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JOHN MUIR ELEMENTARY SCHOOL

John Muir Elementary school

Berkeley, California
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

Denver, Colorado
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

Munford, Alabama
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.

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