What REALLY Makes A School an Amazing Place to Learn?

What truly makes a school a great place to learn?

Don’t even waste your time looking at the Department of Education’s California Dashboard (The Department of Education’s system for grading schools. This replaced the old API system)… and it tells you nothing really!


I work at a middle school that has seen a tremendous amount of growth in the past 16 years. When I was first hired, I moved into a room that smelled like mold, chairs would break and injure the students, behavior problems were all over campus, gang fights here and there, huge achievement gaps, very few parent volunteers, only three or four elective classes were offered and I had a very small budget for our music program. No wonder so many students at that time were not very motivated to work at anything! I had previously been working as an assistant music teacher at a huge performing arts magnet school that had none of these problems. Why did I take this job? Because the principal at the school had an amazingly friendly and professional personality. After that first interview with her, my gut instinct told me that:

A. This was the right school for me.

B. I could help shape this school into an amazing place to learn.

I was right! 16 years later our middle school has made HUGE gains. The gang problem is almost non-existent, our achievement scores went way up, we recently earned the California Distinguished School Award, the music program I direct with another fabulous teacher has really grown, students (in general) are very motivated and love their school, we now offer students many, many amazing electives to choose from, every student gets two electives, and we now have brand new buildings; including a very modern auditorium and a brand new track and field. The transformation has been amazing and it is now quite a middle school!

So I’ve been thinking: What things really, truly make a good school.

Here’s my list:

  1. A superintendent who listens to the entire village (so to speak): A strong and open minded superintendent who is great at motivating the teachers and doesn’t waste precious tax dollars on programs that just won’t work. A superintendent that listens to the needs of the teachers, the community, the parents and the students.
  2. Positive and educated school board members: Trustees who are not simply on a board to gain attention for themselves or use their position as time on the soap box. We had years where trustees would derail meetings and even almost get into fist fights with each other. Arghh! School board members who get along, can communicate well with each other, and make wise decisions on spending can create a strong and positive school climate. Positivity at that level trickles down to the classrooms. Be careful who you vote for when it comes to candidates for school boards!
  3. Funding: It’s very simple- If we our children are going to have the best education, then we need the sufficient funding for that. If we want highly qualified teachers, good administrators, and support programs for students who need the extra help  we have to have the funding for all of this. California is a still a little below the national average for per pupil funding…although we have improved on this. It’s still not enough though!
  4. Professional Development: Every school district needs to offer a variety of professional development trainings throughout the year. Trainings should directly relate to all the different subject areas in some way. Also, adequate training in classroom and behavior management, child development, and big time stipends or extra pay for earning National Board Certification and Masters Degrees.
  5. Community resources: I teach in a city that has an abundance of resources. Having community resources like CHAC (The Community Health Awareness Council) that puts counselors in every school or the Mountain View Education Foundation, that annually raises $800,000 to fund sports and after school programs (including music) has been really beneficial.
  6. Motivated parents: I’m talking about parents who value education and make every effort to be involved in some way. It makes a huge difference in the culture and climate of the school.
  7. Affordable housing: Teachers and administrators need to be able to afford to live close to where they work. We need to stop the revolving doors of teachers coming and going in school districts. Students don’t feel secure in their schools when teachers and administrators keep changing year after year.
  8. Good long range site goals: But don’t keep changing the goals! When a school finds a good program that’s intended to help achieve a good goal, they need to stick to it! The constantly changing goals, plans and programs are related to the revolving door of teachers and administrators coming and going as well as the lack of funding.
  9. A school climate with class offerings (electives and academic classes) that feed the whole child. A variety of classes that motivate students to learn, school clubs, PTA sponsored events, leadership opportunities, field trips, and anti-bullying/mental health education.

THIS IS THE DREAM FOR EVERY SCHOOL… Let’s keep fighting for it!




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