Monthly Archives: September 2008


Last week Anne and I drove up to LA to see the legendary Neville Brothers at the House of Blues on Sunset Boulevard. The Neville Brothers have been performing together for thirty years. They started playing their own brand of New Orleans funk in the clubs on Bourbon Street and now play at jazz festivals and concert halls and venues all over the world. Wherever they want. If you have been to a Neville Brothers concert you know that they start with loyal followers standing around talking about where they last saw them play:  “I saw them with Carlos Santana” and “I saw them in a little club on the east coast” and “I saw them the last time they played at Preservation Hall.”  

And if you have seen them perform you also know they don’t leave until Aaron Neville closes the show by singing Amazing Grace.  And when Aaron Neville sings Amazing Grace, or anything for that matter, you are reminded that if all the angels in heaven channeled their voices into one human being… like some kind of celestial karaoke…  it would sound like Aaron Neville.  

I look for metaphors for excellence everywhere and of course if you can consistently make music like the Neville Brothers it’s more than just a metaphor. But as I watched them I thought about what we could learn from them.  Maybe we over-engineer our school organizations.  Maybe Mark Sanborn is right when he describes the “encore effect” in his book by the same title– “The Encore Effect: How to Achieve Remarkable Performance in Everything You Do.”  

• What keeps these people coming back to watch the Neville Brothers perform? • What makes them so loyal?
• Why do they go away and tell their friends about this near-spiritual experience?
• Why are they so enthralled that they don’t notice the little mistakes… if there are any.
• Why can you hear the same song a thousand times and never experience it the same way?

Sanborn talks about five traits associated with high level performance: 

passion, preparation, practice, presence & polish

Aside from the obvious alliteration and convenient formula, Sanborn may be on to something. Schools–like so many organizations–  have complicated the process of creating consistency and excellence.  I saw a post on the same topic on Leadertalk  the other day and had to read it five times before I got the point.

As a Baldrige alumni examiner and a Six Sigma supporter, I thought I really understood processes. Our school system had flow mapped over 100 processes. We have in-process measures linked to strategic measures. However, what I am discovering is that I knew just enough to be dangerous. I have a number of examples where working on the measures of one process have actually negatively impacted other processes. Working on processes while continuing to manage the organization through a function based organization chart often leads to fragmentation, lack of alignment, and unintended consequences.

With a process management approach, our school system is moving away from a traditional function centered organization into a process centered organization. 

Holy smokes. It doesn’t have to be that complicated. Just listen to Yellow Moon and recognize that people have a thousand compelling choices of what to do along Sunset Boulevard on Saturday night. And given all of those choices they are right where they want to be. And what they are hearing, however sophisticated, is not a by-product of Six-Sigma methodology introduced to the bayou. It’s passion and polish.  

Likewise, Mueller Charter School is a school of choice. We are El Milagro or nothing at all. Parents come back or they do not. They stand for the encore and take pictures with their cell phones and scream until the musicians come back out on to the stage. Or they walk away. And they take their children with them.

So prepare as if you are scheduled to play at the House of Blues tonight. You have to enjoy your own music. Play for the fun of it. And sing like the angels approve.  


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In August the air in San Diego is temperate and still warm enough to remind us all of the beaches that we left so hastily. We report to school in mid-July.  It is our calendar.  We offer our children 20 extra days of school because we can. We are a charter school and we create our own calendar and and we create our own way.  

Our students come from low and modest income homes.  95% are Latino. At night, from the front lawn of my school, you can see the lights of Tijuana flickering in the distance, some seven miles away. The lights call to many of our families to come home– and to others they are a desperate reminder of what they traded for economic opportunity in America.

Sometimes I wonder what my Irish ancestors would have done if they could have commuted between poverty and the hope of new life. How different the Irish diaspora might have looked if they were merely one long and inconvenient wait at a border crossing to go home. In any case, our students represent the multiple generations of Latino immigrants that Lou Dobbs has somehow come to hate. His nightly vitriol about leaking borders doesn’t matter much to us. We are a relatively high performing school in spite of demographics and conditions and community expectations that might predict otherwise.  

For all of our innovations and methodologies and state-of-the-art technology, our children excel because of human relationships. Remember “Megatrends?” Back in the early 1980’s John Naisbitt predicted that the on-coming trend toward technology would demand  attention to human relationships. High Tech-High Touch. So in this era of data and NCLB and computer generated calculations of school competency– we build relationships. In the first weeks of the new school year, right in the heart of summer, our teachers begin their Home Visits.  

