May 4: Join us to support Chicago’s Nettelhorst School

One of the IGLTA Foundation’s May 4 volunteer events will support the Nettelhorst Community Group.  Learn more about the dynamic organization that turned this struggling Boystown public school into one of Chicago’s most successful:

The incredible transformation of Chicago’s Nettelhorst Public School began with the simple question, “what do I have to do to get your kids to come here?” The following day, Jacqueline Edelberg returned with an extensive list. The principal’s response was simple, “let’s get started…it’s going to be a busy year!” This encounter was the catalyst for reversing the 25-year nosedive of the school, eventually turning it into a beacon of creativity and inspiration for the community.

Nettelhorst Hallway

Hallway murals in the Nettelhorst Public School

In reflecting on the experience, Jacqueline notes that it started with “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.” The idea was to change the climate of the place by making it beautiful, so that people would want to be there and be a part of it. Every child should be able to learn in a thoughtful and happy way.

Nettelhorst Community Group

Members of the Nettelhorst Community Group clean up space on the school’s perimeter.

The school’s interior walls became a canvas of painted stories and wondrous murals serving as a backdrop to an environment committed to providing its members with a space that is nurturing, joyful and respectful. While the initial project was estimated to last six months, the journey of transformation has lasted over a decade – thanks to the generous time and resources of the volunteers, who are now referred to as the Nettelhorst Community Group. Nettelhorst is no longer considered a “catch all” and has grown to be a “rising star” amongst Chicago’s public schools, serving over 630 students from pre-school to eighth grade. The story has been so intriguing that Jacqueline and then principal, Susan Kurland, authored the book, How to Walk to School, to share the story for others to follow while also raising funds to continue the group’s efforts.

Situated in the famous Boystown neighborhood, the school has also made significant efforts to embrace its community. In 2009, Nettelhorst created a public art installation in which each student tied a piece of colored fabric to the school’s fence, arranged in the same sequence as the rainbow flag. A plaque was hung which read “the rainbow colors of gay pride are a visible sign of respect for the neighborhood of which we are a part, and the diversity of the families that we serve”. Sadly, Nettelhorst found itself the target of a number of anti-gay groups that were outraged at this very public support for the LGBT community. The controversy erupted in threats and hostility from supporters of the anti-gay groups. Nettelhorst’s response? That summer 200 Nettelhorst families, of all orientations, marched in the 2009 Chicago Pride Parade. This sent a clear message as Jacqueline says, “that every school should be a safe place to learn, where all kids [are] free to be wholly themselves”. In commenting on the school’s march in the parade, Chicago’s Alderman Tom Tunney pointed out “[that] Nettelhorst was on the right side of history.”

Nettelhorst Outdoor Classrom

The IGLTA Foundation Volunteer Day event will support the Nettelhorst Community Group as they transform this space into an outdoor classroom.

Despite the amazing progress that’s been made, there is still more work to be done in keeping with the school’s vision. Nettelhorst is working on turning an under-utilized outdoor space into Chicago’s first Arbor Day/Nature Explore outdoor classroom. Research shows that outdoor learning and play spaces have a positive impact on educational development. Such an initiative offers boundless learning to children, especially in an urban environment. On May 4th, 2013, the IGLTA Foundation Volunteer Day event will bring together IGLTA Convention attendees and community members to support the Nettelhorst Community Group as they develop the space. A donation from the IGLTA Foundation will provide the necessary supplies.  Jacqueline ends her e-mails with a quote from the American anthropologist Margaret Meade: “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful citizens can change the world.” Indeed, they already are.

Sign up to volunteer with us on May 4:

by Warren Brown, for the IGLTA Foundation

Views and opinions expressed in the IGLTA Foundation Blog are those of individual authors and do not reflect official policy or positions of IGLTA or the IGLTA Foundation.

Posted in Blog on April 15, 2013Travis Ferland
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