Monthly Archives: June 2008












I thought Las Vegas was crazy, but it is nothing compared to the French Quarter in New Orleans.  Now granted, there are a lot more people in Vegas and you could fit the entire French Quarter in the lobby of one of the mega-casinos on the Strip… but you cannot deny the authenticity and music and culture of Bourbon Street.  

I returned home this afternoon from the 8th Annual National Charter Schools Conference that was held in NOLA. While I was there, I learned some stuff about the Voodoo Queen, and Preservation Hall, and Cajun cooking, and an historic old city that has slowly risen from the destruction of Katrina.  

I noticed that the local people talked about Katrina everywhere and I wondered if they are aware of how deeply scarred some of their neighbors are.  I overheard a young waitress tell a co-worker that she still feels traumatized and that she thinks she needs therapy.  Her co-worker just laughed at her.  “Try spending three nights on a bridge like I did.”  

I think they both need therapy and they are not alone.  Virtually every article in the local section of the Times-Picayune this morning mentioned Katrina at some point: like the story about the lady who is suing a couple in Texas because they rescued her dog “Jazz” and now they don’t want to give her back.  During the crisis the Texas couple wanted to help so they agreed to be foster parents to displaced animals.  They took in Jazz, renamed her “Hope” and then got real attached to her.  Meanwhile, her original owner dried out the house, recovered what possessions she could and then started to look for Jazz.  She never gave up hope that she would find Jazz and bring her home.

The truth is Jazz probably doesn’t care what her name is or where she lives as long as it is with these humans that will go to extraordinary lengths to love her.  And as long as the floodwaters don’t carry her away again. 

There is probably a metaphor in there somewhere to apply to the National Charter Schools Conference.  Or maybe not.  

Maybe it’s enough to just say we can learn something, every day, about resiliency and post-traumatic stress disorder and how these events outside of school profoundly affect children. And maybe we should listen to our kids when they tell us that they are in crisis and that they hurt inside and they don’t even know why. ”After all,” the waitress said, “that damn flood happened three years ago!” And maybe when our dog floats away we should just go find her. In looking for Jazz…we might find Hope.

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Last week I was exhausted and I didn’t know why.  Then I realized that graduation ceremonies are so emotionally draining its a wonder that we don’t just implode like a bad cake after they are over.  

This year we held two ceremonies… one for our 6th grade and one for 8th grade.  We just added our middle school last year so it is the first time we ever had 8th graders graduate.  We had a debate about whether it should be called a graduation ceremony or a promotion ceremony.  It was a debate that didn’t last long because in the end it doesn’t matter.  Our students are moving on and there is a deep and inexplicable sadness about that.  The next time we see some of these 8th grade boys they will have full beards and they will be big enough to block out the sun when they walk onto the campus.  The girls?  They will become more extraordinary by the day.

Much of what we do at El Milagro is build culture: a sense of connection and trust and commitment to our students and their families.  So when our students leave us… it doesn’t really matter who the speakers are or whether we have the right combination of balloons and bunting or whether the ceremony is aptly named. Those children are gone and those relationships cannot be replaced.  And that realization explains a lot about why we are so exhausted at the end of graduation week… and why the bittersweet joy of watching children blossom is tempered by having to say good-bye.  

After the graduation-promotion ceremony we took a lot of pictures.  Some kids climbed into a limo that was roughly the size of a battleship.  Others walked around and hugged each other and cried.  Fernando spilled punch on his shoes and the carpet.  The music played for the next half hour while families slowly peeled off for dinner and two white balloons untied themselves and silently slipped into the jet stream.


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An article by Iris C. Rotberg, a research professor of education policy at George Washington University, in Washington, appears in the June 11 edition of Education Week.  It is entitled–  “Quick Fixes, Test Scores, and the Global Economy: Myths That Continue to Confound Us”.

 In part it states:  

Our policy deliberations are dominated by a belief that we can cure our educational problems if only we can find a magic bullet—“scientifically proven” teaching methods, school choice, increased student testing. If we succeed, our students will rank higher on international test-score comparisons, which, in turn, will enable the United States to compete in the global economy. These beliefs are based on a set of loosely coupled myths about U.S. education. The myths form the basis for much of our rhetoric and many of our policies.

The first of these myths is that we can “fix” our schools without addressing the problems of poverty. We can’t. The achievement gap based on family socioeconomic status is the most significant problem in all countries, and accounts for about three-quarters of the variation in student performance among schools in the United States.


And I thought…

75% of the children at my school qualify for free or reduced lunch. We serve a community of the working poor. We are on the border to Mexico. We consider ourselves to be the most innovative school in America: a bold, independent, autonomous charter school that refuses all efforts from external agencies to defines us. We have created our own brand. We have never missed a single NCLB-AYP goal and have gained over 240 points on California’s Academic Performance Index… PRECISELY because we refuse to try and raise our test scores. We are in the business of raising children.     