Home Visits. They are parent-teacher-student conferences conducted in our children’s homes. The goal for every teacher is a conference with the parent or guardian of every child in their class. They pursue nothing less than 100% participation. They keep exact records. They create precise schedules– shaving minutes and driving house to house until they get them all in. It is an extraordinary commitment of personal time and energy for a simple goal:  to build a lasting relationship between home and school.  

It takes some teachers nearly 4 weeks to schedule and re-schedule all of their families. Some parents forget their appointment and leave their child’s disappointed teacher literally standing on the doorstep. So they re-schedule. 1000 students. Their homes are scattered all over Chula Vista and San Diego’s South Bay area. We visit houses, duplexes, apartments, trailer homes. There are large and small homes and tight living quarters with multiple families– children sharing few beds. There are families who live in the garage of other families.  Some live on boats in the marina a few miles away. There are homeless families who will literally meet you wherever they can. There are parents who don’t quite trust that the teacher merely wants to meet them, so they request that the conference take place at school. And that works too.

The flurry of after school activity takes us right up to Labor Day. So virtually every day after school you can see the teachers headed for their cars… their back packs filled with MapQuest directions, digestible copies of grade level standards, the Parent Compact, the list of activities and highlights for the upcoming year. It makes you wonder: Why would these teachers make this kind of effort every year? They drive their own cars, often on their own time– at night time and even on week-ends– to hold parent meetings that could just as easily wait until October and could, much more conveniently, be held on campus.

They make the effort because there is something extraordinary about meeting a child’s family in their own home; sitting on their couch to discuss the demands and the promises of the new academic year. Naming their pets. Enduring “show and tell” with a closet full of prized possessions while simultaneously talking about the relative importance of skills like adding fractions and identifying topic sentences. Home Visits provide CONTEXT for our teachers who desperately want to leverage every advantage to help their children excel. They are diagnostic. After a Home Visit we seem to alter so many of our initial assumptions about our students’ home lives. We realize that some of our students have everything they need to excel in school. We realize that some of our children have virtually nothing. And as veterans of nearly a decade of Home Visits, we have learned how fast life circumstances can change; how quickly the context for learning changes.

Home Visits are a tradition now at Mueller Charter School. Our parents and our students expect them. Our teachers gather treasures to bring to their students and tighten their conference agenda for increased efficiency. We get better at Home Visits every year. Of all of our innovations, Home Visits may have produced the most dramatic results. By Labor Day, we know our students and our parents. We have conferenced with all but a handful of hold-outs. We have long held that– NCLB notwithstanding– we are not in the business of raising test scores… we are in the business of raising children. And we notice that in the process of building strong relationships, meeting our families wherever they are, the test scores seem to take care of themselves.

One side benefit of Home Visits that our teachers enjoy is that so many of our families want to keep them for dinner! Sometimes teachers have 5 or 6 Home Visits scheduled in one afternoon but parents insist that they stay anyway.

“We have plenty of food. Here, try these nopales.”

They are, of course, irresistible. The smell of fresh spice and peppers fills the air. Angelina, a fourth grader, cooks with her Abuelita in the kitchen while her teacher  finishes the last details of their parent conference on the living room couch. Lou Dobbs’ angry voice can be faintly heard coming from a backroom television, but the bustling household drowns him out. All is right with the world.

“Will you try some of these Tamales, maestra?”

“Oh no, really, thank you so much.  I have to get to my next conference.”

“Well here let me wrap a few up for you to take with you.”

“They smell so good.  They are homemade, yea?”

“Oh, my goodness, no.  I work 14-hour shifts… I hardly have time to make anything! They are from Costco!”

So a teacher and another working mom share a laugh in the kitchen of a modest home in Chula Vista. And as a result, Angelina is just that much more likely to some day find her way to USC.

(Cross-posted on LeaderTalk:

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Horrible Storms… Exotic Names

Television coverage of Hurricane Ike has dominated the airwaves in the last several days, just as it had with Hurricane Gustav a few weeks ago and Katrina three years before that.  I watched the coverage through the same lens that many Americans do:  With a prayer for the people enduring the crisis and an occasional inward glance… speculating on what I might do if the winds were coming to my neighborhood and the authorities recommended evacuation.    

Horrible storms.  Exotic names. 

It’s so easy to be cavalier when your only experience with a Category 3 tropical storm is watching those ridiculous clips of obscure CNN news reporters being blown across an abandoned interstate in the face of the howling gale.

