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What Makes a School Great?

By Kristy Nerstheimer

I have been thinking about this question a lot lately. I have taught for over 20 years in 7 different buildings. I have taught various grade levels in the elementary setting. I have taught in the inner city, in military schools, in affluent schools and somewhere in between; and I have realized a few things about what it takes to make a school great.


For starters, students do not make a school great. I realize this statement may ruffle a few feathers. But it’s true, students don’t make a school great because students are already great. Kids are kids. They come to us from all walks of life: from supportive families to different socioeconomic backgrounds to traumatic situations and the list goes on.  We love them no matter what. It is a school’s job to take them where they are and make them better. So, if it is not the students that make a school great, what does? Here are the five most important things that make a school great.


School Climate: This is so vitally important. From the moment students and families walk through the door, they need to feel valued, accepted, and safe. This usually starts with the office personnel. Something as simple as a warm smile and greeting can do wonders in making someone feel valued.  But the overall feel of the building is essential. Seeing positive camaraderie among coworkers gives a sense of joy and partnership. Beautiful artwork is inviting and allows students to show ownership and pride in their space. A clean building also shows families the school cares about their students’ day to day experience as well as maintaining a healthy environment.  Many schools post a mission statement letting the entire community know the valuable education that takes place there. Another critical piece is the safety procedures involved throughout the entire building. Parents want to send their children to a school knowing there is a plan in place to provide the utmost safety for everyone.


Cohesive Staff: Great teachers definitely make a school great. Creating a classroom full of positive relationships sets a precedent for learning. Teachers with a growth mindset keep the evolution of education in motion. Great teachers are able to differentiate instruction and challenge/modify/enrich on a daily basis. Great teachers are passionate about their students and will do what it takes to ensure success. A staff with a balance of both novice and veteran teachers is also important. New teachers keep things fresh and moving forward which is a constant in education. Veteran teachers have the necessary experience that can help shape and build a successful program. Of course, not all staff members will agree, but all staff members should agree on always trying to do what is best for the students. Having this shared vision is essential in creating a cohesive staff.


Community Involvement: A school is a part of a community and a great school has a variety of positive interactions. The PTA is an excellent source of involvement. Of course, the PTA is made up of primarily parents and they have a vested interest in the success of the school. There are many times the PTA reaches out for community involvement. Elderly volunteers come to schools to help students with various academic and social skills. Police officers and firefighters come to schools to share their occupations as well as provide safety tips. Community theater programs can provide an excellent introduction to the arts.  School events are often open to the public such as a school carnival or an all school picnic. Different businesses often supply schools with various resources and funds to enhance various programs or offer support to families in need. Having a partnership with the school and its community creates a favorable outcome.


Leadership: A strong leader makes a school great. An effective leader listens, communicates, solves problems, offers support and guidance, and is the driving force for excellence. The principal overseas the staff, students, families, and is the bridge to the community.  Building relationships and trust is key. When teachers feel completely supported, they are more apt to perform to their best ability. When students feel valued, accepted, and safe, they can achieve a higher level of performance. When families can trust that their children are in the best learning environment, they will continue to live in the community making it a better place for all. An administrator who seeks to embody all of these elements can definitely make a school great.


Rigorous Curriculum: What students are learning is imperative to the success of a school. Students need to be fully engaged in the process. Active learners are more able to retain information than passive learners. Students need to be prepared for the future and a rigorous curriculum will help get them there. Curriculum should be well researched and able to provide pertinent skills to students.  Teachers should have all necessary resources and training in order for the curriculum to be effective. The curriculum also needs to be aligned with the necessary standards determined by a district or state. Once these things are in place, teachers are able to provide meaningful instruction to meet the needs of their students. Students then need to be assessed to provide feedback and data in order for the continuum of learning to progress.


It takes a lot to make a school great. It comes with hard work and determination. School climate, a cohesive staff, community involvement, a strong leader, and a rigorous curriculum are the key factors that determine greatness.

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