Monthly Archives: August 2008


For as long as I can remember– and throughout me career as an educator– there has been one consistent complaint about the complex task of teaching children:  THERE IS NEVER ENOUGH TIME!

The six and a half hour school day speeds by at a blinding pace.  The unexpected delays, the daily interruptions, the fragmented schedules, the long lunch and recess breaks, the endless transitions– all steal time… the precious capital that is fundamental to effective teaching.

The nine month academic year starts at a frenzied late-summer pace.  Then it’s Halloween, then Christmas, then we are preparing students for the annual assessments in May.  

Pretty soon graduation ceremonies start to blend together–  along with cycles of crises, issues of the day, trends and fads and national priorities.  And, sadly, the faces of generations of children.

All in the blink of an eye.

There is never enough time, and yet, time is all we have.

At El Milagro we added 20 days to the instructional year a long time ago.  Our students now return to school in late July, one full month ahead of their counterparts who attend schools which feature a traditional academic calendar.  We have seen great growth from this development because we use the month of August strategically:  1) We conduct extensive formative assessments for every student using MAPS; 2) Our teachers meet 100% of our parents in conferences that set the tone for the year and insure that our parents (and thus our students) have a clear understanding of the standards and expectations for the year; and  3) Significantly, 75% of these meetings are HOME VISITS… so the partnership between home and school are well established by Labor Day.

This year the teachers went one step further.  We implemented a new school schedule that adds 60 minutes of instruction to every school day! This too was done strategically.  By adding instructional minutes we were able to 1) Protect a 3-hour, language arts time block; 2) Protect a 90 minute, math time block; 3) Guarantee a 45-minute ELD block for every student at every grade level; 4) Guarantee 75 minutes of active writing every day; 5) Eliminate the broken fragments of time; 6) Protect our RIT groups– a school wide strategy for differentiating instruction; 7) Protect the arts, social studies, science and physical education; 8) Extend learning time for accelerated students through an enrichment curriculum; and 9) Create a 45-minute daily time block to work with much smaller, targeted groups of students.

Our teachers responded to the age-old need for more time by carving out more time.  This could only happen in a charter school, where staff can respond to the needs of our students first– then worry later about how everyone might be fairly compensated for their time.  Even on this issue they reached consensus:  “Let’s make sure that what we implement is working.  Investing more TIME to get the same results is not acceptable.”

The new schedule starts on Tuesday, the day after Labor Day.  There is tremendous optimism and a sense of profound appreciation from our parents who recognize a gift when they see one.  Their children will be accelerated if we all do our jobs right.  Our students now have a fighting chance to benefit from a far more comprehensive and content-rich curriculum.  And it comes not a moment too soon.

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Wow I didn’t realize how hard it would be to keep up with blogging once the school year starts up! Nevertheless, my wife passed along this article that is being reviewed by senior leadership at Intuit.  It is called “The Uncompromising Leader” (Eisenstat, Beer, Foote, Fredberg, and Norrgren) and appears in the July 2008 edition of the Harvard Business Review.

“High Commitment-High Performance CEOs somehow seem to comfortably bear the tension of reconciling the relentless demands of the market with their role as steward of their people. These leaders are clearly energized by delivering on their larger mission, by soundly thrashing their competitors in the marketplace, and by directly connecting with the people in their firms.” 

It really underscores the struggle across all kinds of organizations– literally all over the world– to find the balance between achieving high “performance” and keeping people whole and healthy. Stewards of the People.  “Leaders of high commitment and high performance organizations refuse to choose between people and profits.”    

It also calls to mind the tension described in my previous post.  Are we about raising test scores or raising children?

And I again come to the conclusion that if we expect our own children to excel in school, why would we not expect the children who are entrusted into our care as educators to excel? Academic excellence is a gateway to a lifetime of opportunity.  Those who argue that we have dehumanized our schools in the “Age of Accountability” are projecting the expectation that children cannot rise to the level of high standards and high expectations.

We refuse to choose between people (which includes our students) and high productivity in the form of academic achievement.  As a result, our children soar. 


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One of my teachers said:  “When you first came here you were all about kids.  lately, it seems that all you talk about is test scores.”

