08/13/2013 11:48 am ET Updated Oct 13, 2013

49 Schools Closed, Now What?

In the midst of the current finger-pointing, vitriol, political might and gut-wrenching sadness surrounding Chicago's impending school closures, one might easily conclude that the fate of education is beyond our control. It is not.

Nine years ago, my underutilized and underperforming elementary school, Nettelhorst, was also on the chopping block. So, too, was LeMoyne, a virtually identical school just eight blocks north. When the Board chose to shutter LeMoyne and replace it with Inter-American, a lottery-based selective enrollment magnet school, parents didn't protest, the Chamber of Commerce didn't circulate a petition, the Teacher's Union didn't rally, Bill Ayers didn't ask the United Nations to intervene -- no one gave a damn. Like a phoenix, Inter-American rose from the ashes of LeMoyne, instantly providing a first-rate education to kids from across the city, but sadly, not to the kids from across the street. While a good school is certainly better than a bad school, top-down reform robbed a neighborhood of its neighborhood school, arguably its most valuable asset.

Just eight blocks south, reform took a different path. Here's our story: When my girlfriend and I ventured inside Nettelhorst, 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. All on a budget of zero.

While Nettelhorst's 'roll-up-your-sleeves' blueprint is not a panacea for urban blight, chronic poverty or endemic violence, we faced many of the same challenges as the 49 schools that will not reopen this year: dismal test scores, a toxic teaching climate, a dysfunctional Local School Council, disengaged parents, disadvantaged students, simmering racial issues, a bare-bones budget and deeply entrenched negative perceptions. Certainly, we benefited from a visionary principal, a stable neighborhood, social capital and heaps of good luck, but we're not the only rag-tag band of reformers creating change in our communities from the ground up. Want to be inspired? Check out: WatersToday and Whittier here in Chicago, Peralta in Oakland, the Passyunk Square Civic Association in Philadelphia, the Sustainable Heights Network in Cleveland and the Downtown Family Alliance in Baltimore.

As my thoughts and prayers turn to the Chicago neighborhoods about to have their hearts ripped out, there's a call to action for the rest of us. What would have to be in place to convince your neighbors to return to public school en masse? Imagine what your ideal elementary school might look like, how it would feel, and what programs it might offer. There's no need to wait for a lumbering Kafkaesque bureaucracy to self-correct, or some über-initiative to drop from the sky. Gather up some friends, march right into your neighborhood school and ask the principal what you can do to help.

Public schools belong to the public, and that's all of us. Education reform will take responsible leadership from the top, but ultimately it's our collective responsibility to wrap our arms around our schools, and make them what they need to be. If we can't do that, noon-time protests in Daley Plaza won't make much of a dent.

If we hope to reform education, it's only going to happen neighborhood by neighborhood, block by block, one school at a time.