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Why America's Best School Doesn't Exist

Blend Images Photography/Veer

“The whole child.”

“No child left untested.”

Speaking to a Baptist church congregation, Lily Eskelsen says this phrase slowly and deliberately. Eskelsen is an elementary school teacher in Utah and the vice president of the National Education Association (NEA), the labor union dedicated to representing teachers and improving public-school life. It's an appropriate setting (pulpit, pews, stained glass) for her to preach about the government's fascination with “fill-in-the-bubble tests.” “The best public school,” she says, “cares about the whole child.”

The “whole child” approach isn't just about intellectual health but social, emotional, cultural, and physical health, too. “We've found that academic excellence flows from this concept,” Duncan says. He raves about a recent choral performance at his daughter's elementary school in Arlington, VA. The concert was titled “Five a Day,” a reference to the common phrase that encourages people to eat five servings of fruits and vegetables daily. “They were singing about fiber,” Duncan says with a laugh. “It integrated a number of ideas in a fun, nontraditional way.”

In an era when just 4 percent of elementary schools have daily physical education, Bauder Elementary in Fort Collins, CO, has embraced a new wellness philosophy. In the school's kitchen, two women work at a stainless-steel sink slicing 500 chartreuse-green Anjou pears. The slices fill coolers, which are then distributed during the morning. “This is how I know that every kid eats a healthy breakfast,” says principal Brian Carpenter. When the students hit a lull, the teachers order “brain breaks.” The children lift balance balls and use the Railyards. Like step-aerobic benches, only taller, the Railyards inject exercise (push-ups, tricep dips) into sedentary classrooms.

A 2009 report by Active Living Research highlighted seven elementary school studies that connected regular physical-activity breaks to enhanced academic performance, and classroom behavior. Since 2008, the year the wellness program was introduced, Bauder's third-grade students have improved on the Transitional Colorado Assessment Program (TCAP), which measures performance in reading, writing, and math. Over the past two years, student proficiency jumped from 66 percent to 78 percent.