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
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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TALBOT HILL ELEMENTARY SCHOOL
Courtesy of Talbot Hill
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 r?sum?s 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.
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.
FOREST LAKE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL
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.
PINE JOG ELEMENTARY SCHOOL
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.
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K. W. BARRETT ELEMENTARY SCHOOL
Courtesy K.W. Barrett
K-5 500 students
Its science program is out of this world! Designated as a NASA Explorer School, K. W. Barrett challenged its fifth-graders last year to come up with a sports-based game, using the three laws of motion, for astronauts aboard the International Space Station. "The game they made, called Save the Earth, was modeled after Quidditch -- the sport in the Harry Potter series -- and won first place in the NASA contest," says Allyson Greene, a science enrichment teacher at Barrett. "All students watched a video feed of the astronauts playing the game." As part of the NASA partnership, astronauts have also visited the school -- and teachers have traveled to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for training in robotics. But the space hookup is just the tip of the iceberg: All students go to the school's Project Discovery lab and participate in science enrichment classes two or three times a week, where they conduct experiments and join projects like tracking the migration of whooping cranes. "We also integrate science into the rest of the curriculum," says Laurie Sullivan, who heads up the Project Discovery science program at Barrett. "For instance, kindergartners created a 'Whooping Crane Word Wall,' based on the vocabulary that they were exposed to while studying the birds."
Copy its success You may want to suggest to your child's teacher to look into the NASA Explorer School Program. Any teacher can sign up for free lesson plans and monthly live video chats between NASA scientists and students. They may also apply for the opportunity to have the class conduct experiments in an aircraft, such as NASA's Vomit Comet. Get the details at explorerschools.nasa.gov. Some of Barrett's science projects are funded with grants, like Toyota TAPESTRY, and supported by partners such as the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. "We established a grant-writing committee and gave teachers relief time to apply for the awards," says principal Theresa Bratt. "If your child's school doesn't have a team to do this, see if it's something the principal would like you and other parents to organize."
ODYSSEY CHARTER SCHOOL
K-5 520 students
It teaches a foreign language -- with a twist. Not only do all students learn Greek from instructors native to the country, but they also show off their speaking and listening skills in math class. It's part of a movement, common in Europe, called content-based foreign-language instruction, in which one or two subjects are taught in a different language. "Our students, only 6 percent of whom have a Greek background, pick up the language skills faster this way," says George Chambers, president of Odyssey's board. "Plus, it's a better fit for some kids and parents than immersion, in which all subjects are taught in a second language." Math and Greek make a perfect pairing, explains Chambers. "Mathematics has roots from the Greek language," he says. "For instance, all the names for plane shapes in geometry come from Greek words. Once kids know that pente means five in Greek, it's easy to remember than a pentagon is a figure with five sides." Students receive five hours of math lessons weekly in Greek and another five in English. As a result of this extra instruction, nearly 100 percent of second-graders met or exceeded the state's standards in math. Says kindergarten teacher Mary Lou Strauss: "It's amazing to watch students thinking and problem-solving in two languages. Even if they don't keep up with their Greek after they leave Odyssey, these children certainly will have an advantage in a global world."
Copy its success Just 15 percent of public elementary schools nationwide offer a foreign-language program. If your child's school doesn't, join with like-minded parents to start one. Emphasize the link between foreign-language skills and strong test scores -- the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (actfl.org) and the Center for Applied Linguistics (www.cal.org) have much of what you'll need to make the case.
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JOHN MUIR ELEMENTARY SCHOOL
Courtesy of John Muir
K-5 231 students
This school always has something cooking. Students make dishes twice a month, mainly using ingredients from the school garden. "We've put together squash tacos, dinosaur kale Caesar salad, bean dip, crepes with berries, and other recipes that the kids have loved," says Caroline Orth, an instructional cooking specialist. "At the end of the year, students take home a cookbook with recipes they've whipped up." Language arts and math are also mixed in with the cooking curriculum. For example, a citrus unit explored fractions in relation to oranges and grapefruits. Second- to fifth-graders write in cooking journals -- entries may include anything from Venn diagrams comparing and contrasting kale, collards, and chards to imaginary tales of an alien discovering a wintergreen leaf. Students also have class in the garden once a week, doing activities like measuring plants, adding up yields, or pretending to pollinate trees. Seasonal fruits and veggies from the garden show up in the cafeteria's salad bar. Says Orth: "After a few months, picky eaters become eager tasters."
