perfectly. There were always really interesting and creative decorations outside the school – sculptures, decorations hung on trees, etc. – that made the school look bright and cheerful. I think it was last year that they replaced the playground equipment and now whenever we’re at the market there are kids playing while their parents shop.

    My husband and I wondered if it was a private or public school – considering all that appears in the news about Chicago public schools, we weren’t sure if it was a public school, so I’m really glad to hear that it is and how the parents were able to help bring the school around.

  13. BrianJ July 7, 2010 at 11:56 pm #

    This school has the two things any successful school needs: involved parents and an energized principal.

    While this story is almost all about the moms – and yes the moms did almost all of the work – note that the whole enterprise started when a new principal invited those moms into the school and asked for their help.

    Back when my oldest was born I started looking for a neighborhood to move to with decent schools. My neighborhood of choice (Piedmont Ave in Oakland CA) had a decent looking school. But when I checked it out on, I found that it had horrible test scores. I checked out other Oakland public schools in the area and the most striking thing was that all of the other decent schools showed 6 different ways from Sunday for parents (and in some cases pre-parents) to be involved. Piedmont Ave didn’t even have a contact listed for the principal or PTA.

    Principals matter. A lot. We would do well to focus our energies on recruiting, developing and paying excellent principals.

  14. pentamom July 8, 2010 at 12:00 am #

    “It’s like babyproofing a complete school.”

    No, it’s like getting involved in an effort to make a school function the way a school is supposed to function. What on earth would be the value of deciding “whatever” about the place you and your community spend millions of dollars to fund, upon which you depend for most of your children’s waking hours, and most of their education?

    “Babyproofing” would be equivalent to, well, babyproofing — attempting to achieve perfection, remove all risk, make it so that your kids don’t have to be responsible for their own performance, and obsess about the details. But it’s not anti-Free Range for those parents who see a need and feel able to do something for the benefit of their, and other, kids, to do something about it. It’s anti-Free Range to believe your kid can’t function without you every moment. It’s not anti-Free Range to believe that kids benefit from the involvement of committed adults in improving society, education included.

    I really hope no one thinks that it’s a tenet of Free Rangeism that it’s fine to expend your time and energy on things you consider worthwhile– *as long as it’s not something that directly benefits your own kids.* That would be crazy.

  15. kherbert July 8, 2010 at 12:45 am #

    All the people on this site that hate public schools could take a lesson from this. Public schools are a function of goverment. Government is supposed to be responsive to the citizens. But if the citizens don’t take action then government falls to the opportunists out to line their own pockets.

    We are trying to build a base of parents like the parents in this story. We want help with a garden in the center of the school. The 3rd – 5th graders are doing a good deal of the heavy work – but we have some stuff that needs to be done by adults.

    I love the idea of having a farmer’s market on campus. I also think the playgrounds should be public parks after school hours and during vacations.

    Being involved in schools and local politics in general makes for a safer free range enviroment. Safer not just from the boggie man, but from the nanny state.

    If you don’t like the homework your kids are getting, do something. 1) find out the policy 2) have facts to back your vision 3) fight for your vision.

    One thing I find dishartning is the number of people on this sight who brag about ignoring the local news. How are you going to know about stupid policies fearmongers are pushing through. I believe in being proactive and fighting before these are adopted.

  16. Laura July 8, 2010 at 1:18 am #


    You make a big deal about statistics–and anyone can make a case with statistics. But do you think that crime statistics are down to 1970s levels precisely because parents *are* more aware of what their children are doing, and are more cautious?

    Thank you.

  17. pentamom July 8, 2010 at 1:21 am #

    Laura — no, because it’s ALL crime, not just crime that could potentially be affected by parental supervision. Being more aware of what my kids are doing has never stopped an armed robbery at a gas station.

  18. Stephanie - Home with the Kids July 8, 2010 at 1:26 am #

    This was especially interesting to me because I’m looking at homeschooling my daughter rather than sending her back to the neighborhood school this year. The few other parents I know are trying to lottery their way into a “better” school.

