Have you ever noticed that most of the schools we see in movies and TV, read about in novels, or even hear about in songs are terrible, rotten places where you’re likely to get pig blood dumped on you at prom, punched out on the playground, or humiliated by classmates and teachers alike?
We take for granted that attending K-12 education is like living in Orwell’s 1984 or serving a prison sentence.
But there are exceptions—in fiction and in real life. Generally speaking, when you get to choose where you go to school, you’re guaranteed a better experience because you’ve picked a place where you actually want to be—and that will treat you well because they know you can leave if you want. That’s reflected in parental satisfaction rates, which are consistently higher for public schools of choice and private schools than assigned public schools.
Currently, only about a quarter of K-12 students attend something other than their local, assigned public schools—alternatives ranging from charters and magnets to private schools and being homeschooled. If more kids and their parents had more choices, schools would do a better job of responding to students’ specific interests and needs and helping them become the best version of themselves. There’s no one-size-fits-all in education any more than there is when it comes to clothing or shoes.
Here are three fictional schools, which are great not because they’re right for everyone but because they meet the unique needs of their particular students.
Entry to this academy of superpowered mutants in the X-Men series is by invitation only, but it comes with a full ride—and a promise to learn how to control and master each student’s special powers. Professor X and his faculty hold everyone to exacting, high standards but also make sure that nobody slips through the cracks, the sort of attention that is all too lacking in schools that take students—and the tuition dollars they represent—for granted.
The 2005 movie Sky High showcased another superhero high school, one filled with comic takes on traditional school drama, but it also featured gym classes that actually seemed worth taking. The students are quickly assigned to either a “hero track” if they display superpowers or a “sidekick” track if they lack them, but unlike too many real-life schools, the kids are able to change courses if they demonstrate new abilities.
And then there’s Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the school at the center of the Harry Potter series. Modeled on hidebound British boarding schools and centuries-old universities like Oxford and Cambridge, Hogwarts is filled with bullies, arbitrary rules, customs, and demanding teachers. But in the end, what makes this institution unique is the philosophy of its headmaster, Albus Dumbledore, who forces his greatest pupil to master not only all the magical arts but also a basic philosophical maxim about human action too.
These places are wonderful because they don’t take their students for granted. Instead, they take their charges seriously and push them toward excellence and accomplishment while treating them as unique individuals.
Schools don’t need to be dreary, downbeat hellholes—in movies or in real life. If more of us get to choose where we go, we’ll be smarter, happier, and maybe even better adjusted. And our movies will eventually reflect that.
Produced by Nick Gillespie and Justin Zuckerman; Sound editing by Ian Keyser; Additional graphics by Danielle Thompson and Isaac Reese