The True Story of How We Turned Our School Around (and How You Can, Too)

When my oldest daughter, Sofia, was four, we had a kindergarten quandary. I was in love with my neighborhood in Arlington, Virginia, but its school was not loved by the neighborhood.

However, a few other families believed in it, and after visiting, I could tell it was a gem. To spread the news and to drum up more kids-next-door to join my daughter, I formed an organization called FANS, or Friends of Abingdon Neighborhood School.

This month marks the five-year anniversary of its founding. Ironically, we only enjoyed the school for one year, since we had to move after Sofia graduated from kindergarten. But I stayed in touch with my friends there, and here is what one of them recently wrote:

You would be amazed at the school now. So many parents choose Abingdon, we’re having crowding issues. The PTA is three times the size and there’s so much support. Thanks so much for all you did to bring awareness to the community. I don’t think Abingdon would be where it is today without your FANS brainchild!

I wanted to share this story with you because it demonstrates the power of a few. To be clear, I did not create the winning academic program of the school, and I was not the first “pioneer” to send her children there. What I did could be called passionate public relations, or spreading the good word, or building community.

And I wouldn’t have been able to do it without the support of a few other parents who had faith in the school, enough to send their children there — without the community involvement I wanted. One of them, Colleen, would often send me encouraging notes just when I needed them, such as this one from Margaret Mead:

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

Here is the story of how we did it, as I explained in Washington Parent, August 2007.

Everything seemed perfect about our new neighborhood –- except for the elementary school. Hardly anyone from our Arlington neighborhood went there, choosing county magnet schools instead. The talk on the playground about the school was, “Half the kids are on free or reduced lunch,” (read: poor). Or, “They bus in kids from rough neighborhoods,” (read: scary). The special focus schools were great, but I longed for the sense of community that a walkable, neighborhood school could bring.

Then one day last spring, the principal of the school gave an impressive presentation at my daughter’s preschool, and a few parents became seriously interested. I was thrilled. It sounded like the beginnings of a turn-around. Although the school had gone through a period of decline, I could see when I visited that it was flourishing with a new principal, innovative curriculum, and rising test scores. The children –- many from lower-income Latino households –- were bright, curious and respectful.

However, public perception still lagged way behind. Even though my daughter would not be kindergarten age for another year, I knew it would take at least that long to bring families back to a school with a tarnished reputation. I decided to form a group to connect prospective and current parents and to create a positive buzz about the school.

It has been a year since we formed FANS, or Friends of Abingdon Neighborhood School. We went from three to more than 70 members and, through our simple public relations effort, have dramatically changed the image of the school. I knew we had come a long way when a mother on the playground recently said with a smile, “Oh, you’re sending your daughter there? That’s great. I see a lot about that organization, Friends of Abingdon Neighborhood School. They believe that if you get the community involved, schools can really flourish.” Bingo!

Here’s how we were able to attract more neighborhood kids and put our school back onto the map of viable choices.

Find Core Supporters Then Add Members

Although you may be doing most of the work yourself, it’s important to have a few close allies. The most logical place to find enthusiastic people is the school’s PTA. Small PTAs often don’t have time for public relations and would welcome your efforts to spread the word. If you aren’t up for creating a separate organization, you could propose to be their community relations chair.

While it’s imperative that you have the blessing of the principal, it can make a big difference to have other power players on your side. Look to civic leaders and school board members. Perhaps one of them had children at your school and would be happy to back your efforts, even by appearing at a meeting or two.

Speaking of meetings, you’ll also want to find others who are interested in the school. The best way to do this is by holding an initial gathering where you can gauge interest, state your goals, and gather contact information. (See “How Others Have Succeeded.”)

Regularly Publicize School Programs and Special Features

If your neighborhood has a newsletter, excellent. If not, try speaking to local citizens’ associations for ideas. Consider starting a listserv for your neighborhood where you could begin to spread information about the school. Post flyers in public places like community centers, playgrounds, pools, grocery stores, post offices, on tree trunks – anywhere to get the word out.

After writing articles in our neighborhood newsletter about the formation of our group, I began interviewing the principal and teachers and highlighting ways our school was special. Remember the unique selling point marketing strategy: What does your school have that no other area school has?

Create a Logo and a Simple Brochure

While not necessary, these tools will do wonders towards showing the community that a group of committed parents is rallying around the school. Do you have a friend or family member who is artistic? A logo – which could be a name, an image or both – should be simple and eye-catching. Perhaps the school’s art teacher would be willing to help.

A brochure can be as low-tech as folded photocopies. I found directions on creating tri-fold brochures using Word and tips for preparing text in tri-folds. After I copied them on colored paper, I posted the brochures at playgrounds and at school events, especially those open to prospective families.

Organize a Few Get-Togethers

Events could range from a cozy mom’s night out to a potluck picnic or a trip to a pumpkin patch. We have had success with a series of Sunday afternoon playdates at the school playground. We asked the school to send out flyers to everyone who attended the kindergarten orientations, and the PTA provided refreshments. The first playdate was so successful that we decided to repeat it the last Sunday of the month for the rest of the spring and summer.