    The big problem as I see it is that the school is “teaching to the test” far too much. My daughter’s class and from what I’ve heard the other classes at her grade level, studied little more than math and English for most of the school year, saving more challenging assignments and a couple of field trips for the last few weeks of school after state testing was done.

    Frankly, I think teaching to the test is a part of why our school has lower scores. Kids get BORED when you don’t give them interesting assignments mixed in with the boring stuff. I believe a more rounded education is more helpful in learning the basics too.

    There were other issues, not just what they chose to teach. I’m still sending my son there for kindergarten and I hope that goes better.

  19. Eric July 8, 2010 at 2:06 am #

    @ Laura: I don’t statistics has much to do with how parents are “more aware” and cautious of their children. There are still cases of these types of parents running into child abductions and assaults. And these cases still even involve mostly people the child/family knows, NOT total strangers.

    The reason why crime rate is down, is because authorities have better understanding of criminals now, we have more advanced technology in terms of forensics, and techniques and procedures in solving crimes. These advances have made it harder for criminals to commit crimes, and therefore do it far less, or deter them all together. Of course there are still those that dare, but it is less now than say 20-30 years ago.

    You just find more and more parents are being overly cautious and fearful because of the media. It’s unfortunate in this technological age, that a lot of people hang on every word they read, listen and watch, instead of trying to understanding what is going on. Without understanding, and just reacting, helicopter parents shelter their children from knowledge and experience they would greatly benefit from as they get older. We all have a brain, and we are all capable of making OUR own decisions. Why do some have to rely on information from sources who’s primary objective is to get ratings, which makes them more money.

    There are still crimes to children that isn’t a question, but imagine if the child was educated and not fearful (because the parents aren’t fearful), they would have the confidence and know how to deal with certain situations. My nephew is 3 going on 4, together with his parents and his uncles, we’ve taught him what to do and what to say in certain situations. If you were to ask him “what would you do if someone tries to take you or do something to you that you don’t like?”, he’ll tell you “NO!”, then he’ll kick you in the shin (I told him that, lol), and run to mama or papa yelling “FIRE, FIRE, FIRE” all the while.

    We can go to a park, leave him to play with other kids with us sitting away at a bench or picnic table, and have very little to no worries about him. The little worry would be him tripping and losing a couple of teeth. But that’s just part of being a kid. Bumps, scrapes, and every so often a broken arm or leg. These don’t stress us out. He’s able to enjoy himself, he doesn’t even cry anymore when he falls or bumps his head, and we get to enjoy some adult time while he’s playing. We’ve also found him helping other children out, or letting us know that another child is doing something dangerous or has hurt themselves.

    If more helicopter parents instilled this positive reinforcement on their children, both they and their children would be less stressed and less fearful, and at the same time enjoy family time that much more. Remember, children grow up to be the type of person parents nurture them to be. If you teach them to be overly cautious and fearful, they grow up fearful and insecure. And this WILL affect them as they get older, emotionally and mentally. They will have no social skills, and will find it hard to make friends, eventually becoming loners. I’m sure most of us have known these type of kids when we were growing up. The loners I still know, haven’t changed much since high school. As they get older it becomes more difficult for them to find confidence in themselves and just end up settling to be mediocre, and mama’s boy or daddy’s girl. With very little personality of their own. And all this from what? Because their parents were to frightened FOR their child to let them prove themselves to his/her parents and the world. To me that’s pretty selfish of the parent. I understand they do it to protect their children, but they fail to realize what the consequences WILL BE when they do, and only look at the consequences of what MAY happen if they continue to shelter their children. IMO, the ends DO NOT justify the means.

  20. Eric July 8, 2010 at 2:07 am #

    Doh! I didn’t realize that turned out to be a bit of “rant”. lol My bad.

  21. Eric July 8, 2010 at 2:23 am #

    But that rant also ties in to the topic. The problem is that boards and experts aren’t thinking about what will benefit the children, they think of what will benefit themselves. It’s politics.

