I recently visited the Ben W. Murch Elementary School, where sixth graders have scored higher on standardized tests than any other six graders in the city. In fact, according to 1985 test results, they outscore all but 2 percent of the sixth graders in the United States.
Without putting too much emphasis on test scores, something interesting is happening at this school, which many people discovered last August when some students blew up a science lab during an experiment.
The kids are smart. The teachers are dedicated. And, most important, the parents are concerned.
You can see this just by walking into the school building, at 36th and Ellicott streets NW. It is clean and the students move about with order and a sense of purpose. Parents are virtually always involved in some kind of volunteer efforts. Not only do teachers keep a vigilant watch over the hallways and classrooms, so do the students.
It's not a special school, meaning a private school or a school for wealthy kids. But the commitment shown by all involved is special and has yielded some special results.
The students publish a newspaper, the Murch Monitor; they appear on the television show "It's Academic," and some recently returned from Arizona, where they had competed in an intellectual contest called "Olympics of the Mind." On July 4, a Murch student will go to New York, having won an essay contest about the Statue of Liberty.
Mayor Marion Barry, responding to a request from Murch's student government, was the keynote speaker for Awards Day on Monday. The following day, a police helicopter landed on the school playground and children were brought outside for a look and a chat with the pilot.
Some people say all these good things happen at Murch school because the principal, Mary Gill, is the sister of school board President David Hall. But that's not completely true.
Good things also happened at Jefferson Junior High, where Gill was assistant principal for 14 years -- well before Hall was elected to the school board. Although she takes no credit, and in fact shuns the media with a passion, teachers say Gill is directly responsible for improvements at the school -- from test scores to morale.
"It is the leadership of the principal that generates the enthusiasm on the part of the teachers and parents," said Carole Bailey, who teaches talented and gifted students at the school. "It is not unusual to find her working at the school on Saturdays and Sundays."
This is remarkable because in many D.C. public schools it is difficult to get teachers -- not to mention parents -- to volunteer for anything. About 90 percent of the parents are involved in school projects.
"In this area upper Northwest Washington , some parents could send their children to more prestigious places like Georgetown Day or Sidwell Friends, but we have chosen the Murch school and teachers know this and respond to the fact that they are preferred," said Edie Mossberg, the newly named president of the Murch Home and School Association.
Not only does Gill work on weekends, but so do some teachers. And on weekdays, many teachers arrive at work at 7:30 a.m. and stay until after 6 p.m.
With such attention, it is no wonder that the students excel. And it's not just the sixth graders, either, although their progress has been most remarkable.
At Murch, the extra work starts in kindergarten, where students are offered training in computers. Judith Roberts, an aggressive and dedicated kindergarten teacher, organized the school's Awards Day ceremonies in which children were recognized not just for excelling in their work but for improving at what they did.
"We just want the child to be the best that he or she can be," Roberts said. "We believe in excellence and we want the child to strive for that. We believe that a child learns best by doing."
It is an approach that has made the Murch school one of the best in the public school system.