Copy its success John Muir bases its gardening and cooking classes on a curriculum developed by Network for a Healthy California. If you live in the state, your kid's school can apply for a grant to fund the program at www.harvestofthemonth.cdph.ca.gov. Otherwise, you can still download activity sheets and materials. Garden grants are also available from other sources. Get news about the latest funding opportunities from schoolgardenweekly.com. If a garden isn't in your school's foreseeable future, cooking lessons are still an option. "Some recipes could easily be made in the classroom with the help of parent volunteers," says Orth.
MATH AND SCIENCE LEADERSHIP ACADEMY
K-5 310 students
Kids are never called to the principal's office at this school because, well, there is no principal. Instead, teachers run the school, which was founded in 2009 by teachers and the head of the city's teachers' union, with support from then superintendent Michael Bennet, who is now a U.S. senator. "At many schools, teachers' hands are tied. The administration dictates almost every aspect of the curriculum -- and how it's delivered," says Lori Nazareno, one of the school's co-lead teachers, who divvy up tasks usually reserved for the principal. Instructors at the Math and Science Leadership Academy, however, can adjust the curriculum. For instance, when an opportunity came up for first-graders to visit a quilt museum, one teacher made a quilt with her students before the trip, weaving in facts about patterns and fractions. "You'd typically have to go through three or four levels of approval for this deviation from the curriculum," says Nazareno. Teachers also observe one another's classrooms four times a year to offer suggestions on what could be improved and take away ideas they can implement with their own students. Says Nazareno: "Peer observation is practically nonexistent in some schools. There is so much of it going on here, and that benefits the kids."
Copy its success Approach the school administration with an offer to fund a get-together for teachers in your child's grade level. Partner with a few other families to defray the cost. It doesn't have to be elaborate; breakfast or afternoon coffee is just fine to give teachers a chance to bounce ideas off one another.
MUNFORD ELEMENTARY SCHOOL
K-5 736 students
On the outside, Munford looks like a typical rural school. But as soon as you open the front door, you'll enter a cave with stalactites and stalagmites and trickling water. You can follow the rock pathway to the gym or visit the kindergartners and first-graders in a wing designed to resemble an enchanted forest. "Science surrounds our students, and they think it's cool," says Kim Murray, a science resource teacher. Teachers often take the kids out to hallway displays to conduct their lessons -- for instance, a piece of bark from a hundred-year-old tree is the focal point for a first-grade lesson on what a tree's rings can reveal about its age and health. Munford''s principal, Rebecca Robinson, Ed.D., attributes the school's high test scores to the hands-on approach; nearly 95 percent of fifth-graders are proficient in science, which is significantly above the state average. "School is never boring here -- there's always a new fish for the children to look at in the cafeteria's aquarium or a fossil to explore in one of our outdoor science classrooms. They're engaged and enthusiastic about what they're learning in class," explains Dr. Robinson.
Copy its success Many museums and science centers have displays or historic objects that are in storage. With your principal's permission, you could approach museums to determine whether they'd be willing to lend those as "traveling exhibits" for your child's school, suggests Murray. Nearby businesses also might be willing to sponsor the cost of developing an exhibit -- for instance, the neighborhood power company may underwrite a display on energy. Munford teamed up with Southern Custom Exhibits (www.sceexhibits.com) to produce its interactive displays and received funding from the U.S. Forest Services' Kids in the Woods program (www.fs.fed.us) and local businesses.
Originally published in the October 2012 issue of Parents magazine.