    Experts don’t want to be undermined by “non-experts”, the parents. How embarrassing would it be for Experts to be proven wrong by hard working, normal individuals. It’s an ego thing. And school boards…they are just like corporations. The more money in THEIR pockets, the better. And if that means cutting back on schools’ budget, or shutting down schools, so be it. It’s sad that more and more, it’s no longer about the children, but what makes the adults feel better about themselves.

    Many educational system issues can be easily fixed, as with any corporate, government financial issues. All it takes is less greed on those that control the money. So what if that the head person can’t buy that third house in the Caymans, or buy that 5th car. Or they don’t get their bi-annual bonus of six figures.

    Like Lenore mentioned, if eight normal moms can accomplish what they did, imagine a whole community, or a whole community backed by the school board. It’s about the kids and their future.

  22. pentamom July 8, 2010 at 2:50 am #

    “Remember, children grow up to be the type of person parents nurture them to be.”

    This is not entirely true. It is absolutely true that parents have a big influence on this, and that if kids are restricted, then they will probably always fear branching out. But I have kids who will probably always be loners, and kids who are anything but.

    I don’t disagree that it’s really important not to nurture your kids in such a way that social skills and abilities that they might have developed, are stunted. But don’t look at every socially challenged loner and make assumptions about his or her upbringing. Some kids (and later adults) just ARE that way, even with parents who try to draw them out.

  23. Sky July 8, 2010 at 4:05 am #

    While it’s amazing what these parents did, I think it’s a lot of work for supermoms to transform their neighborhood schools. Frankly, I’d rather spend the extra money to send them to a private school than to spend this much time marketing, fundraising, writing curriculum, and recruiting. (That and I’m an introvert, so I’d pretty much rather shoot myself than spend time fundraising, marketing, or recruiting.) But some people are called to this sort of activism.

  24. Steve July 8, 2010 at 4:30 am #

    Re: “Stephanie – Home with the Kids”

    You might want to read John Taylor Gatto’s book online: “The Underground History of American Education”

    And look at the Unschooling website:

  25. mvb July 8, 2010 at 4:38 am #

    I don’t think what these parents did was anti-free range at all. I think what they did is behave as excellent role models for their children. You don’t like how something is? Don’t sit back waiting for someone else to do something for you….Change it!

    On the other hand, I also agree with those of you who work outside the house full time… I’m not sure I forsee being the person with the time available to instigate the changing.

  26. Donna July 8, 2010 at 4:43 am #

    “The reason why crime rate is down, is because authorities have better understanding of criminals now, we have more advanced technology in terms of forensics, and techniques and procedures in solving crimes. These advances have made it harder for criminals to commit crimes, and therefore do it far less, or deter them all together. Of course there are still those that dare, but it is less now than say 20-30 years ago.”

    As someone in the criminal justice field, this is 100% not true and the result of watching too much CSI. 99.9% of crimes have no forensic evidence at all – we get maybe 4 or 5 (out of more than 1000) a year. It is no more difficult to commit crimes today than it was 20-30 years ago and you are no more likely to get caught. And there is no real deterence for criminals. Most criminals are decent people who completely lack skills to make good decisions. They know the negative consequences. They don’t want the negative consequences. But if there is a decision to be made, they will make the wrong one every single time. You can’t deter stupid.

  27. mvb July 8, 2010 at 4:45 am #

    @Donna — do you, then, have any insight into why crime rates are down? Perhaps there are just fewer stupid people? I’m okay with that…

  28. Donna July 8, 2010 at 4:52 am #

    “You make a big deal about statistics–and anyone can make a case with statistics. But do you think that crime statistics are down to 1970s levels precisely because parents *are* more aware of what their children are doing, and are more cautious?”

    Uh no. I work as a public defender and there hasn’t been a crime yet (except those involving children as the perpetrators) where I said “if parents had been watching their kids, this wouldn’t have happened.” And my pool of criminals and victims are about as far from white, middle class, helicopter parents as you can get. They are not cautious with their children in the least. However, children are still almost never victims of crimes and, if they are victims, it is a crime committed by a family member – child molestation or child abuse. In the almost 4 years since I’ve been there, we haven’t had a single stranger abduction, stranger molestation or stranger child murder. I don’t know of a single one that occurred before I got there.

