Advice on attracting families to your neighborhood school

May 2, 2011 at 1:09 pm 24 comments

A friend of mine who has lead an amazing effort at Waters Elementary school over the past 6 years was given an award lately honoring parents in Chicago who have made noteworthy contributions to education.   I asked her if I could share part of her acceptance speech where she gives some pointers about the school’s success.    Here was her advice:

MY passion IS the importance of the public neighborhood school. I believe it CAN be, and SHOULD be, as number one a choice as ANY gifted or magnet school option.

It takes effort, patience, more than one person, and thoughtful collaboration between neighbors and administration. This CAN BE a very successful equation.

If the community embraces the school, the school embraces the community, and vice versa.

I was asked to give some advice to parents along the lines of this passion….

1) Find one thing about your school that is worth bragging about, and BRAG about it.

At Nettelhorst it was an seemingly unlimited amount of afterschool options.

At Alcott it was small class sizes.

And at Waters, it was our Ecology and Art programs.

2) Get your community into the school.

Create Tot programs, summer camps, organic share programs.

But respect your principal’s time on this. Make a plan that takes little effort from the office. They are already short-handed. If you want your idea to work you HAVE to be AVAILABLE for it.

3) Be ballsy, when there’s absolutely nothing to lose.

After only 2 years, our school’s lo-income percentage lowered just enough to send our federal budget plummeting, and we didn’t have enough money for full-day kindergarten the next year. I won a lunch with Arne Duncan that year, and  told him that we could NOT have only half day, that it would push us back to the beginning and  I just DIDN’T have the energy to start over.

How COOL is it when the CEO from the 3rd largest school district in American calls you on your cell and tells you he is going to do you that favor?  Be ballsy. Ask.

4) And finally, don’t expect everything to happen right away. It won’t. 

Be patient. DON’T give up hope, and know you are doing a great thing.

If your administration has courage, foresight, trusts in your intentions and ideas, and welcomes your help (and THANKFULLY,  ours did), eventually the neighborhood will come.

Those of us who have spent hours and years making a difference, could NEVER have done it without the understanding of our spouses, who give up SO MUCH of their time with us, and are quizzically amazed at how hard we can work…for no money at all.

I have been riding this emotional public school roller coaster for 6  years now. The ups and downs and have been exhausting, but in this 6th year, it seems to be all ups.  My advice? Don’t get off the ride.

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Improving education locally – but how? Rahm’s Education Platform (Guest Post by HSObsessed)

24 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Anonymous  |  May 2, 2011 at 2:23 pm

    Tell your friend, “Thank you.” I was too much of a wimp to try to change a neighborhood school, so instead we just moved into a great school district (Lincoln).

    I always wanted my kids to go to a neighborhood school and I greatly admire people like her who are helping to make that happen for us “less-motivated” or less-capable parents!

    Thank you!

  • 2. SK  |  May 2, 2011 at 5:14 pm

    I think the most important thing is the willingness to be an active part of the change and the patience to wait. Nothing beats a good neighborhood school in it’s ability to not only educate but create a strong sense of community in and out of school. I am part of a neighborhood school with a RGC in it. And one of the reason the RGC part is successful is that it is part of a good neighborhood school. Everyone benefits.
    The goal of education shouldn’t just be high test scores but to produce well-rounded citizens. Do you remember the smartest kids you went to school with? Are they any happier, richer or more successful?
    Believe me it is frustrating to deal with the constants threats of cuts and increased class room size but every school district goes through it. And we shouldn’t feel helpless, we are voters and tax-payers and we do have a say in how things turnout.

    On a previous posting where there was a discussion of City vs. Suburb, you have to remember that all of Chicago is ONE school district. And it really isn’t fair to be comparing the best suburban schools with the worst Chicago schools. Try comparing Northside Prep or Water Payton with New Trier HS. Or the worst Chicago school with the worst one in southern Illinois.

  • 3. BuenaParkMom  |  May 2, 2011 at 9:45 pm

    I am going to try to take #3 to heart! It’s great to have advice from those who have walked the walk.

  • 4. wyparent  |  May 4, 2011 at 2:13 am

    Your school is only as strong as your PTA. Our neighborhood school’s PTA is beyond strong. They have totally motivated not only the school parents but the whole community to be involved. When things happen at the school~ALL schools (public, private, parochial) show up. Be apart of the PTA. Our alderman is very active.

  • 5. copy editor  |  May 4, 2011 at 12:08 pm

    Eh. The power of the PTA varies from school to school. We’re in a “top” CPS school, and the PTA is pretty weak – and the principal likes it that way. Other than collecting box tops, I don’t think they do anything.

    Obviously, YMMV.

