As Jacqueline Edelberg spent time with her four-year-old daughter and three-year-old son in the Wendt play lot, at 667 W. Roscoe, she says, “I found myself asking the old question: Where are you going to send your child to school?” Other mothers watching their toddlers were asking the same thing.

Edelberg admits discussion sometimes became parody, as the women worried that the wrong school would spell doom for their budding geniuses. “There’s a certain amount of frenzy at play here,” she says, “but it’s a very important issue for any family.”

Edelberg, who has a doctorate from the University of Chicago in political science, had moved to Lakeview with her lawyer husband, Andrew Slobodien, four years earlier and knew little about Chicago’s public schools. “I listened to what the other people in the play lot were saying,” she says, “and from what I gathered we had basically three choices–private school, a few magnet schools, or the suburbs.”

All three prospects seemed bleak. “The other moms would tell you about how hard it is to get into the magnet schools,” she says. “I realized we can’t afford private-school tuition, and we don’t want to move to the burbs.”

None of the mothers took seriously a fourth option, Nettelhorst, at 3252 N. Broadway, which Edelberg passed every time she went to the play lot. “It was odd, because everyone passes it all the time but no one had been there,” she says. “Someone might mention it–like, ‘Are you thinking of sending your kid there?’ And someone else would laugh and say, ‘Oh no, not Nettelhorst–that’s a terrible school.’ Or they would tell you, ‘Oh no, that’s going to be made into condos.'”

Middle-class parents in Chicago often pride themselves on their city smarts–they certainly know where to find, say, a good ballet class–yet they can be surprisingly ignorant about their local public school.

In August 2002, a year before Edelberg’s oldest child was ready for preschool, she and another play-lot mother, Nicole Wagner, paid a visit to Nettelhorst. “We just dropped in and asked to see the principal,” says Edelberg. “That first visit made all the difference in the world.”

The principal was Susan Kurland. “Dr. Kurland couldn’t have been more welcoming,” says Edelberg. “She spent three hours trying to sell us on send-ing our kids to Nettelhorst.”

The two mothers discovered that Nettelhorst defied the stereotypes–it was clean, well run, and seemed to have many talented teachers. The biggest problems they saw were cosmetic. “It needed new paint and a new look,” says Edelberg.

Most important, Kurland wanted their help. “I want to recruit parents like Jacqueline and Nicole,” she says. “Every school is looking for that something special that can turn it around. Each school wants to do something special to win back the community.”

According to Kurland, Nettelhorst–whose graduates include former congressman Sidney Yates and writer Daniel Pinkwater–had become something of a forgotten school. Soaring real estate costs forced out the working-class residents who’d sent their children to the school, and the people who moved in either didn’t have children or, like the play-lot mothers, wouldn’t consider sending them there. Nettelhorst’s enrollment, once 1,300, shrank to about 350 in the past couple years, and it became an overflow school–students were bused there from overcrowded schools.

“My number of [bused-in] children is going down, because the schools we draw from are no longer as overcrowded,” says Kurland. “If you don’t attract neighborhood children, and you don’t have children bused in from overcrowded schools, how do you sustain enrollment? That’s why I was so delighted that Jacqueline and Nicole showed up. I want the same thing they want. I want Nettelhorst to be a choice in the neighborhood. Obviously I can’t determine where you send your child to school. But I want Nettelhorst to be under serious consideration.”

After talking with Kurland for over three hours, Edelberg and Wagner returned the next day with five pages of suggestions. Edelberg says, “We said these are things that have to happen to make this neighborhood walk in en masse.”

They watched anxiously as Kurland read through their list. “It would have been easy for Dr. Kurland to say, ‘You know, girls, you’re sweet, but no thanks,'” says Edelberg. “But she didn’t. Instead she read the list and said, ‘Well, let’s get started. We’re going to have a busy year.'”

The list included restocking the library, enriching the curriculum, and cleaning up the building. “A lot has to do with impressions,” Edelberg says. “You have to get people in the door–and it’s hard to do that if the doors are painted brown and locked.”

Kurland also had a wish list. “She said, ‘I want to put carpeting in the library,'” says Edelberg. “Nicole and I said, ‘We can manage that for you.’ We wound up calling every carpeting company in Lakeview.” Several firms ended up donating carpet.