  29. Donna July 8, 2010 at 5:13 am #

    @mvb – I think some is the aging population. You tend to commit less crimes as you get older. Another reason is that most crimes are related to drugs – the drugs themselves or derivative crimes – and mental health issues. Drug courts, DUI courts and mental health courts are actually getting people the help they need to stop their bad choices. The best that I can tell, the biggest reason is that the prisons are full of stupid.

    Truthfully, I expect to see an increase in crime in the near future (I hope I’m wrong). The problem is that prisons are containing a lot of the stupid right now but all they are teaching them is how to be better criminals. We got rid of rehabilitation programs years ago for pure punitive sentences. Eventually the states are going to crumble under this weight and prison populations are going to have to be reduced (ie California). Those people get out of prisons with no better thinking skills than they went in with and produce a bunch of little people with no decision making skills (it’s not uncommon for us to represent several members and generations of one family simultaneously).

    You want to truly keep crime down for the long term, you have to invest heavily in programs aimed teaching disadvantaged kids to make good decisions, drug treatment programs for the poor, mental health services for the poor and trying to find rehabilitation programs that work for the prison population that exists (although I think that this is a lost cause for many inmates).

  30. Joe July 8, 2010 at 5:26 am #

    Okay so here is my question – what about academics? Nothing in this story said anything about the academics of the school. I have no problem with a school functioning as a local gathering spot for families and kids – its great for every community to have a gathering spot, but at the end of the day the core mission of a school is education. Involved parents certainly do make a difference but I find it hard to believe that this school was in the midst of a 25 year nose dive and at the same time was providing quality education. Poor curriculum is usually was starts the death spiral of a public school. You can put a pig in a dress but its still a pig.

  31. ebohlman July 8, 2010 at 7:30 am #

    I suspect the biggest reason for the overall drop in crime was simply the aging of the Baby Boomers. Due to the combined effects of the Depression, WWII, and the post-WWII baby boom, between the mid-1960s (when crime started to rise) and the early 1990s (when it started to drop precipitously), the number of late teens and young adults (roughly 15-29) was historically high and the number of people in the immediately older generation was historically low. It just so happens that 15-29 is the most crime-prone age range.

    Improvements in the economy during the 1990s may have played some role, but the drop began before the economy improved and the relationship between the economy and crime isn’t particularly simple (there’s probably some mechanism whereby when people feel that they have bright futures ahead of them, they’re less likely to do things that would compromise that future).

    I have to agree that the school-improvement effort wasn’t a case of helicoptering; it was a case of community participation, something that accords with free-range ideals. My main concern is that it not be used to support a sort of naive libertarianism that claims that volunteerism can completely substitute for public institutions. What those mothers did wouldn’t have worked if there wasn’t some basic institutional infrastructure in place (.e.g. if instead of working with a pre-existing, government-owned school building, they had to buy up a block of houses at market price, tear them down, and build a school with their own labor).

  32. Eric July 8, 2010 at 8:33 am #

    @Pentamom: Of course, I’m being general. But based on my own experience of knowing parents to have loner kids, and growing up with individuals who are anti-social, the cases of kids being loners regardless of how they are brought up, is much fewer than those that are loners because they have been brought up sheltered. Some people are just wired that way from day one, true. But most others have been brought up to believe that is the norm. Try some research yourself. See what the parents are like of the loner type kids in you community. Chances are you’ll notice the parents of most of these children are very strict and anti-social themselves. Some even fearful and insecure.

    @Donna: So you are telling me that with the discovery of DNA forensics, wireless surveillance, high def cameras, and sophisticated alarm systems hasn’t helped the justice system convict more and the right criminals? That all those who have been wrongfully imprisoned but was released later because of DNA testing, would have been convicted anyways? You can’t tell me that it’s 100% that technological advances in the way authorities conduct their investigations doesn’t have even one iota of difference.

