THE BLOG

Creating Chemistry

11/12/2010 03:57 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Waiting for 'Superman' opens with director Davis Guggenheim driving by his neighborhood's underperforming public elementary school, lamenting his decision to send his kids to a private school several miles away. From his car window, the public school looks like a cross between an abandoned 1950's strip mall and minimum-security prison. Is it any wonder why he, along with so many of his neighbors with other school options, just keeps on driving?

When my group of park friends set about fixing Nettelhorst, our neighborhood's underutilized and underperforming local school, the infrastructure team had a clear mandate: conjure up some chemistry on a budget of nothing. And fast.

For starters, we took a good hard look at the century-old building through the eyes of a prospective neighborhood parent. Fortunately, many exterior improvements were relatively simple and inexpensive. We removed all negative outdoor signage, raised the shades, covered the widows in outward-facing student artwork, and left the classroom lights on at night. Every door got a fresh coat of blue paint which then became a canvas for a local artist. It's hard to entice skittish parents to come in if all the doors are brown and locked.

As we tackled each interior renovation project, we asked countless logistical questions: When parents enter the school, where will they store strollers or hang coats? When waiting in the office, where will they sit? Where can parents change a diaper or entertain a toddler? We tried to imagine a prospective a parent's experience from the moment she hit the front door to the time she found her way into the library.

How did our infrastructure team gussy-up with a budget of nothing? We had the audacity to ask, and ask, and ask again. We started by cracking open the local phone book and cold-calling local merchants. We found that most people couldn't give a substantial amount of any one product, but if we promised to pick-up donations right away, most offered to give what they could. Our team sourced materials from store window displays, shuttering businesses, Freecycle, Craigslist, thrift stores, alleys and yard sales. We said 'yes' to everything, no matter how kooky. One of the joys of needing everything is that anything you get is just perfect.

We asked plumbers to plumb and painters to paint. Our principal made it easy by opening her school to tradesman and artists on evenings and weekends. We also tapped local civic groups and charities to host community paint days, and hundreds of volunteers turned out to help. Word to the wise: smiles and doughnuts go a long, long, way; so do thank you letters, before and after photos, and gushy "We ❤ you" student posters.

Today, there isn't an inch of the school that hasn't been touched by someone's creativity and kindness. Take a virtual tour. I promise, it will knock your socks off.

It was four years into our eight year movement before we learned how to fundraise and create deep, mutually beneficial partnerships, and only then did we set our sights on tackling the school's gigantic infrastructure projects. When we had vendors and catalogues instead of volunteers and cast-offs, we managed to build two new playgrounds, and a state-of-the-art fitness room with the Chicago Blackhawks and renovate the school's dilapidated auditorium and its pathetic excuse for a science lab. Just last month, we cut the ribbon on a brand new teaching kitchen designed by Oprah designer and HSN star, Nate Berkus.

Someone might look at our kitchen's fancy subway tiles and shiny stainless-steel appliances, and think that the stuff is what matters. It's not. Yes, Nate, Home Depot, Pottery Barn, and a slew of design professionals created a breathtaking space, but the hodgepodge kitchen it replaced, the one our community volunteers built with materials salvaged from dumpsters, was just as valuable. The real take-away is that our principal believed her students should learn about nutrition and cooking, and that our community came together to support that vision. When a kid reads Green Eggs and Ham and then makes it at school, it's of little consequence if the frying pan is top-of-the-line or thrift store make-do. In the eyes of a child, care always reads as care.

Conventional wisdom says that change requires consensus and buy-in, but that's just not so -- particularly in matters of aesthetics. While our principal and engineer were on board for change, not everyone was overjoyed with the transformation; some disgruntled staff members cursed us, and some even tried to sabotage projects. But, in the end, hot pink and disco balls won out. Naysayers either came around, or left for grayer pastures.

Accepted wisdom also says that a school environment will change only after its culture changes. We turned that theory on its head: by changing the school environment first, the school's deeply ingrained negative culture improved dramatically, virtually overnight.

Don't take my word for it. In Cheryl Hines' new makeover show, School Pride, a deserving community gets a brand new, completely transformed school. It's a refreshing, civic twist on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy: cameras roll as four experts -- a community organizer, an interior designer, a comedian, and a journalist -- lead the entire school community through an emotional renovation process in a matter of days.

Of course, like all ugly-duckling-to-swan makeover shows, School Pride makes for inspirational reality television. But, the real message of the series is that we don't need to wait for a caravan of trucks with television cameras to effect change. My Chicago neighborhood is proof positive that a little bit of organization, moxie and elbow grease can transform a school, and in so doing, transform the very fabric of a community.

Yes, far too many of our public schools are aging and broken, and yes, there's plenty of blame to go around. However, the good news is that you don't need to be a celebrity or a billionaire or education expert to fix the school in your neighborhood. You don't even need to have kids. You just need to care.