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Why America's Best School Doesn't Exist

Blend Images Photography/Veer

“Kids sitting in rows is outdated.”

“I'm never at my desk,” says Duncan. When we spoke, it was National Teacher Appreciation Week, so he was out visiting schools, doing the hello hug thank you for what you do. His office has personal touches—a poster of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Duncan's hero), snapshots of childhood friends, a dry-erase board with drawings by his two children—but no actual person.

Duncan wants to see more students away from their desks. “Kids sitting in rows is outdated,” he says. “Learning is more impactful when you're out experiencing it.”

Amy Goodloe, principal of Oak Hill Elementary in Oak Hill, VA, is rarely at her desk either. In fact, you're most likely to find her in the school garden. Oak Hill does almost everything right—it's in the 98th percentile in statewide performance and math and reading test scores. Its one blight was a patch of land behind the school, an overgrown thicket of butterfly bushes and milkweed sectioned off with railroad ties. (“The kids used it for hide-and-seek,” she says.) In the fall of 2010, one of the staffers got wind of the Teaching Garden, an American Heart Association initiative to install “real-life learning laboratories” at elementary schools.

Today the garden is Oak Hill's headline attraction, and the center of its curriculum. The vegetables inform lessons on nutrition, health, and wellness. First-graders use it to learn about earthworms. Second-graders monitor the life cycle of the monarch butterfly. Fourth-graders use it to discuss weather and measure rainfall. The garden also provides lessons in character education: The entire student body pairs off, and each twosome takes ownership of a one-square-foot section.

“Even when it's not for class, the kids are in the garden,” says Goodloe. “They're checking the growth of the lettuce. They're observing the insects. It's a real-life way to engage kids and connect concepts in a way that a book or blackboard simply cannot.”