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Why America's Best School Doesn't Exist

Blend Images Photography/Veer

“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.