    As well, your saying that all criminals are just stupid people who make the wrong decisions. That you don’t take into account a persons situation. Yes ALL criminals make the wrong decisions, but it doesn’t mean their just plain stupid. Perhaps, they are good people who have been put in a position where they feel they have no other recourse. That their only way out (at least in to them in their situation) is to commit a crime. ie. robbery Desperate times call for desperate measures. That held true back then, and still holds true now. Can it not also be considered, that because these would be criminals know “big brother” can easily watch you more now than before, that they can be more easily identified and therefore get caught much easier, they would try that much harder to find a more legal way of getting out of their situation? Hence less crime.

    I can’t agree with you that advances in technology and better understanding has no bearing on the drop in crime rate. These same advances has lead to a lot of new beneficial discoveries in other fields. Is the law that much more different that they don’t benefit from it? It’s not the ONLY reason, but it’s definitely not 100% untrue, as you claim it to be. I guess being part of the justice system has had a very negative impact on you. Sounds like you’ve given up on hope for anyone who comes from an impoverished or unprivileged life. Sad. Because I’ve known people like this. Yes, they’ve made some bad decisions, but they’ve also made some good ones. All because there were people in their lives that did not give up on them. Some still struggle, but they struggle with integrity and honesty. They haven’t given up on themselves, even though they are constantly met with people like you who bring them down. Just like these women who worked hard in rebuilding a struggling school. They saw the positives, not the negatives. And thought enough beyond themselves to make a difference in their community and to the children.

    And no, my comment had NOTHING to do with those CSI shows. Please, THAT’S TV. I do watch a couple, but I laugh at how they do their investigations. Completely Hollywood. It’s just entertainment. lol I have friends in law enforcement who give me enough details. I have enough friends who work in litigation. Maybe the reason why you don’t see a lot of results in your area, is maybe because people aren’t really doing their jobs to the best of their abilities. But then again, if YOU’VE already given up people, who’s to say others in your city haven’t as well. I know people like these too.

  33. ebohlman July 8, 2010 at 9:59 am #

    One area where better policing might have contributed to lower crime rates is domestic violence; law enforcement now takes it much more seriously than they used to, often intervening before it reaches the point of murder or permanent injury. And child sexual abuse could be down because parents/stepparents/relatives now know that any allegation kids make will be taken seriously (OTOH, I strongly suspect that at least some of the decline is a decline in bogus allegations of child sexual abuse, particularly the use of such allegations as a hardball tactic in divorce/custody battles. If Susan Clancy’s recent work is right, the rate of CSA is somewhat lower than we thought (more like 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 10 boys) but has actually changed very little in recent decades, suggesting that much of the variation in the official statistics is really variation in what percentage of cases get reported).

  34. Donna July 8, 2010 at 11:10 am #

    @ Eric – That is exactly what I am saying – forensics has very little do with routine crime solving. Yes, DNA can free you or convict you if there is DNA, however, there is DNA in a minute number of cases. It comes into play literally in maybe 5 out of 1000 a year (mostly rape or murder). We occasionally get a finger print here or there. Not that most criminals think to use gloves but useable fingerprints are actually very hard to raise at a typical crime scenes. Wiretaps rarely come into play in cases other than drug buys. Cameras are very useful if the business or residence has them.

    Further, even if you have DNA or fingerprints or wiretap capabilities, you have to have a suspect before they are of any use whatsoever. You can’t wiretap someone unless you know who they are. If you don’t have a suspect to compare them to, fingerprints are useless and sit in a file until it’s closed as a cold case. If you have DNA, it’s one day (usually years after the crime) put into CODIS and if the perp happened to have been DNA tested previously (most likely in prison) then a match will come up. Otherwise, again DNA is meaningless. It will remain in CODIS in case the perp is ever DNA tested but otherwise it does nothing. These tools are more for crime verification – to verify that you have the right guy, right theory of the case – rather than actual crime solving.