We have shouted from the rooftops that you can not improve public schools by 1) calling them names (i.e. “Program Improvement”), 2) ignoring schools that excel even in the face of daunting economic challenges, 3) stripping critical thinking, problem solving, creative writing, the arts, joy, or dancing from the curriculum to make room for the short-sighted, publisher-driven, “fundamentalist” agenda that is myopically constructed on the pillars of math and reading.

And you cannot improve public schools if you try to do so in isolation from the complex social problems that inevitably creep onto our campuses and into our daily work: unemployment, health care, social services, recreation, mental health, lead paint, and drugs and gang violence and childhood obesity and poor nutrition and crime and homelessness. And while it has been an effective strategy for federal and state legislators to accuse educators of MAKING EXCUSES when we point these circumstances out… it doesn’t absolve them from their moral and legal responsibility to create public policy that serves American children as zealously as their policies that favor…say… wealthy adults. And we should hold them accountable for that. And identify those politicians and lawmakers who fail to make Adequate Yearly Progress in this endeavor, place them on improvement plans, call them names like “Program Improvement Governmental Agency”, and ultimately replace them with individuals who are committed to the welfare of American children and who refuse to allow a single one to be left hungry or homeless or isolated or lacking in health care. Or behind.

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On an education blog called LeaderTalk, Peter Reilley (whose spells his last name incorrectly) asked:

Is there a connection between our own spiritual growth and our work? Most people keep them separate. It’s pretty common to feel that ‘work is work’ and anything spiritual doesn’t belong in our professional lives. I know that this is a delicate conversation; but I am convinced it’s worth having.  In fact, many organizations are developing a contrary view of what it is to be a working professional and an effective leader.

I have always been compelled by the notion of spiritual leadership so I read his post.  Then I responded with a quote from “The Lights of El Milagro”:

El Milagro is a search for harmony. Where there is no struggle for power or control; where there is no infighting, backstabbing, or one-upmanship. No treachery. No hierarchy of authority. Where the rewards of the journey are abundant…and there is plenty for everyone.
And most importantly, where our work is defined by what we do for others and how we serve children.

We learned that as we strike our arc across the skyline, we leave an unintentional spiritual trail that both lights and compels us. The more our voices rise in unison on behalf of children, on behalf of El Milagro, the more we call upon the infinite power of the universe to lead us to some yet-undiscovered treasure that is the “way”.

Then somebody named “tft” (God bless him) said:

I think you are treading on dangerous territory when you start to infuse the personal/spiritual into the workplace. As and atheist, Fred’s praying before school board meetings scares the hell out of me. I think spirituality is best left OUT of the workplace, especially in light of the separation-of-church-and-state thing. Leaders should not impose, or give import, to the spirit world, as some of us believe there isn’t one, and the evidence is on our side (not to mention the law)

To which I responded…

Hey tft (et al.):

Here is an alternative take on what spirituality in the workplace is about: Actually, when I talk and write about it, it has nothing to do with religion nor anything necessarily to do with God. I hear you. Lots of people sensitive about that. But on my campus… there is a spiritual force.

The tides rise and fall by the force of energy. Your beagle leaps off the couch and lands on the floor as a function of gravity. And when the twin towers fell we all felt a sudden and inexplicable sense of connection. As a human community.

When visitors come to my campus they feel something that they can’t explain: energy…gravity…community…

My teachers, for example, conduct home visits with 100% of their students at the beginning of the school year for no other reason than to create relationships with their children and their families. Without compensation. It takes weeks to get to all of the homes and they have to eat a ton of home-made tamales and meet dogs and little sisters and exotic lizards. But when they are done… they never look at their class in the same way again… and parents don’t perceive their teachers in the same way again either.

Our charter mission exists to engender academic achievement in a community unaccustomed to academic excellence. In fact to achieve our mission we have to overcome the adverse effects of poverty on learning. On this campus there is a deep, deep commitment to children– a passion, an urgency. Our kids feel it too. Our teachers will do anything to prove that children at a low income, Title I school on the border with Mexico can compete with anybody in the nation.

You can call it “school spirit” if that makes you feel more at ease. But make no mistake… there is an energy here that comes from somewhere in the universe and we think it is lifting kids. Like the tides. You can’t trivialize it. You can’t politicize it. And you can’t help but feel it.

And by the way, I pray on my way into work every day. I’m a principal. My life has been blessed in ways I don’t deserve. On the chance that there is a spiritual force called “God”, I don’t want to be the beneficiary of a kindness I neglected to recognize. And on the chance that there is a spiritual force called “God” (and that this God created the very children we are trying to rescue from extraordinarily difficult life circumstances)– I’m gonna ask for help.

It’s the least I can do to honor the work of teachers and children who scramble every day to overcome near insurmountable odds.


To which if “tft” had a cogent response (and I’m guessing he did)– he kept it to himself.  Amen.

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