  • […] stumbled across this post on local school boosterism in a blog about the Chicago Public Schools. The blog is a narrative of the anxieties, trials and […]

  • 7. klm  |  May 4, 2011 at 4:46 pm

    When potential enrollee parents are visiting the school and are waiting in the main office for their tour to begin, don’t have 2 older students being reprimanded by the principal and being told (loudly), “I’m going to call your grandmothers AND your parole officers!”. I swear to God that this actually happened to me several years ago at a CPS neighborhood elementary school. Not surprisingly, it was at the time a “non-issue” type school (i.e. nobody from the neighborhood sent their kids there because it was so horrible, reputation-wise), but I optimistically thought I’d see for myself . I was, if anything, ready to move to the suburbs and throw my hands up, so disturbing was the “tour” –the screaming teachers and chaotic atmosphere didn’t help, either. The school was not on our radar after that moment. Seemingly against all odds, it was “transformed” (new administration, teachers, etc.) a few years ago and is now attracting a fair number of people in the neighborhood for the early grades –let’s hope that they can/will stay past 2nd grade and that the “transformation” will take hold.

  • 8. Jill  |  May 4, 2011 at 8:55 pm

    Pity your friend was not selected as a parent representative on the new Board of Education.

  • 9. Mom2  |  May 5, 2011 at 9:09 am

    @klm – It has been a while since I took an elementary school tour, and I forgot about how important the tour is. I seriously believe that the principal and other administrative staff at a school must put on marketing hats when it comes to any school function or tour that attracts potential new parents/students. Some schools do a great job at this while others think the tour and other “get to know the school” areas such as the school web site are just an after-thought. Or at least they are not considered an opportunity to market the school.
    I remember visiting a magnet school years ago and they had students from the school leading the tours. My 8th grade student tour guide did not use proper grammar and talked about broken computers. That alone turned me off to that school. On a recent high school tour, our student tour guide said that she never does her homework. Again, what a turn-off. And, if the school web site is out of date or has typos, poor grammar or has a focus on things like discipline or if it provides news about school issues rather than success stories, that will turn off potential parents, too.

  • 10. Beverly Mom  |  May 5, 2011 at 9:54 am


    So did you enroll your child after seeing the tour? A follow up, did you enroll your child after the turnaround?

  • 11. NorthCenterMom  |  May 5, 2011 at 8:08 pm

    If these improvements at Waters are true, I am very surprised. I live in the neighborhood and have to send my two elementary aged children to private school. Waters was scoring in the 30-40th percentile in the three core subjects. All of the children on my block and the next block attend private schools also. Again, if true, the improvements came too late for us and our 18 years of paying property tax in Chicago. Sigh.

  • 12. Hawthorne mom  |  May 5, 2011 at 9:35 pm

    I am not a Waters parent, but if we had lived in the neighborhood, we definitely would have been. We would never have bothered to apply anywhere else!
    Here are the test scores from the iirc website:

    They are awesome and the school is known for so many great things now. Ecology program, principal with a solid rep among people in education and otherwise, a warm “feeling” there, a strong sense of community. Totally true and has been for quite some time.

  • 13. dianeb  |  May 5, 2011 at 9:37 pm

    I think this is awesome, I just wish it was possible at my home school. At one point I sat down with her to talk to her about replicating her efforts at McPherson but I’ve realized something that is critical to this recipe. A principal that is interested and wants to spend the effort. Unfortunately, I ran into a huge brick wall with the principal of McPherson and stopped. Every meeting was a repeat of the previous one, nothing was ever accomplished and in the end I stopped coming. Lucky for the her, she established a wonderful relationship with the members of the LSC and won’t be removed until she’s ready to retire. Too bad…

  • 14. klm  |  May 6, 2011 at 5:47 am

    @10. We were lucky enough to get into a RGC for one child and we NOW live in an enrollment district of a fantastic neighborhood school for the rest of the offspring. We’re an example of a family that is really happy with our CPS schools –if only there were more of us!

  • 15. Ravenswood Mom  |  May 6, 2011 at 10:08 am

    @13 dianeb – I’d really like to convo with you. McPherson is my neighborhood school – I’ve got a couple more years before DS hits kindergarten…vmgrace at gmail dot com.

    Excellent post – thanks yet again cpsobsessed.

  • 16. Grace  |  May 6, 2011 at 12:15 pm

    Terry Mazany thinks that, at least for elementary students, the best school should be a neighborhood CPS school.

    This brief excerpt is from Catalyst, which does some of the best reporting on CPS. Go there for the full story.

    Catalyst Notebook Blog

    Mazany offers up a parting ed plan for Brizard

    Posted By Sarah Karp
    On Thursday, May 5, 2011

    Under former CEO Ron Huberman, the mantra was: Move as much work as possible “closer to the schools.” The result was that the district’s 30 area offices ballooned while central offices and schools had their staffs slashed.

