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Why America's Best School Doesn't Exist

Blend Images Photography/Veer

Dr. J. Michael McGrath Elementary school in Newhall, CA, has students originally from Mexico and South America. Here, some students leave at day's end and head to a job. They might work on their father's food truck late into the night, moving inventories of oranges and corn chips in near darkness. Others skip school to care for younger siblings because their parents work two or even three jobs. There is no measurable parental involvement. A number of students live in rented-out bedrooms with their entire family, sharing twin mattresses on the floor.

McGrath is a Title 1 school, which means the overall poverty level of the student population is at least 40 percent, and therefore receives federal support. More than 85 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, compared with 12 percent at Freedom 7. Nevertheless, earlier this year McGrath was named a National Blue Ribbon School by the Department of Education. (Freedom 7 received this distinction in 2008.) The K-6 population, 64 percent of whom speak English as a second language, scored 83 percent proficiency in math and 70 percent in language arts. McGrath outperforms 75 percent of California's elementary schools. OK, so this is what one of the best schools in America looks like.

There are about 99,000 public elementary and secondary schools in almost 14,000 districts in the United States. Districts stricken by poverty neighbor districts graced by corporate bonuses. Schools in pristine, architecturally sound structures can be subpar, while schools in retrofitted shopping centers and grocery stores (Freedom 7 was a senior-citizen center in the 1990s) can be remarkable. Great ideas are born at failing schools. Great schools fail. Because each state has its own way of assessing student progress, a great school in Florida is not a great school in California is not a great school in Massachusetts. How can a school that has everything going for it be great, and a school that has very little going for it be great, too?

“I've been to hundreds and hundreds of schools,” says U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. “I've seen poor, rich, rural, and urban. I've been to places surrounded by violence, gang issues, and decay. But even in these places, I'm seeing children's lives being transformed.”

This story began as many buzz-seeking stories do: as a search for The Best. Sadly, there is no such thing. There are no rose-wielding bachelors, no Sweet 16s, no panel of reality-show judges to give us the finite answer we crave. But what if we collected the freshest ideas, practices, and philosophies related to childhood education and told you how to fold them into your kid's life? In short, what if we brought the best schools in America to you?

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