A truly ‘neighborhood’ school

Three moms are recruiting homeowners to Northlake Elementary

“How to Walk to School: Blueprint for a Neighborhood Renaissance” is both a book title and a phenomenon (spanning media from Oprah to Youtube). It’s the story of how a group of parents and a school principal transformed Nettelhorst Elementary in Chicago from a struggling, neglected school to a thriving neighborhood asset.

Here in Lake Highlands, a dedicated group of parents is blazing a similar trail. “Let’s Back Northlake” is an initiative rolled out by three moms who aim to increase neighborhood participation at their local elementary school.

While many Lake Highlands parents are thrilled with high-achieving Richardson ISD, not all elementary schools are equally popular with homeowners. Some favorites are Merriman Park, Moss Haven and White Rock.

So what’s happening at Northlake, Skyview, Stults Road and Aiken? Why do so many homeowners in those areas choose transfers (sometimes allowed by the district) or private school?

If you’ve been here a while, you understand the dynamics, but if you’re new in town, here’s the scoop: We have some apartments in Lake Highlands. We are ethnically and culturally diverse. The apartment families move more often than homeowner families. In between state requirements for testing and moments of mandatory silence, this large population creates a challenge for our schools. Our teachers are heroes who consistently achieve excellent results.

When Amy Timmerman and her husband moved into Northlake’s attendance area, she figured when it came time for school, she would follow the crowd and request a transfer or choose a private school. But as her preschool daughter grew, Timmerman grew curious about Northlake and decided to visit.

She was impressed.

Principal Glenda Howell has been on the job since 2005. Back then, the state rated Northlake “acceptable.” Howell implemented academic improvements, and Northlake has been either “recognized” or “exemplary” for the past six years. Its test results are competitive with some of RISD’s best schools.

Timmerman, a Realtor, decided to recruit support for Northlake from other homeowners. She teamed up with local moms Andrea Hauglie and Erin Harrison. Harrison is a LH native who attended Northlake with her three siblings.

“My parents had me transfer from White Rock to Northlake, so I could walk to school,” Harrison says.

All three moms have preschoolers who will attend kindergarten at Northlake in 2014, but they aren’t waiting until then to get involved. They began by joining Northlake’s PTA and getting to know its president, Jackie Williams, who spends many hours at the school volunteering. I visited the school hoping to meet Williams and find out her perspective. Although I didn’t see her that day, I did see many other parents visiting at lunchtime, which dispelled the myth in my own mind that current parents aren’t involved.

Let’s Back Northlake also attended an RISD board meeting last fall.

“It took a lot for us as parents, trying to represent a school when we didn’t have kids there yet,” Timmerman says. “We wanted [the district] to be aware of what we’re doing, and we were asking for their support.”

They found their goals are in line with RISD’s philosophy of the “neighborhood model” for public schools, which strives to make schools accessible and beneficial to all residents in the attendance boundaries.

The group also started a “Paw Prints” club for preschoolers, “like Wallace Wannabes,” Timmerman says, referring to a similar Wallace Elementary program. “We want families to feel like they are part of the community, to get familiar with the teachers, the art room and the library.”

In February, Let’s Back Northlake launched a fundraising campaign, “specifically for awesome projects like ‘Science Goes to Camp’ and Sky Ranch,” Timmerman says. Their goal is to find neighborhood business sponsors.

I asked Timmerman if she was aware of the book “How to Walk to School.” She had never heard of it, but was intrigued by the parallels.

Can we achieve the same success here in Lake Highlands?

Northlake is situated at Ravensway and Church Road — an idyllic neighborhood setting, adjacent to green space and bustling Audelia Library. The school building and grounds are in excellent condition. Academically, Northlake already achieves high standards. So this is not an effort to turn a school around as much as it is a campaign to persuade homeowners to send their children to an already successful school.

No doubt, however, the school will improve if the entire neighborhood rallies behind it. In Chicago, even Nettelhorst families without children noticed positive changes in the community once the whole neighborhood embraced the school. In Lake Highlands, we recently saw similar success at Wallace Elementary, so we know it’s possible.

“The school is behind my backyard, so I care about what happens there even though my kids aren’t there yet,” Hauglie says. “This isn’t just a good thing to do; it’s the right thing for us to do as a neighborhood.”

Timmerman says success isn’t just convincing homeowners to attend the school, but for neighbors to make a positive contribution starting right now.

“We know this is not a one-year plan,” she says. “This is a five-, 10-, 20-year plan.”

Visit backnorthlake.com to learn more.The school’s kindergarten roundup is 9 a.m. March 5.

 


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