Honor-Roll Schools

They don't have a big budget or charge tuition. Yet each of these ten elementary schools excels beyond traditional expectations. Learn how to bring their innovative ideas to your kid's classroom.
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Tara Donne

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? 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!

BROAD ACRES ELEMENTARY SCHOOL

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. 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."

SONORA ELEMENTARY SCHOOL

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. 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. 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."

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