Sometimes we have to have someone else hold up the mirror for us.  In the climate of NCLB,  it is so easy to lose our way.  But I know this, “caring about our students” and motivating high levels of academic achievement are not mutually exclusive goals.  There is no reason why my students can’t excel on any academic achievement test.  Not enough of them do, and that means they are not performing to their full potential.  And when a person fails to achieve their full potential,  we all pay.  But none of us pay as dearly as our students do.  So there is a moral, ethical, professional obligation to monitor how our students perform on these tests and try to help them do as well as they can.  There is an obligation to learn from the data, to make good adjustments, and to improve our programs and services.  

I wondered…  Isn’t that what being child-centered means?  We can care about kids AND how well they achieve in school without sacrificing our humanity.  

Or theirs.


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(NOTE: As the Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) goals continue to accelerate, more and more US schools will be categorized by the pejorative brand: “Program Improvement School”.  NCLB’s kiss of death.  By 2014 as many as 90% of America’s schools could be categorized as underperforming “Program Improvement” schools.  Perhaps it provides a handy label for politicians to rail on public education in general… but inside our schools, where we know our children’s names and faces, it is a different story.

This is the FIFTH POST IN A SERIES as Mueller Charter School awaits its test results from the 2007-08 school year. Look for the SERIES every Monday as we get our results, assess the trends, and make strategic adjustments for the coming year.)    


Our data came in and when I shared our API there was a noticeable gasp across the room.

We have been waiting for weeks for these results.  We have been waiting for years.  In fact, nine years ago we challenged one another to stay at Mueller Charter School and work toward the goal of getting 90% of our children tp grade level.  At the time we were one of the lowest performing schools in a corner of San Diego that was not so high performing.

90%.  Like the “90-90-90 schools” where  90% were children of color, 90%  qualified for free or reduced lunch and 90%  were at grade level.  And even though being “at grade level” means different things in different states and is considerably harder to achieve in places like California…  we knew this was a tangible, measurable manifestation of the concept of organizational excellence.  So we jumped in.

Over the past 8 years our scores have risen.  Whatever anyone else may choose to read into our results, we always knew this… if 90% of our students perform at grade level their lives will be enriched and the community will be transformed.  And we will have accomplished what no other school could accomplish:  we will have overcome the effects of poverty on learning, overcome the challenges of acquiring English as a second language, and overcome the natural mobility that occurs in this low income area in Chula Vista. 

Easier said than done.  Teachers have come and gone but the mission has remained the same.  So when the data came in and I shared it on Friday… there was that gasp.

We knew we could not go from having 18% of our kids at grade level to 90% over night.  We knew, in fact, it would take years.  So each year we work, we innovate, we adjust, we push, we reflect, we research… we assess our students and we agonize over the heartbreaking results.  Always five steps forward, three steps back. 

We had to build on our success and failures and set achievable benchmarks.  So two years ago we started a campaign that was captured in the phrase “Imagine 801”… as in… imagine a school-wide Academic Performance Index of 801.  At the time our API was 733. 

By the end of that year we were able to bump it up to 751 but there was tremendous disappointment that with all of our efforts we were still barely moving the needle. 

Then Ryan Santos reminded everyone of The Secret, and the “Law of Attraction.”  “You get what you think about,” said Ryan Santos.   “Our thoughts determine our experience”.  

So we focused again on achieving an Academic Performance Index of 801.

One Wednesday we crunched our test results into the API  worksheet that can be found on the California Department of Education website.  We knew our results looked pretty good across the grade levels.  As we clicked on the last number, the result was 796.  When the state applies its “filters” it has historically resulted in 5 more points.  And when you add 5 more points… the result is 801!

And in between the cheers and applause and tears of amazement, there was a gasp.  “It’s the Law of Attraction,” someone said and we all turned to Ryan Santos.  “Our collective thoughts…” he said… and everyone in the room finished his sentence.

And there was the spooky realization that while we are still a long ways away from getting 90%of our students to grade level, the fact that we could envision 801 and work to achieve it as a school—meant that getting to 90% was now inevitable. 90%.  Think about it.  The Law of Attraction.

We have climbed to the last ledge of a high mountain peak, close enough now to see the summit.  At this point in a long and sometimes perilous journey, there is just enough time to celebrate, and gasp, and then hitch up our gear for the final ascent.

Now we all believe.

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