5 Exceptional Elementary Schools—And How Yours Can Be like Them

Honor schools
By Karen Cicero

Suppose you had to grade your child's elementary school. Would you give it a B? In an exclusive survey with the market-research firm Quester, Parents found that while most moms are generally happy with their kid's education, one third have concerns about the pace of the curriculum and a quarter don't think it encourages creativity and independent thinking. How can you take your student to the next level?

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To find out, Parents asked state departments of education, charter-school associations, teacher groups, and our Facebook fans to nominate innovative public elementary schools. More than 500 suggestions poured in, and from them, we picked ten to feature. Each trailblazer took a different approach to excellence, but all have buzz-worthy ideas that could make your kid's school everything you've longed for it to be. Take notes!

1. BROAD ACRES ELEMENTARY SCHOOL
Location: Silver Spring, Maryland
K-5 630 students
Just a decade ago, less than 15 percent of third-graders at Broad Acres passed state reading and math tests. "The traditional approach to education wasn't working because nearly all our students live in poverty and families were constantly moving in and out of our area," says Michael Bayewitz, who was principal from 2007 to last August. To improve learning, the school focused on taking care of the problems outside its walls. Staff worked with the local government to open a school health clinic so sick kids would get the care they need and return to the classroom faster.

Volunteers sought out donations of food and clothing so kids were nourished and warm. And teachers even made home visits to meet with parents, since many don't have a phone. "It sent the message to parents, many of whom were uncomfortable at first about participating in school activities, that we are invested in their children and we care about their success," says Bayewitz. Inside the classroom, teachers committed to staying late once a week for group meetings to brainstorm ways to help struggling students, eventually developing interventions for every subject and grade level.

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As a result of those efforts, 95 percent of Broad Acres students are now proficient in math and 89 percent in reading. Says Bayewitz: "People tell me that our turnaround has been nothing short of a miracle. But, honestly, it's not a miracle. Our students are just as smart as any other kids -- we just had to find a way to reach them."

Copy its success If not many parents are involved in your child's school, try to find out what's keeping them away so you can address the problem. Moms and dads played a huge role in Broad Acres' comeback, and parental involvement makes every school better, says Bayewitz. "For instance, when we switched our parent meetings to the mornings, which was more convenient, our attendance doubled."

Also consider talking to your child''s principal about setting up a parent-volunteer schedule for all the classrooms, if one isn't already in place. "Teachers don't just need help at special times, like on the day of the Halloween party; they can benefit from having a parent in the classroom who can read with small groups of students or help them practice writing the alphabet," he says. "That extra attention the students receive makes a huge difference in achievement."

2. SONORA ELEMENTARY SCHOOL
Location: Springdale, Arkansas
K-5 600 students
The arts take center stage here. Thanks to a partnership with a local arts center, dance, drama, poetry, and drawing are seamlessly woven into all subjects, making lessons more memorable and fun. "We routinely act out word problems," says third-grade math teacher Claire Mathis. "When it's time for a test, my students tell me that they're able to visualize what's being asked." In social-studies class, children create tableaux (artistic groupings) to illustrate complex concepts like the civil-rights movement.

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And while studying science, students learn dances based on the life cycles of creatures or rocks and minerals. "This dramatic approach helps the information stick with kids," says Patricia Relph, Ph.D., an arts learning specialist at nearby Walton Arts Center, which provides staffing and teacher enrichment for Sonora. "In fact, one landmark study found that children who are involved in the arts for nine hours a week are four times more likely to be recognized for academic achievement."

Sonora's teachers also rely on theater-based techniques to improve behavior; for instance, kids play concentration games daily and learn how to tailor the level of their voice to what's appropriate for the situation.

Copy its success Many schools recognize the benefits of integrating arts into the curriculum, but they don't have the money to do it. Make your child's school aware of funding sources. Just as Walton and Sonora did, local arts organizations and schools can jointly apply for the Partners in Education program from the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts (kennedy-center.org), which provides access to training and materials for its 100-plus partners.

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Schools can also seek grants from the National Endowment for the Arts (nea.gov) and the Dana Foundation (dana.org). "Even if you can't get a full-blown program into your child's school in the near future, ask the principal if you can contact local arts organizations to see if they'd be willing to hold workshops with the students," suggests Dr. Relph. "Thanks to grants, some local arts centers like ours are even able to offer free admission and busing subsidies for schoolchildren to see a performance."