The task of fixing up Nettelhorst became a full-time, unpaid mission that eventually involved ten women, who called themselves the Nettelhorst Parents’ Co-op. “We started meeting at the Melrose Restaurant,” says Edelberg. “We divided ourselves into teams–infrastructure, curriculum, PR, and marketing. We want to make Nettelhorst the first choice for people who live in this neighborhood. It’s a neighborhood school, right? Well, we think neighborhood kids should go there.”

Kurland says the parents’ tenacity has been the strength of the effort. For better or worse, they have a strong sense of entitlement–they expect the system to work for them. And they have no compunction about asking people–business owners, politicians–for help.

The parents figured the key to success was Nettelhorst’s preschool program, established several years ago by Mayor Daley as part of an effort to woo more middle-class parents to public schools. The program allows many city schools to offer not only free preschool for low-income children but paid preschool, with lower tuition than most private preschools. Nettelhorst’s preschool costs $145 a week, says Edelberg, for “a class that opens at seven in the morning and goes until six at night.”

“What we want to do is have our neighborhood preschool parents enroll their children in kindergarten,” says Kurland, “and then on to first grade and second grade and so on.” A similar preschool program at Blaine, at 1432 W. Grace, has encouraged many neighborhood parents to send their children there. “Jacqueline told me, ‘You have a lot to offer. People just have to see it,'” says Kurland. “She said, ‘Bring your preschool show to the playground, let them see what you have.’ So I went to that playground. There were more babies there than I’d ever seen in my lifetime. I told them that I wanted to make Nettelhorst a great place. I don’t have to do this–I could retire tomorrow. I’m doing this because I love it. It’s my dream.”

Over the last year Kurland and the local parents have overseen a remarkable transformation of Nettelhorst, much of it the work of volunteers. The walls have been repainted in cheery blues, yellows, oranges, and greens. Classrooms have new art supplies, new science equipment, new furniture–all donated. The Board of Education chipped in, paying to rebuild the gym. “The really amazing man has been school engineer John Velasquez,” says Edelberg. “He’s donated almost every Saturday for a year. He gets paint, he finds ladders, he figures out logistical matters. He’s just special.”

Last spring the parents’ group brought in another important ally, Hull House. “We’d read in the paper that Hull House was leaving the neighborhood,” says Edelberg. For years Hull House had operated a social-service center on Broadway near Belmont. “We thought, yes, that’s sad, but I wonder what’s happening to their after-school program?”

They called Hull House president Clarence Wood. One thing led to another, and eventually Hull House agreed to run a community center inside the school called Jane’s Place. The center will operate an after-school program, offering courses in dance, theater, music, photography, and Spanish.

“We were thinkingâ how can we come up with a way to get arts and theater into the school?” says Edelberg. “Then someone said, jokingly, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if the Old Town School of Folk Music was actually teaching music here?’ So we decided to call them.” The result is that Old Town instructors will lead most of the after-school music classes. “We approached schools like Old Town and asked them to partner with us,” says Edelberg. “We said they can charge their normal rates and get rent and utilities and marketing for free. We only ask two things in return. One is they have to offer scholarships, to the tune of 20 percent of the slots. Two, they had to contribute some classes to the Nettelhorst curriculum, which they are.”

The parent volunteers don’t want to be seen as snobs. “We’re not changing Nettelhorst’s mandate,” says Edelberg. “It’s supposed to be a neighborhood school. It will always be open to everyone who lives in the neighborhood. And contrary to what people may think, Lakeview’s filled with people of all colors, religions, and socioeconomic backgrounds–which you can see if you just look at the preschool. We don’t want to change that. We want diversity. That’s why we live in the city in the first place.”

It isn’t yet clear how many new neighborhood youngsters the renovated school attracted this fall or how many it will attract next year, when word gets around. Nicole Wagner moved to Detroit when her husband got a job there, and other key members of the parents’ group say they still haven’t made up their minds about enrolling their kids. “I love the energy at Nettelhorst–I love the parents and the principal and the staff,” says Lisa Vahey, a Lakeview resident who’s worked closely with teachers and Kurland on curriculum issues but whose child is still too young for school. “But we have a lot of different factors to consider before we select a school.”

Yet Edelberg enrolled her daughter in the preschool, and next year she plans to enroll her in the kindergarten. “I have no illusions that this won’t be difficult and capricious and weird,” she says. “But life can be difficult, capricious, and weird. We might as well teach our children to face those challenges when they’re small.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dorothy Perry.