    These offices, including the office of turnaround, alternative and autonomous schools, grew by 144 staff members and $12 million from 2009 to the fall of 2010, according to a Catalyst analysis of employee rosters.

    What’s more, they grew in different directions. When Mazany became interim CEO in December, he found each area office operating as a little fiefdom, pushing its own curriculum and sending out sometimes conflicting messages to principals.

    More on Catalyst …

  • 17. Grace  |  May 6, 2011 at 1:15 pm

    Just a note to keep the cps obsessed up to date on the legislation in Springfield … this piece is from PURE, Parents United to Reform Education.

    What’s up with the CTU and SB7 – the former “Performance Counts” bill?
    May 5th, 2011

    Yesterday at a Chicago Teachers Union House of Delegates meeting, the membership voted to rescind their leaders’ endorsement of Senate Bill 7 and fight it instead.

    What’s going on here?

    First, let’s step back a few paces.

    Back in mid-December of last year, several business-backed “education reform” groups tried to push through a piece of teacher-bashing legislation called “Performance Counts” during the Christmas and New Year holidays. They must have expected that teachers would be caught flat-footed and that no one else would care enough to fight it.

    They were wrong. A lot of people turned out in far west suburban Aurora for the hearings, and we were able to slow the process down.

    Still, there was a great deal of pressure to come up with some kind of bill. We were told that something would be passed, so people could either be part of it or sit on the sidelines.

    The way things work in Springfield (and probably everywhere else) is that when there is an effort to pass a law that has strong opposition, some legislator will pull together a working group including folks on different sides of the issue, and they will hammer out a compromise bill.

    Everyone involved feels a great deal of pressure to sign on to the final product. Often some participants quickly regret agreeing to what’s usually not a very good deal for at least one side, and then, more often than not, the language is changed as it moves through the legislative process anyway.

    CTU, the IEA, and the IFT were able to get rid of only a few of the worst elements of the original “Performance Counts” bill, but they did agree to endorse the proposal that became SB7.

    Shortly after doing so, CTU leaders and CORE (the caucus to which the current CTU leadership belongs) began to regret having agreed to the final proposal. And yesterday, the CTU membership voted to rescind their endorsement.

    Here’s what CORE said about SB 7 in an e-mail sent just before the House of Delegates meeting:

    We know that President Lewis worked tirelessly and fairly to get a bill that we could all live with, but lawyers and outsider groups like Advance Illinois and Stand for Children did not play fair by adding last-minute language. Now, we have a bill awaiting a vote in the House that will hurt our ability to fight for our rights:

    1. Two or three omitted words mean that courts could require a nearly unanimous vote of our members should the Board force our union into a strike situation.

    2. Some slippery language about bargaining procedures could let the Board delay strike action until well into the school year – when it would be more disruptive to teaching and learning.

    3. One sentence of legalese on page 107 of the bill could negate the hundreds of grievances CTU has filed on behalf of teachers illegally fired last summer.

    What now?

    The fight is on in Springfield. It will be an uphill battle, but we just won on vouchers, so, who knows???

  • 18. Dana  |  May 10, 2011 at 7:33 pm

    @ Ravenswood Mom – I have a 3rd grader and a 1st grader at McPherson (first year there) and our experience has been nothing like what the previous poster has stated. I agree with all of the great tips stated by the Waters’ mom. I would also include: it is very easy for people to declare what should be done and be very negative but very difficult to get hard workers who are willing to go the distance. Change happens but it doesn’t happen overnight. Our fledgling group has not even been around a year yet so there must be some patience in accomplishing the goals we have set for ourselves. To date, we have coordinated various fundraisers, initiated plans for a new art center and have wonderful involvement with a great core of teachers. If anyone would like to find out what we have planned going forward, feel free to email me at

  • 19. mcphereson mom  |  May 10, 2011 at 10:03 pm

    I just want to say that the Mcpherson teachers, staff and parents are awsome! Having one child “graduate”from 8th grade having done well enough to get into “select” schools, after not being able to read until he arrived at McPherson in the 3rd grade. The care and time given to him and my current 4th grader goes above and beyond.
    Whereas other schools have more programs and money, this school is one that is very focused on utilizing the time they have to teach, and is working hard to build a relationship with the community. McPherson is a diamond in the rough, and one of the best kept secrets of CPS.

