Detroit Public Schools' Thirkell Elementary was the top-ranked school on the Mackinac Center's new elementary and middle school report card. The Center's report card takes student poverty level into account in order to better examine school performance and is based on four years of student test scores.

Although nearly 90 percent of Thirkell students come from low-income backgrounds, Thirkell regularly posts higher-than average scores on state MEAP tests. Adjusting for student background makes Thirkell's success even clearer.

Parents, teachers and students all say that the warm atmosphere and focus on student learning at Thirkell is due to the leadership from Dr. Clara Smith, the school's principal. "She is a great leader," said Shailiaja Pritchett, a parent and school volunteer, "She demands excellence from everybody." Indeed, Smith's office walls are covered with awards and photos. One wall is papered with thank-you cards from parents and community members.

Smith says that teachers and administrators focus on teaching students respect and discipline first, so that students are ready and willing to learn during class time.