The truth is I have been evacuated once– and packed once– for the Southern California counterpart to hurricane season.  In 2004, the October wild fires burned through our canyons and 50 feet from our driveway.  We spent exactly one day at our in-laws.  (Then I decided I would rather take my chances breathing acrid and lung-clogging ash that hung in the air like wet cotton– than spend another minute watching local fire coverage with my in-laws!  So we skirted the police barricades and went home.)

Both the 2004 and 2007 wildfires caused my school to be closed for a week.  The school itself was never in danger, but the community was deeply impacted.  Teachers and family members lost their homes all across the county.  

And it makes you think:  As a principal… am I prepared to lead my school… with 1000 children, 100 staff members, and countless daily volunteers and visitors–  through a full-scale catastrophic emergency?

Like all schools we have the boilerplate “Disaster Preparedness Plan”.  We have done the obligatory disaster drills complete with Search and Rescue simulations and teachers chirping because they “got stuck on the Sanitation Team and Ms. Agnew– who has never even been a life guard–  gets to be on the First Aid Team.”

“I think this is proof that you just don’t see my leadership potential, Dr. Riley.”

Sears used to sell green trash cans filed to the brim with earthquake tools: batteries and flashlights, shovels and axes, name tags, caution tape and first aid kits.  Just as those CNN reporters leave that lasting visual memory of the televised storm (red jackets flapping and ballcaps pulled tight to their ears “I …can’t hear….you…  Anderson….  the….  wind is now…..lifting me….  off the ground….”  ) —  so too do I have the memory of Ms. Ingersoll– an otherwise classy veteran 5th grade teacher– patrolling up and down the hallways with a hatchet and an ill-fitting yellow hard hat–  searching for survivors.  

She never found any.  

My school sits on the side of Interstate 5.  We have ghoulishly inventoried all of the potential crises that could happen at any moment as we sit surrounded by freeways and major thoroughfares: firestorms, helicopter crashes, poisonous gas wafting across the playground from truck or train accidents, terrorist attacks on the nearby naval base, snipers, Africanized honey bees (hey don’t laugh… swarms of bees fly across our playground every Spring!) And of course… the feared shifting of the Rose Canyon fault.  We are even prepared for Tsunamis.

We have bells and signals and codes and plans for a whole host of potential disasters.  

But am I ready to lead through a crisis?  Are you?

In nearly 20 years as a school administrator I have only been tested once. Back in 1996, A 5th grade student at my school in Solana Beach decided to remove the brakes from his bicycle.  Then one Friday afternoon he decided to ignore the direction he had just received from a parking lot supervisor who told him to walk his bike off campus. Instead, he coasted down the steep hill next to our parking lot that flowed out onto Loma Santa Fe at 3:30 in the afternoon.  And on the way down the hill, he took a jab at a classmate who was  innocently walking along the sidewalk.  And in the effort to needle his classmate, he lost control of his bike and shot out into the on-coming traffic like a nightmare rocket spinning wildly off course. Loma Santa Fe is 400 lanes of cars moving at the speed of Southern California commuters who just want to be home.  Our guy didn’t have a chance.  He slammed into the side of a bus and suffered catastrophic head injury.  

I remember kneeling at his side with a nurse who happened to pull over to assist him.  He wasn’t breathing well.  As Life Flight flew overhead looking for a place to land, we climbed inside his bike that had exploded on impact and whispered to him while the nurse began CPR.  “It’s ok, buddy.  We’re going to help you. We’re here to help you.”

Long after the paramedics had loaded him into Life Flight and taken him away, children and police and curious on-lookers were still examining the accident scene.  The deep red pool of blood had already started to harden and dry in the street.  And on the knees of my pants.  In my office I debriefed with office staff. Everyone had remained calm.  Everyone swung into action to manage the students, keep traffic flowing, contact paramedics and the superintendent’s office.  Many staff members did what they thought needed to be done to protect all our students.  In the end, we attributed our reaction to the recent Disaster Plan simulation– to Ms. Ingersol and her yellow construction hat and how earnestly she looked for make-believe victims of a make-believe earthquake.  Perhaps that simulation had just saved a child’s life.

So I learned from a 5th grader’s late afternoon collision with a city bus that sometimes disaster plans morph from simulations into real events.  And that if adults are prepared… their instincts will do the rest. 

