What Makes a School Great?

I drove by my school at 6:30 pm Sunday. Teachers and staff weren’t due back until Monday morning, but my school buzzed with the enthusiasm of a Friday night football game. Pop up tents, propane firepits, camping chairs and tents, RVs and a huge crowd lined the parking lots. One might believe we were hosting a tailgate or waiting to meet the Jonas Brothers. Nope. There sat more than 100 families hoping to secure a zone variance to attend my school next year. Parents and their students began lining up Saturday afternoon, creating a small village as each car arrived to set up camp.

Why did they spend their first weekend in January sleeping on the sidewalk? Because they believe my school is great. And they aren’t wrong. It’s an Arizona A-rated public school that bolsters a rank of top 10% of public high schools in the nation according to US and World News. And it is great. They aren’t wrong. I love my school.

But while I am beyond honored and proud to work there, I can’t help but wonder what makes it truly great? The state and national recognition certainly supports the theory, but what’s beyond test scores and graduation rate? What can’t be measured with numbers and data?

The answer is one word: community. This simple word encompasses everything that goes into a great school. It takes a community of stakeholders that believe in quality education for all students.

The stakeholders begin at the nucleus of the school: its teachers. Our community of teachers works together within our grade levels and content areas, but we also reach out to our colleagues to support our students. We ask questions and share best practices. Next, our administration, support staff, maintenance, and custodians create the next level of community. Every person is invested in our kids and their success. From making sure we have enough copy paper to setting up a school activity, everyone knows we are there for the kids first and foremost.

Our parents and neighbors are an integral community. Our parent club supports teachers and students by helping fund classroom projects, field trips, and scholarships. Local businesses hire kids for after school jobs and support clubs and athletic programs.

But the most important community is our students. Without our diverse population of students, we wouldn’t be who we are. Together, our students create a community of learners adding their history and story. They are what makes our school truly great.

The relationships within and among each community play an important role. Without fostering positive relationships, our students would not be able to achieve success. Great schools rely on each piece of the puzzle to support their kids. These relationships take time, patience, communication, and common goals. This is not an easy task, but tasks that can’t be ignored and taken for granted. Rather, they must be developed and cultivated by everyone involved.

As I sit here tonight typing away on my computer thinking about those parents sitting in the cold over the weekend, I hope that every kid has the opportunity to attend a great school, one with a strong community that believes in his or her success without having to sacrifice their parents’ time sleeping in a tent simply to get into one. Because at the end of the day, isn’t that what we all want: a great school for every kid?


Leah Clark

Leah Clark

Phoenix, Arizona

I joined the teaching profession after spending several years in luxury retail. While the free clothes and handbags were definite job perks, I felt burned out and tired of long hours, weekends and holidays. So, I went back to school to become a teacher and have never looked back. I love my job!
My teaching philosophy is simple: Do what’s best for kids. While it’s not eloquent, this humble phrase directs every decision I make about teaching and students. As a Language Arts teacher at a central Phoenix high school, it’s my honor and passion to create opportunities for students to communicate, collaborate, create and connect with one another and the world around them.
When I am not grading a stack of essays, planning a new lesson, or chaperoning a school dance, I love riding my yellow Huffy bicycle around town, sampling a new restaurant, and traveling to Flagstaff with my husband.

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