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Why America's Best School Doesn't Exist

Blend Images Photography/Veer

“We make no excuses.”

Larry Heath started his career in education in 1979 and has more satin ribbons and Lucite plaques than he can display. “My schools won all the awards,” he says. “But I realized the bar was set way too low.” And so in 2003, he accepted the job as principal at McGrath. Poverty, joblessness, gang culture, violence, language barriers: failure's Big Five. Interestingly, it was Heath's son who made success seem possible.

Thirty-five years ago, Heath's youngest son suffered a brain hemorrhage after birth, leaving him mentally disabled. Over time, the father observed the son working on his letters, his numbers, his reading. “I learned a lot about how much you can learn,” Heath says. “My son has a 57 IQ. I look at our schooling system, and how many kids aren't performing at their grade level.” Inhale. Exhale. “If my son can do it, these kids can do it. We make no excuses.”

The school sets high expectations and, in turn, provides big rewards. As a bonus for meeting their annual goals, McGrath students see a movie together. Recent favorites include Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and Spy Kids 4.

“The process of celebration is acquiring the energy to restart the process all over again,” says Heath.