And I learned that you can NEVER be prepared to hold a child who is dying in your arms. (10 years later, and I am still here writing about it, thinking about it– agonizing over it:  “Was there something I could have done to prevent that accident?”)  

And I learned that leading through a crisis is one of those “other duties as assigned.”  (Have you ever seen it listed in a job description?)  

And I learned that the simulated disaster and full scale practice drill– if nothing else–  is good for parent confidence, student amusement, and staff esprit de corps.  

And I learned that they damn well better be prepared where my own kids go to school.

And I learned from watching the Katrina response that we will not necessarily be able to count on outside help in the wake of a large scale emergency.  We will have to survive on our wits and our commitment and our preparation. 

And I learned that when you lead a school through a crisis you have to keep leading long after that crisis recedes, long after the CNN storm reporters find their feet again, long after the ash is swept up from lunch tables and rooftop air conditioners– long after the blood stains in the street are washed away.

And I learned that you have to lead through the healing too.

(Simultaneously posted at

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Like the title of this post, we had many of the puzzle pieces, but they weren’t quite fitting together.  

We were searching for ‘alignment’ in our teaching… what Richard Ellmore refers to as “internal accountability”.  And we were coming up short.  Not for a lack of effort or expertise. 

We know that our tipping point as an organization lies in the quality of our teaching.  (I suspect it is your tipping point too and if you haven’t discovered that yet, you inevitably will!)  We are a very innovative charter school that has implemented multiple initiatives and creative programs over the past decade. Collectively, those initiatives have driven huge academic gains– but we were so low ten year ago those gains were inevitable.  Now we know with certainty that continuous growth for our students will not be forthcoming unless we significantly improve our TEACHING–  every teacher, every classroom, every day.

So this past week I met with each teacher to talk about their professional goals for the year.  (We do not use a traditional evaluation system– our teachers develop their own growth plan and then tell me how I can help them achieve it.)  During one of those meetings Ms. Michele shared a conversation she had had earlier in the week with her 3rd grade students.  She has a wall display that depicts each child’s academic growth according to MAPS– our formative assessments.  Each student has a flower on the wall chart that grows toward a line, and the line represents being “at grade level”.  The promised land.

“What does this line represent?” Ms. Michele had asked her class.
“It means we are at grade level,” they replied.
“And what does being ‘at grade level’ mean?” she asked.
“It means we were Proficient on the test,” offered Angelica– because no one else could quite articulate it.
“And how do you score Proficient on the test?” Ms. Michele asked no one in particular.
“You color in the dots,” said Isaiah at long last.

You color in the dots.  Bingo.

Ms. Michel and I had a simultaneous epiphany in our meeting that was transforming into MY goals meeting right before our very eyes:  “Our students have no idea what it means to be ‘at grade level’… do they?” No…they don’t. Neither our 3rd graders or our 8th graders, neither our parents nor even all of our teachers can really define what it means or what you NEED to be ‘at grade level.’  They cannot tell you what knowledge, skills or competencies must be mastered in order to consistently color in the right dots! 

It was as if someone had just knocked over a table bearing all of the pieces of a very stubborn puzzle, and when they hit the ground, they somehow fell into place.  We had been talking to kids for years about the importance of getting “to grade level”. Many had routinely formulated annual learning goals:  

1) make new friends 
2) get perfect attendance 
3) be an honor student at least five times 
4) be at grade level  

But “being at grade level” is an abstract goal at best.  We could measure whether they achieved their goal or not– but it is a relatively meaningless measure if students don’t really understand HOW you achieve it.  

So Internal accountability, at least for my school, requires this:

• Virtually every student, every teacher, every parent must be able to articulate the essential, non-negotiable  standards and competencies that must be mastered in order to perform ‘at grade level’ in May;
• The formative data from MAPS must be clearly understood by each student so that they know exactly where they are along the continuum of mastery as the year goes on– and even more importantly– so that they know what they need from their teacher ( the very definition of engaged, independent, self-reflective students!)
• Every lesson must be tightly designed so that children always know the purpose and learning goals for that lesson;
• Every lesson must feature research-based instructional strategies that simultaneously target and differentiate for every learner… at whatever level they may be along the continuum (see: Gradual Release of Responsibility!!!);
• Teachers must be able to use all evidence available– MAPS data, student work samples, etc. — to make strategic and on-going adjustments for each child. 

There are other elements too that produce the “alignment” we are searching for.  But you get the picture when: The Pieces of the Puzzle Fit Together.

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