If you can work with the principal to hold an event inside the school, even better. Negative comments often come from people who have never been to the school or whose kids attended ages ago, points out Eileen Kugler whose daughter attended a school with a high immigrant population in Northern Virginia. In her book Debunking the Middle-Class Myth: Why Diverse Schools are Good for All Kids, she explains how important it is to get people through the front door, especially those with young children who are swayed by rumors and often move out of the area in search of “better” schools.

Remember, if you believe in your neighborhood school, you’re probably not alone. Gather your courage, find a few friends and go for it. With a little work and a lot of faith, you’ll be surprised at how quickly the tide can turn.

How Others Have Succeeded

Involve the Whole Community

When her daughter was only a newborn, Tessa Muehllehner began attending PTA meetings at Brent Elementary on Capitol Hill. She found a core group of interested parents on the Mothers on the Hill (MOTH) listserv. They organized a meeting in the park and announced it by leafleting every house in the area. Sixty parents showed up, and Brent Neighbors was formed. By reaching out to friends and neighbors – from professionals to retirees – the group was able to help the PTA get nonprofit status and win grants, renovate the library and beautify the school grounds, among other things. “We always look for the magic combination: a need in the school, a volunteer with a passion, and a source of funding,” says Muehllehner.

Demonstrate a Critical Mass

People usually don’t like to take pioneering risks with their children alone. Prospective families should have a chance to know current students as well as other neighborhood families that are embracing the school. The Maury Online Community, a support group for Maury Elementary School in Old Town Alexandria, has an “All Aboard” page on their website, which lists neighborhood kids who attend or plan to attend the school.

“To make people feel like they were part of a movement,” says Muehllehner of Brent Neighbors, “we posted a map on our listerv that showed where all the kids lived.” However, it should be clear to the school, she points out, that your group is not interested in “taking over” but rather seeing the school more integrated into the community.

Market to Your Target Audience

To attract neighborhood kids back to George Mason Elementary School in Alexandria, former principal Lois Berlin says, “We divided up the neighborhood and delivered flyers to every home inviting folks to bring their 4-year-olds to a puppet show and information session in October. We included our kindergarten and first graders in the puppet show so our visitors could see what great kids already attended George Mason.”

Hooking up prospective parents with current ones gives people a chance to meet satisfied customers. Berlin, who is now the superintendent of Falls Church City Schools, explains, “a George Mason parent held a wine and cheese party at her house and invited all the folks who attended various events like the puppet show.”

So there you have it! I’ll share more resources and tips in another post, in case you know of a school that needs to shine.

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  • Jenn January 8, 2012, 2:17 pm

    I just found your website and was reading through your older entries. I live on the west coast now, but grew up in Arlington- I went to Tuckahoe. Looking at the picture of the playground totally takes me back to my childhood (I forget how short the trees are back east). Thanks for having a great website and providing me with a little bit of nostalgia!

    • Amy January 10, 2012, 1:14 pm

      Hi Jenn,

      That’s so cool that you found my post about Abingdon! I have fond memories of Arlington too, but I had no idea that the trees were short!

      I hope you’ll stop by again.

      Take care,

  • Tragic Sandwich August 22, 2011, 1:11 pm

    This is wonderful. We have an elementary school within walking distance–it’s just a couple of blocks from our house–and I’d love for our daughter to go there. But we hear mixed things about it: it’s got decent scores on, but I’ve also heard that the kindergarten isn’t great, and that the school has an all-Spanish-language curriculum. I very much want our daughter to learn at least one more language, but my Spanish isn’t strong enough to support that. To start with, we need to get direct information about how they teach, and what their results are. After that, I know that there are lots of parents in the neighborhood who have children the same age as our daughter–and many of them like the idea of the neighborhood school, but are wary of this particular one. Your story is really inspiring me!

    • Amy August 23, 2011, 11:12 am

      Hi Tragic Sandwich (what a great moniker by the way!),

      I totally identify with where you are coming from. It’s important to get as much info as you can about the school — from the school itself and parents who go there (not from people who don’t have first hand experience).

      If you like what you see and hear, you might want to band together with the other parents in your neighborhood to support the school and make it work for all of you.

      Let me know how it goes!


  • Jen @ Jen Spends August 10, 2011, 8:24 pm

    Very inspiring, and a great accomplishment to be proud of!

  • Meghan August 10, 2011, 6:27 am

    That is a great story Amy and something I hope inspires others. As a teacher and parent I so believe in neighborhood schools and public schools in general. There is something very special about being able to go to school with the kids in your neighborhood.

    • Amy August 16, 2011, 6:31 am

      Hi Meghan,

      It’s great to hear the perspective of a teacher. I know, I love the neighborhoody aspect too. It feels homey.

      Anyway, thank you for writing in,