Today, a four-year parent-initiated community effort will come to fruition when Nettelhorst, my neighborhood's public elementary school, will unveil a brand-new science lab. It's been a long road: Two years ago, the Anixter Family Foundation kick-started our campaign with a $50,000 gift to replace the school's outdated science curriculum. Then, with a $100,000 U.S. Cellular "Calling All Communities" win, we decided to renovate the school's pathetic excuse for a science lab. Securing funding was tip of the iceberg -- a rag-tag team of dedicated parent volunteers spent the better part of the summer supervising this gigantic capital project from start to finish.
"Nettelhorst's new science lab is a testament to the tremendous efforts of the school and the community," says Congressman Mike Quigley. "Parents, teachers, and students working together to invest in science and create a better environment for learning is a great example for schools across Chicago and around the country."
Joining our community partners and budding scientists at the dedication ceremony will be an all-star line-up: former White House Chief of Staff and Chicago Mayoral Candidate Rahm Emanuel, Congressman Mike Quigley, State Representative Sara Feigenholtz, Alderman Tom Tunney, and State Senate President John Cullerton. While this might seem like 11th-hour, election year posturing, everyone on this roster has been deeply involved in the school's nearly 10-year revitalization effort.
Eight years ago, I was pushing my toddler's stroller through the snow, when my State Representative returned my phone call. "Hi there, this is Sara. I heard some moms are organizing in the park. What can I do to help?" For over an hour, Sara listened as I explained our grassroots action plan to revitalize our underutilized and underperforming neighborhood school. A few months later, when we were a long-shot gunning for a new Community Schools grant, she helped arrange a meeting with the Mayor's office. Once downtown, it was up to us to make the case for why Nettelhorst should be one of the six inaugural community schools, but Sara's the one who got us in the door.
Three times around, we lost our state matching grant to renovate the school's auditorium; each time, there was Sara, working the phone lines to try to save it. Now, thanks to community support and a lot of political muscle, when a Nettelhorst kid performs in the school play, he feels like he's opening at Carnegie Hall.
When Nettelhorst hoped to start a French Farmers' Market with Bensidoun USA on the school's front playlot, our first stop was the Alderman's office. City planning isn't for the faint-hearted: Tom helped smooth the way with community groups and helped us navigate Chicago's byzantine codes and regulations. He came through for us again when we wanted to approach the Chicago Blackhawks to bring an extensive a Health and Wellness Initiative to the school. Tom introduced us the Blackhawk's president, John McDonough, and within a year of solidifying that partnership, Nettelhorst built a state-of-the-art fitness room and a hockey field. Last month, when the school unveiled its new Nate Berkus' Community Kitchen, Tom, who still cooks at his own restaurant, Ann Sathers', every Sunday, was right there working the line with chefs Lorin Adolph and Top Chef winner Stephanie Izard cooking our eighth graders breakfast.
Even before Rahm was elected to Congress, he was reading to neighborhood kids in our school library. As Congressman, his first act was to return to the district and open Nettelhorst's first Open House for the community (300 families came, and 78 kids signed up for preschool that day!). When Mike took over Rahm's seat, our school had yet another ally in Washington, but Mike had been championing our cause as County Commissioner for years. When your congressman has attended every single Little Bunny Egg Hunt, Story Hour and Halloween Hoopla for a decade, when he knows your school's successes and heartaches intimately, it's a lot easier to ask for help when you need it.
Reformers and principals need help making connections beyond the sandbox or the schoolyard. So, when Nettelhorst imagined a state-of-the-art science lab -- as with any of our pie-in-the-sky human or capital projects -- parents made a beeline to talk to our elected officials. It's not just about securing funding, although that's part of it. It's about working together to forge long-term community relationships, navigate complex government bureaucracy, and build deep, mutually beneficial partnerships.
Chicago may be a big city, but our little neighborhood is decidedly tight-knit. If our school failed to steward investments or deliver on its promises, community leaders wouldn't have gone to bat for us again and again. As each of Nettelhorst's capital campaigns has been initiated, directed, and sustained by the volunteer efforts of parents and neighbors, solid working relationships with our elected officials has proved critical to moving projects from scribbles to reality.
And yes, "elected" means there will be elections to support. Nettelhorst won the U.S. Cellular contest because our parents mobilized thousands of friends and family to go into stores across the country, pick-up a free card, and vote for our school (thank you, Facebook!). A great many of these voters were moms, pushing strollers. In a democracy, an energized school community can be a powerful political force. When critics joke about the power of little mommies to affect change, see it clearly: women hold up half the sky.
If politicians knew how to fix all of our schools, they would be fixed. Shouting and pointing fingers is rarely helpful. Politicians aren't clairvoyant; they need to know exactly what schools need, and how they can help, in concrete terms. And then, it's up to us, as the grown-ups, to follow through with action. Even with a hefty dose of luck and moxie, capital projects and community partnerships don't materialize out of thin air. It's our collective responsibility to wrap our arms around our schools, and make them the heart of our communities.
On my little corner of East Lakeview, hundreds of public school kids will be dissecting frogs, testing DNA strains, and building wind turbines or prosthetic arms. Northwestern University's Vice President for Research, Jay Walsh, has been our go-to science guru. "Improving math and science in our schools is essential now more than ever," he says. "The recent U.S. ranking by the World Economic Forum of 48th out of 133 developed or developing nations in quality of math and science instruction is a siren call. The Nettelhorst science lab is a wonderful example of how we can enthuse students and help them develop the understanding that drives innovation."
Every child in America, regardless of circumstance, deserves a great neighborhood public school that delivers a first-rate science education. Starting tomorrow, Nettelhorst kids will be getting one because adults willed them a better future, and went after it, one step at a time.
Whether your state is red, blue, or some shade in between, no matter. Vote on November 2nd. And when you do, be sure to vote for the people who are putting kids first.
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