The public K-5 school the kids attend is pretty super. It has mostly great teachers, great staff, a great kid-to-adult ratio. The kids are taught the importance of being friends with everyone, and of the importance of inclusion, and an appreciation for cultural diversity. It has great programs for students' various needs and a structure that meets the educational needs of kids who excel as well as kids who are struggling. It is academically rigorous, such that kids who move away are bored at their new school, and new move-ins to the area often need extra attention to get them up to speed. It is generously funded, thanks to the affluence of the area. From what I gather, the middle and high schools are equally wonderful. It's necessary to note that Arlington also leans pretty liberal when it comes to social issues. (Now, if only they'd assign a bit less homework!)
During my elementary school years, 1988-1995, I attended seven different elementary schools. Each school had it's strengths and weaknesses, and no two schools were alike. One school sticks out, though, as a particularly positive experience. For the last few months of my fourth grade year, our family lived with my grandma in Davis, CA, and I attended North Davis Elementary. Unlike the schools I attended before and after, I somehow had multiple real friends from the very first day. I was shy, but never sat or played alone. The kids at North Davis were inclusive and I did not see any examples of cruelty to kids who seemed a little quirky or different. The kids were not discriminatory when playing on the playground or choosing groups for activities in the classroom. I did not get teased or receive odd looks for having rice cakes in my lunchbox, or seeds in my sandwich bread. It had unusually caring, attentive teachers compared to my other schools, rich instruction that made me think about the world differently, and a favorable kid-to-adult ratio. It had extra programs that other schools didn't, like a separate science classroom where we used litmus paper, beakers, and test tubes; and a typing class in a designated lab full of computers. It was academically ahead of my previous schools, especially in math and science, so I had to work hard to catch up. It was well-funded, thanks to the affluence of the area. Davis also leans pretty liberal when it comes to social issues.
From there, our family moved to Utah, and that Fall I commenced fifth grade at Shelley Elementary in American Fork where I had quite a different experience. In this extremely socially conservative community, the school environment was like "Lord of the Flies" and "survival of the fittest", and I witnessed more cruelty and abuse, both verbal and physical, among students than I could've dreamed. There were some very sweet, kind kids, but the mean kids were so many, and their assaults on their peers so frequent and so largely unchecked, that the environment was not unlike a prison. Teachers seemed exhausted and overwhelmed, and some even belittled and embarrassed students in order to elicit good behavior. It was at this point that I was struck by the seeming contradiction: Here was an environment in which basically all my classmates were members of my same religion, one that purports to teach people to emulate Christ and to love one another, and yet, of all the places I'd lived and attended school, this place had the most disrespect and unkindness. I'd just moved from a place where kids were so nice to one another, and they felt good about themselves and the world, and it was okay to be a little different, yet only a minority subscribed to any religion. But we'll unravel that contradiction some other day.
No public school is perfect, and if it were up to me I'd scrap the entire US Dept. of Education. But realistically, when we think about what we want for our kids, it comes down to a few criteria: We want an environment where our kids feel safe and secure, valued and respected, both for their uniqueness and for their membership within the group; where they receive an education that challenges them without overwhelming them, which teaches them to think and to problem-solve independently and cooperatively, and which prepares them well for college and for life. I've identified two schools that largely meet those expectations, and I wish that every public school in the country could be of the same caliber.
Now, perhaps we can identify a formula for a good public school. Let's examine the unique factors these two schools have in common: 1, lots of money; 2, a community that emphasizes cooperation and appreciation of differences, and 3, enough well-qualified well-educated teachers. Adequate funding alone is not sufficient, as Rocklin, CA is an affluent area with well-funded schools and above-average quality of instruction, but the community is socially conservative, and conflicted as I may feel about it, I believe that conservatism may contribute to the strong social hierarchy in which students seem to segregate themselves according to various arbitrary criteria, and competition is valued over cooperation. It's been my experience in general that the more socially-conservative the community, the harsher the social environment, independent of economic factors. I would actually readily sacrifice academic rigor for a healthier and more egalitarian social environment for my kids, but would of course rather have the best of both. And while one would assume that better funding generally means better-qualified teachers such that funding and quality of instruction are correlated, this is not necessarily the case. Some school districts have plenty of funding, but also plenty of corruption, such that the money stays with the administrators and doesn't trickle down far enough to reach the teachers and students.
The logical conclusion is that it is not one, but the combination of variables that is important in creating the best possible public school environment for kids. And I feel that the school environment is second only to the home environment in terms of its bearing on kids' happiness and well-being, which is what makes it such a high priority for parents. I would consider the kids' school environment a higher priority than the size or most other characteristics house we live in. I'm sure my understanding of this issue is incomplete, and my assumptions could be in error, but based on my current knowledge and experience, if/when we move away from Arlington, we'll need to seek out a community which, above all, possesses that seemingly rare combination of affluence, social liberalism, and highly-qualified instructors in the schools, along with a low student-to-teacher ratio.