  • 20. BuenaParkMom  |  May 18, 2011 at 9:04 pm

    Thanks for this post. After having toured 3 elementary schools and one high school in our ward in the past week, and having only been able to speak to another principal in our ward via phone, I sort of needed an encouraging post like this 🙂

  • 21. Another Rogers Park Mama!  |  May 27, 2011 at 10:45 pm

    Love hearing the positives about McPherson… Wish I’d heard more before we declined; our dd will be attending Coonley RGC, but was initially offered at McPherson, Kilmer and Peirce; we would have seriously reconsidered had we known! 😉

  • 22. Jennifer  |  June 2, 2011 at 1:28 pm

    I think Dore is an awesome neighborhood school. The test scores are great, the school is small. Initially Dore was a magnet cluster school, but they changed back to a neighborhood school. Given the other schools in the neighborhood (Hale, Kinzie, Twain, Grimes) Dore outperforms these schools. Even the teachers send their kids to Dore.

    At the first grade level, my daughter is learning about Chicago history and observing beetles and other fun stuff. They do have family reading nights and math and science nights.

    We applied to Gunsaulus, Jackson, Sheridan and was denied for Jackson and Sheridan but got accepted at Gunsaulus (I didn’t accept the offer because of the scores and other things)

    Check it out!

  • 23. Teacher Fan  |  June 15, 2011 at 7:22 pm

    Ok–I’m the one whose been penning some of the super sympathetic teacher posts above. Full disclosure I am a public servant for the state and I have been unionized for the past year and a half. Prior to that I had to take 12 furlough days per year and watch as those I supervised made more than me and some times were less attentive to their jobs than they should have been. I feel after years of a salary freeze and furlough days while the price of benefits increased that it was unfair to me and my family. My mom is a retired teacher and my children attend two CPS schools (magnet/SE) that are phenomenal!

    I think that the media has made villians out of all union members because of the dismal economy. Yes there are teachers who deserve their raises and some who do not. There isn’t really a way to fairly determine who should get performance pay. When the economy is good private sector employees generally get 8-10% pay raises and many get bonuses while public sector employees only get about a 4% raise. I get the shared sacrifice that we all need to make. When the economy is better–will we say let’s open up the contract to give the teachers more money? I highly doubt it. We must remember pension costs and benefits have been increasing so the 4% raise for teachers really gets eaten up a bit. Here are some other things we should keep in mind…

    1) The parent talking about Lakeview and all the money they have given to the school should try to remember CBOE created this situation (not the teachers) and I am certain they HAVE mismanaged funds. Why is Brizzard getting 20 or 30 thousand more than Huberman? I bet some of the teachers at Lakeview use their own money to buy things for their students/classrooms, too. I know that I don’t have to buy the supplies I use at work. Don’t most employers supply the materials their employees need to get the job done. Well, not CPS!!!

    2) Why can’t a forensic audit with an independent auditor look through the books? If CPS is managing the money properly and they REALLY don’t have the money to pay the raises then yes maybe the teachers should sacrifice a bit.

    3) Where is all the lottery money going?

    4) Where is all the TIF money going?

    5) Have we looked at waste at the area and central office level, yet? Why can’t we consolidate areas? We do not need all of these highly paid CAOs. Wasn’t there some scandal with the two previous board presidents (Scott & Williams) where school funds were used on art work, dinners, etc?

    All I’m saying is that if teachers have to make this sacrifice THEN it should be because EVERY avenue regarding cost-cutting/savings has been exhausted before we just arbitrarily demand that the teachers give up their raises.

    Sorry for the long post 😉

  • 24. BuenaParkMom  |  June 15, 2011 at 7:39 pm

    23 – I am VERY curious where you have obtained the following information “When the economy is good private sector employees generally get 8-10% pay raises and many get bonuses while public sector employees only get about a 4% raise.” I have always worked in the private sector, as has my husband, as have most of my friends. I have never gotten more than a 3% pay raise and that has ALWAYS been based on my job performance. I find the idea of ANYONE in ANY job, private or public sector, receiving a 4% raise simply for showing up to be RIDICULOUS. I have no problem with teachers getting raises for improving their credentials. And just because there is currently not a great way to assess job performance doesn’t mean we shouldn’t come up with one. I personally think they should assess a child on day one and then at the end of the year as a portion of that. A good teacher should have taught the child something during that time and they shouldn’t be penalized if the child is not at grade level when they started out 3 grade levels behind but are now only 1 grade level behind.

    I am currently on a salary freeze and I don’t love it. But I put on my big girl panties and go to work and deal with it. My job, while private sector, is in healthcare and much of the payments originate from Medicare which has similar budgetary problems. I am a professional, I like the work I do, and I am glad to be employed with a paycheck. I am glad I am NOT in an unemployment line or have exhausted my unemployment. I also do not make as much as a teacher in CPS. I think teachers have done themselves a great disservice with the union and their representatives. They appear to care only for themselves and not the very people they exist to serve, the student. And unfortunately for teachers it doesn’t matter if the perception is incorrect, because was people perceive to be true is true to them.

    P.S. I think you posted this in the wrong thread.

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