3. TALBOT HILL ELEMENTARY SCHOOL
Location: Renton, Washington
K-5 484 students
Three times a week, students at Talbot Hill report to their jobs -- as postal workers, bankers, store managers, composters, judges, lawyers, farmers, and reporters, among many other occupations. "Kids put their academic lessons to use immediately while working in our mini community," says Sally Boni, coordinator of the program called MicroSociety Inc. "For instance, they learn multiplication in the morning, and a few hours later, they're balancing a checkbook or calculating the size of plots needed to grow plants."

Third- to fifth-graders apply for jobs at the beginning of the school year, creating résumés and working on interview skills while younger children participate in classroom-run businesses. Of course, this real-world approach takes time away from structured lessons, but a four-year study showed the program improved standardized test scores in math by 12 percent and in reading by 14 percent.

RELATED: Raise a Money-Smart Kid

Copy its success
Talbot Hill's MicroSociety Inc. is part of a network of 200-plus schools in 40 states; learn how to bring the program to your kid's school at microsociety.org. Because of the extra staff, training, and supplies required, Boni estimates that it costs $75,000 to $100,000 to implement the program and about $25,000 to $30,000 per year to maintain it at a school with 500 students. "The Talbot Hill Educational Trust (a nonprofit organization) and our PTO raise most of the money to keep it going," she says.

But schools can test the program on a smaller scale. "We tried it in one classroom for a year and then broadened it for the next year before we took it school-wide," Boni says. In the meantime, you and like-minded parents can meet with teachers to discuss ways to simulate real-world businesses in the classroom. For example, groups of third-graders could sell a craft they made, such as friendship bracelets or duct-tape bookmarks, at the art fair or parent open house. Creating a business plan -- that includes a supply budget, price points, and sale analysis -- would be part of the learning experience.

4. FOREST LAKE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL
Location: Columbia, South Carolina
K-5 580 students
This school is tuned in to technology. Fifth-graders write, film, and produce a live daily news show that's broadcast in every classroom. "The show has a weather person, interviews with guests, and reports from the cafeteria on the day's lunch choices," says media specialist Lizzie Padget. "After a couple of weeks of training, the kids handle the cameras and sound equipment on their own."

Every classroom has a SMART Board and uses the SMART Response interactive system, with wireless remotes for all the students. "The students use them to answer questions on the SMART Board, and it gives me an instant tally of how students responded," says teacher Marian Scullion. "This technology has helped teachers evaluate whether we're moving too quickly or too slowly in our lessons." Students also use simulation software, make PowerPoint presentations, and contribute to blogs a couple of times a week to chronicle what they've learned in class.

Copy its success Forest Lake created a nonprofit educational foundation to help fund its technology purchases. "Through donations from area businesses for a silent auction and ticket sales from the school performance, we were able to raise about $8,000," says principal Kappy Steck. "Parents were instrumental in reaching out to local businesses for us." Forest Lake also received technology grants from several foundations. Go to eschoolnews.com for a list of available grants. In addition, your child's school can apply to be a Microsoft Pathfinder Innovative School (pil-network.com); teacher training, equipment, and software are provided.

RELATED: How to Introduce Technology to Young Kids

5. PINE JOG ELEMENTARY SCHOOL

Location: West Palm Beach, Florida
K-5 865 students

Planting seeds, having reading class in the Tiki Hut near the butterfly garden, and monitoring energy use are just part of a typical day at Pine Jog, which recently won a Green Ribbon award from the U.S. Department of Education. "It wasn't enough for us to have an environmentally friendly school building," says principal Fred Barch. "We weave environmental education throughout the entire curriculum."

For instance, all students help care for the school's pesticide-free 4,000-plant hydroponic garden, and they get plenty of math, science, and marketing experience in the process. "The kids sold $4,000 worth of produce last year to parents and staff at school," says Barch. "They researched what local grocery stores were charging to help them set the prices, and at the end of the season they calculated which crops were the most profitable."

Pine Jog also has an outdoor science lab for experiments and GPS mapping. What's more, the design of the school itself is a teaching tool. There are numerous touch-screen devices in hallways that display real-time info about the school's energy consumption so students can monitor the building's energy use and savings. Says Barch: "The children love checking on how much water we've used in a month and how much we've saved."

Copy its success All Pine Jog's teachers received training from Project Wild (projectwild.org), a free program of the Council for Environmental Education. The group offers workshops for teachers in every state as well as curriculum and activity guides.

For five more exceptional schools, click here.

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This article first appeared in Parents magazine's October 2012 issue.
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