    And I’m not jaded nor have I given up nor am I bringing anyone down. I’m actually beloved by the people at the jail (this week) and have them clamoring to have me on their cases. I’m also realistic as to who I’m dealing with. I enjoy what I do and like many of my clients. But I have to accept by the 3rd time in a year I’ve gotten them out of jail for something idiotic (something that they fully admit to me that they knew was idiotic when they did it) that they simply can’t make a good decision to save their life.

    These are not bad people. Their horrible decision making skills are 100% a result of their life circumstances. It’s a result of being poor. Of being uneducated. Of being born to parents who never learned how to make good decisions themselves. Of being born to parents who commit crimes themselves. Of being born to parents who are total pieces of —-. Of being born into an environment of drugs and crime. Of being born into an environment where going to prison is not a big deal. Of watching their daddy beat their mama on a regular basis. Of being born to drug addicted parents. Of being born to mentally ill parents. Of being addicted to drugs. Of having a mental illness.

    I wish that I could fix all society’s ills and teach my clients how to make good decisions. I’m just their attorney. I don’t have the resources to change their lives beyond their case. My job is to get them out of trouble with the least impact on them until we meet again a few months later. Everyone in the office has their particular favorites but if you let your hearts bleed for all of them, you’d last about a month and then they’d have nobody fighting their legal battles.

    My point was that my client’s criminal thought process is not long. They are impulsive and most of their behavior is a result of that impulsiveness not planned actions. They don’t think about fingerprints, DNA, wiretaps or security cameras BEFORE they commit crimes (although they usually do once they’re sitting in jail). These things may change high-level criminal behavior but it doesn’t change the behavior of the junkie looking for something to sell for crack. Heck, our clients sell drugs to men wearing hats imprinted with “narcotics task force” so the thought process is just not that in depth.

  35. Valerie H July 8, 2010 at 11:37 am #

    Was the principal for or against them? We have a similar situation but there is a lot of sabotage in the school administration.

  36. Orielwen July 8, 2010 at 8:22 pm #

    Donna, forensics may not help in solving many crimes, but that may be because the knowledge that forensic techniques exist may be putting off the people who can plan ahead from committing crimes in the first place. So the only crimes left are (a) those committed by people who can think far enough ahead to find ways to foil forensic investigation and (b) those committed by people who can’t think far enough ahead to take forensic investigation into account at all. So you’re seeing a lot of crimes that forensic techniques and changes in the law don’t prevent, but you’re not seeing any of the crimes that never occur at all – the guy who restrains himself from beating someone up on the street because he knows there’s a camera watching, the kids who decide it’s less effort to concentrate on their studies and get a decent job than to come up with an undetectable robbery, the man who doesn’t beat up his wife because she has the confidence to leave him before it gets bad, in the knowledge that the police would support her.

    This doesn’t help the people you work with, but it does mean that crime is down.

  37. Staceyjw July 8, 2010 at 11:23 pm #

    A major, primary reason for the drop in crime is Roe V Wade. This conclusion has managed to offend everyone, but is not easily denied. You can Google the topic , wikipedia covers it, but here’s a good overview:

    I’m not here to argue about abortion or anything related go this, I just wanted to post it in response to people talking about why crime is down.
    As for the school in the article,it is great to see such positive change! It’s always good to hear this kind of turn around, but it’s sad to think that all it took was a handful of people and a few years worth of effort- but no one, including local govt, bothered for 25 years! This should be a wake up call to those who ARE responsible for the schools, as it shows what can be done if creativity, caring, and hard work come together.These Moms have shown not having money is not always a deal breaker when it comes to school improvement.

    While it IS admirable that these women didn’t simply wait for someone else to fix the issues, Moms/Dads shouldn’t be tasked with fixing the schools. Parents do not need one more thing to be responsible for; I’m pretty sure we all pay taxes so that these things get taken care of. Community involvement is helpful, but most people aren’t willing or able to teach their kids academics, let alone remake an entire school!

    I am not downplaying the excellent efforts of these woman, just pointing out that there is a limit to what should be expected from the average parent.If we look at parents and ask why they haven’t fixed their kids school, we have missed the point of having local government all together.When it fails, it hurts everyone, but this doesn’t stop many people from actively trying to underfund and tear down our shared assets/responsibilities (schools, libraries, etc.).

