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Principals Can't Go It Alone

If all principals had a customizable blueprint and an army of loyal parent-soldiers, we could see real systemic change.
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Families in disadvantaged neighborhoods aren't the only victims of the lottery nightmare depicted in Waiting for 'Superman.' In cities across America, middle class parents face the same nail-biting anxiety as they struggle in vain to find a public school that will choose them.

In Chicago, the most desirable public magnet schools admit students by lottery or testing, and demand far outstrips supply. Consequently, the city's entire five-year-old population is locked in a frenzied scramble for a few hundred spots, many of which are already gobbled up by sibling preferences. Just how fierce is the competition? It's statistically harder to get your kindergartener into one of Chicago's top public magnet schools than it is to get your high school senior into Harvard.

Despite so many enticing public school options, for most discriminating parents, school choice proves elusive. Given the myriad problems associated with public school -- including barriers to admission, budget cuts, high class sizes, low test scores, busing, student violence, school closures, teacher strikes, No Child Left Behind, a lumbering bureaucracy, union woes, and a state ranked 49th in education funding -- it's no wonder why so many Chicago families decide to call it quits, and jump-ship for private, parochial, or suburban schools.

Of course, few families have the resources to secure other options. The real lesson of Waiting for 'Superman' is that no kid in America should have his or her future determined by the drop of a lottery ball. Surely we can all agree that every kid, regardless of circumstance, deserves a great neighborhood school.

As my park friends and I assessed the viability of Nettelhorst, our neighborhood's underutilized and underperforming public elementary school, we carefully weighed our options: pay private school tuition (assuming we could get in), stomach the maddening public school lottery, or move to the suburbs. Quite frankly, fixing what we had seemed easiest. Whatever Nettelhorst's challenges were, and they were considerable, we had before us a visionary principal who greeted our wish list with open arms.

At the time, we were too naïve to know that few principals would entertain advice from energized neighborhood parents interested in making "improvements," let alone coming right out and asking for it. Insular leadership seems counter-intuitive: State and federal funding for education continues to decrease. No Child Left Behind legislation threatens to close underperforming schools. A Kafka-esque bureaucracy grows bigger by the day. Stretched budgets leave schools understaffed with underpaid, disheartened teachers, overcrowded classrooms, and crumbling infrastructures. It's a mess, and there's plenty of blame to go around.

Why do the very principals who desperately need help rebuff well-intentioned neighborhood parents who pledge themselves to addressing these challenges? Part of the answer lies in simple self-preservation: pesky, hyper-involved parents will almost certainly hijack a principal's valuable time and energy. Occasionally, such "kind offers" may serve as window dressing to a simultaneous appeal to the district's superintendent or legal department. Consequently, many principals, even fairly successful ones, have constructed impenetrable boxes around themselves.

Our principal, Susan Kurland, understood that Nettelhorst suffered from the classic chicken-and-egg dilemma: The school needed to improve to attract neighborhood families, yet it needed that same community to help direct, enable, and sustain that change. Most public school reform movements derail when well-meaning community members start off on the wrong foot, and begin the conversation by shouting, blaming, or demanding. Instead of being hurt, angry, or threatened that we didn't appreciate how far her little school had already traveled, Susan took a leap of faith and asked us to dream big.

What will have to be in place to convince your neighborhood to return to its public school en masse? Imagine what your ideal elementary school might look like, how it would feel, and what programs it might offer. If all principals had a customizable blueprint and an army of loyal parent-soldiers, we could see real systemic change.

Parents can't improve schools without principals, and principals can't do it without parents (and teachers, too, but more on that later). Susan was willing to share her school with anyone who offered to help. Ultimately, reformers could have done somersaults until the end of time to bring prospective parents to the school's front door, but it all would have been for naught had she refused to open it.

Last week, Chicago Public Schools gave donated copies of How to Walk to School to every principal. Hopefully other cities will take similar steps to empower principals to embrace change. Game on.