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Why America's Best School Doesn't Exist

Blend Images Photography/Veer

All the teachers at Freedom 7 Elementary School in Cocoa Beach, FL, have large, oblong heads and big Cheshire-cat smiles that occupy the majority of their large, oblong heads. At least that's how they are portrayed in the student-drawn portraits that tile the school's administrative office.

The office door opens. “OK, you all can follow me,” says a woman with a walkie-talkie. (Not smiling; typical cranial shape.) She's taking a gaggle of parents on a tour. We stroll down Creativity Court (all of the school's walkways have names like this), and pop in and out of classrooms. Piles of nails, screws, pennies, and keys sit on the counter of the science laboratory. Inside the library, a poster of a Magic Marker-ed snake reads “Got Ssss-shots?” (The students have been learning about poverty and disease.) The playground is on the corner of Appreciation Avenue and Integrity Boulevard.

This is what one of the best elementary schools in America looks like. In its state assessments, Freedom 7 performed better than 99.8 percent of Florida's elementary schools.Neighborhoodscout.com, a research and data website that ranks schools based on national and state-specific test scores, reports that Freedom 7 is the best public elementary school in the South. Moms and dads are required to volunteer 20 hours every year, or their child isn't reenrolled. Because of its reputation, the school receives parent inquiries from as far as Mexico and South America.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?“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.”

“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.

“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.

“Love children first, and teaching second.”

Dorine Zimmerman is annoyed. The light at Wickham Road and Pineda Causeway is too short. During morning rush hour, she may have to wait four times before making the light. The Freedom 7 principal likes to get to school very early, long before the teachers arrive. “Because once they're here, people stop by and”—Zimmerman raps her knuckles on the conference table—“they ask, ‘Can I just have a minute?’”

That question is what makes a good school a great school. It starts with great teachers, she says. “I have very high standards for my teachers,” Zimmerman says, then breaks into a wry smile. “I'm not very popular.”

There's one quality a Freedom 7 teacher must absolutely have: “They have to love children.” A couple of weeks ago, Zimmerman was stunned during an interview when the gentleman said that he liked teaching because he didn't want to work nights and weekends.

“If they love children, you can teach them a lot of other things,” explains Zimmerman. “But you cannot teach them to love children. You have to love children first, and teaching second.”“Science is everywhere.”

In 2009, newspaper headlines and cable news crawls lit up like Bunsen burners when the results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) were released. After 470,000 15-year-olds were tested worldwide, the U.S. ranked 17th in science (behind a slew of lands: Finland, New Zealand, Switzerland, the Netherlands) and 25th in math (can I cheat off your paper, Slovak Republic?).

But seeds of change are being planted at John F. Kennedy Magnet School in Port Chester, NY. Even with 8.5 out of 10 students coming from Spanish-speaking homes, it outperforms 83 percent of all New York public schools. In 2010, it received a National Blue Ribbon award.

Like Duncan, principal Louis Cuglietto is never in his office. Known to the students as Mr. C., Cuglietto prefers to be on the move, pushing a cart holding his laptop and phone, gathering children to solve math problems. On rainy days, he'll corral everyone in the auditorium and bring up Thinkfinity, a fun lesson-plan website created by Verizon. The kids recently learned about the Maglev trains in Japan, and how they work on magnetic levitation.

JFK is a magnet school: It uses a specialized curriculum to attract students from across traditional district boundaries. The focus is math, science, and technology, and it's apparent in every classroom and trophy case. It's even apparent in the clock hanging in the main office. Here, school doesn't begin at 8—it begins at ?64.

“When you're a child, science is everywhere,” says Cuglietto. “It's the air you breathe. It's the ants on the ground. It's the weather outside. It's the technology we use every day.”

While grown-ups see Singapore and South Korea as distant symbols of success, the kids at JFK are being taught they can be scientists, too. At the beginning of the school year, the first-graders are asked to draw a picture of a scientist. They hand in sketches of crazy-haired Einstein types and figures resembling wizards and magicians. After they share their pictures, the teacher hands them a mirror. That is what a scientist looks like.Despite all these big ideas and proven philosophies, we do not believe in our public schools: One percent of Americans give the nation's schools an A, according to a recent Gallup poll. But here's something we didn't know about ourselves: The percentage of Americans who give the schools in their community an A is 14 percent, the highest that figure has been in 28 years. Thirty-seven percent give their own child's school an A.

Here's the lesson, boys and girls: What does the best school in America look like? It looks like your child's school.

Better their education:

•Grow something. Plants are a hands-on way to cover a number of topics (measurements, nutrition, weather, seasons, etc.). 

•Fill in any curriculum blanks at home. Stage a talent show, set up a science lab, or work on an art project together. (Get inspiration at  educationaltoysplanet.com.)

•Set specific goals, with a clear timetable. The goal shouldn't be “Do better on your spelling.” Instead, try “Getting eight out of ten correct.” Share the goals with family members: Making it public helps increase motivation. Rewards should be relative to the achievement. Don't buy them a scooter for completing a collage.

•Love your child first, and your student second. Here's one idea: “Don't send kids off by themselves to do homework. That makes it seem like a punishment,” says Eskelsen. Instead, “when they're doing homework, that's when you pay the bills or make a grocery list. It sends the message ‘We all have homework."

•Make science cool. Thinkfinity.org has tons of fun lessons, webinars, worksheets, and videos.

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