Traits of the Best Schools

Updated May 19, 2014 |
Traits of the Best Schools
What are the characteristics of the best schools? We explore what makes some schools the best schools.
Every now and then the question does occur to me, as it should to you, exactly why is it that I think a certain school is one of the best schools. Inevitably I have to conclude that the best schools have all of the following characteristics. What's more they have them in abundance. Now, before you start thinking that I am only talking about older established schools, that ain't necessarily so. I am aware of a couple of newer schools which fit neatly into the category of best schools simply because they have all of the characteristics explained below. So let's take a look at what I think the traits of the best schools are.
 
Great leadership
 
The best schools have strong, dynamic, dedicated leaders. They are led by women and men who have a clear vision of what they plan to accomplish. They also have the experience to execute their plans in order to achieve that vision. The head of a best school is a superb fund-raiser. She is a capable administrator. She leads by example. She expects the best from everybody in her school community.
Solid support of the trustees
 
I know of several schools which could have been great. But they never made it because their fractious board of trustees kept getting in the way of progress. Change is never easy. But oftimes it seems that boards have a rather difficult time with change. That always surprise me because most board memberstend to come from business backgrounds. You would think that they would understand that change is inevitable. Better that they should be guiding the changes and ensuring their success than sitting there being intransigent and rebellious.  When the head of school tries to bring the school in line with all sorts of variables such as changing demographics, a reduced applicant pool, an under-performing endowment and so on, the board needs to work with her and develop a plan to manage change. In the best schools the board leads the charge. Cheerfully and capably.
 
Strong financial backing by their graduates
 
In so many ways a school is only as good as the financial backing its graduates provide. While every head of school dreams of that unexpected $25 million bequest, the reality is that you need to cultivate your graduates. Regular communications, alumni events, home-coming and reunion weekends all have to be part of the mix in order to generate a strong financial response from your graduates.
Stellar faculty
 
At the heart of the best schools' mission is first-rate teaching. That requires well-educated, well-trained professional teachers who are passionate about what they are teaching. They are also passionate about teaching young people. That kind of teaching is right up there with a calling in my opinion. It requires a focus and patience which is not often required in other branches of the profession such as, for example, adult education. I have taught both groups. I always find that adults are in the classroom because they want to get ahead by earning some credits or a diploma. Young people, teenagers in particular, are in such a state of flux that the professional focus and patience which we bring to our work is essential. It is a hallmark of the faculty at the best schools.
 
Extensive academics
 
Interestingly enough, extensive academics does not mean lots of AP courses or even an IB curriculum in my opinion. I feel very strongly that course content is important. But it is equally important for young people to have lots of subjects to explore. They can do that at the best schools. The approach may differ from school to school but in just about every case I can think of the best schools offer lots of subjects for their students to explore.
Extensive athletics
 
As I have mentioned at great length in several other articles about private schools, athletics are just simply part of the program. They are not optional. They are designed to teach young people the values of competition, team work and respect for others. Wait! Aren't those the same things which are being taught across the academic side anyway? Yes. That's an integrated approach to educating the whole child. The best schools are really good at teaching those values.
 
Extensive extracurricular activities
 
Tied in with extensive academic and athletic offerings are the extracurricular activities. The best schools will offer a host of activities. Some will be fairly recent additions to the extracurricular activities roster. Others will be perennial favorites. Because the extracurricular activities in a private school are guided and supervised by a member of the faculty or staff, they function at a high level at the best schools.
 
Superb facilities
 
The best schools have truly remarkable facilities. I have in mind a smallish Montessori school and a rather grand old, established boarding school. The little Montessori school is a best school in my opinion because it takes the ideals and principles of Montessori education to a level far above anything else I have seen. Everything you would expect is there. 
 
On the other end of the spectrum the boarding school is housed on hundreds of acres of beautiful property. It has athletic facilities which would rival the facilities found at many universities. Its learning centers and class rooms invite you to be a part of the discussion and learn. 
 
Both the little Montessori and the larger boarding school are accomplishing the same purpose, aren't they? They are creating an atmosphere in which children can explore. An atmosphere in which order and beauty abounds allows a child to feel safe and to dream. The best schools encourage dreaming. Creativity is an essential part of the mix in the best schools. Superb facilities create the backdrop against which such things can indeed happen.
 
Graduates accomplish things
 
Go back and review what the graduates of the best schools have accomplished. Greatness was expected by the best schools. The graduate will live up to those expectations. Students at the best schools didn't just get by. They wanted to do their best. By exerting themselves they accomplished more than they could have ever imagined.
 
The best schools are the best schools because they offer not one or two of the characteristics on the list above. They offer them all.

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