  38. pentamom July 9, 2010 at 12:01 am #

    @Eric — I’m not going to do the research because I don’t dispute your point that loner kids do, in large measure, come from families who don’t allow them scope. But that wasn’t the way you expressed it initially — it sounded like you were saying that parents make loner kids, and that you can just look at the kids and form a certain judgment about the parents. I’m glad you’ve clarified.

  39. Sky July 9, 2010 at 1:43 am #

    Jumping in on the crime discussion, the drop in crime over the past two decades is due to a variety of factors:

    * Changes in policing, especially in the larger, crime-ridden cities (larger number of cops hired; more aggressive policing techniques pursued)

    * Population aging – as there are more old people than young people, fewer crimes are committed

    *Liberalizing gun control laws, and particularly the passage of concealed carry laws in many cities and states, helped to deter crime (i.e. criminals are less likely to rape, rob, or assault a person if they think there is a possibility that person MAY be carrying a gun; they are much less likely to break into the house when an owner is at home in areas where gun ownership is common, and therefore are less likely to end up commiting violence in the course of a robbery.)

    Increased incarceration rates keeping repeat offenders off the streets more and longer

    Strong economic growth (obviously this is reversing now, and we may see higher crime rates as a result)

    As for the decline specifically in CHILD victimization and maltreatment, it is probably owing to:

    – People having fewer kids, and having them later in life

    – Increased intervention and detection; increased campaigns to get children to tell when they are being abused

    – Improvements in psychiatry / treatment of mental illnesses

    – Lower overall societal tolerance for mistreatment of children / change in norms

  40. Nicole July 11, 2010 at 5:35 pm #

    Back to the original post…

    I think it is awesome what they did to this school. I love the video, and I think it’s a great point of inspiration I have no doubt that this school was struggling- the Chicago system encourages informed and capable parents to pull their kids out of neighborhood schools. Those that remain in the ‘bad’ neighborhood schools are typically kids from tougher backgrounds and who have much greater needs. The parents are often too preoccupied with survival to really become involved in the schools, often these kids move frequently. You essentially pull out your greatest assets- the parents who are involved in their children’s lives (involved, not necessarily helicoptering) and put them together in charter, magnet, and private schools.

    Having said that, knowing the neighborhood and area, I know they had the resources in the community to channel into this school. This is a liberal, educated, artistic, activist, passionate community. It was a matter of channeling that energy into the school- I am sure that took a great deal of passion and hard work, but it was doable.

    Unfortunately, especially in economically segregated areas, I’m not sure it can be replicated.

  41. Dragonwolf July 14, 2010 at 2:23 am #

    @Everyone saying this is “anti-free range” —

    So, wait… homeschooling because the local public school sucks is somehow not “anti-free range,” but changing said public school for the betterment of all the students is, somehow?

    Unless “free range” has recently turned into “as little parental involvement as humanly possible in all aspects of a child’s life,” I fail to see the logic.

  42. Judy July 15, 2010 at 8:20 am #

    Wow! That was great!!
    I love seeing the effects of Mommy Power.
    The most telling result of Mommy Power is good children who grow up to exert their talents the way these women have!

    BTW, in praise of public schools: Leaving a Dallas private school for a forthcoming move, I am overwhelmingly gaga over NYC public schools. PHENOMENAL!

  43. July 17, 2010 at 4:57 pm #

    When it comes to home improvements, there are some things that you can also actually increases the overall value of your home. Well, there are plenty of big projects, like adding another room and the relief landscape can be done. Those that give a sharp rise in value, but that kind of money to improve a project, the house, just to increase the value? Most people want these tips and tricks that will not break the bank, but to continue to increase their value.

  44. Metanoia September 30, 2010 at 2:47 pm #

    Reminds me of Jamie Oliver’s trip to America to try to change the way (one) American school(s) do school lunches and all the red tape and negativity he met with.