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Parents should look for these 3 things in a great school

By Camilla Benbow

(Originally printed in The Tennessean on March 8, 2012)

In my first column, I shared a little about how parents can recognize whether or not their child’s teacher is a good teacher. Now let’s step back and ask how you can know whether your child is attending a good school.

Joseph F. Murphy, a faculty member at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College, is one of the nation’s top experts in school leadership. He suggests parents should look for three things.

A good school is:

>> A place where every student is known well, cared for, and respected, where each student is a member of a “family.”

>> A place where every student is challenged and supported to achieve ambitious goals.

>> A place where teachers and administrators go to bed and get up thinking about how to make the first two of these come to life, where they work hard to make that happen, and where they hold themselves and their colleagues responsible for success.

Another of my colleagues, Tom Ward, is a former principal of Nashville’s Hume-Fogg Academic Magnet High School, one of the top public high schools in the country. Tom says a good school is like a good bowl of soup: You have to start with the broth. He recalls that what people noticed about Hume-Fogg was an atmosphere of student support for one another.

“Regardless of the diversity, kids always supported the achievements of others, no matter who did the deed or got the credit. It was not only OK to be smart and successful, it was expected,” Tom told me.

Parents who are looking for an excellent school for their children should key in on these features: respect and concern for students; a culture of mutual support among students; and challenging academic and personal goals. An educational atmosphere with these ingredients fosters success.

Unfortunately, current education reforms sometimes have the unintended effect of highlighting failure.

No Child Left Behind, for example, is criticized for penalizing schools rather than helping them to become successful. When schools, teachers and students are pitted against each other in a race for increasingly scarce resources, the end result will be to elevate a few while failing the many.

While it is true that we live in a society where competition is important, education reformers sometimes forget that success depends on cooperation and teamwork as much as it depends on ambition, perhaps even more so.

Schools where a culture of mutual respect and support is valued—along with high achievement—strengthen our social fabric as well as our children’s education.

Camilla P. Benbow is Patricia and Rodes Hart Dean of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College. Her column on education appears every other Thursday in The Tennessean Local section.