Monthly Archives: November 2008


obama-on-the-phone2OK… so he didn’t really solicit my opinion.  I think maybe I just had a dream that I was sitting in my office talking to a couple of students when I got a phone call– totally unexpected– from President-Elect Obama.

“Dr. Riley”, he says. “It’s good to finally reach you. I know you have been busy running a pretty amazing charter school there in Chula Vista, but man, you are hard to reach.”

“Yes sir, I am usually out in classrooms so I don’t always get to take calls.”

“Well, listen, I just wanted to let you know I finished your book The Lights of El Milagro, and I really enjoyed it. You are doing some great stuff there.”

“Thank you Mr. President. I am honored. I read your books too. Mine hasn’t made the NY Times Bestseller List like yours have… but we are definitely telling our story.”

“And that’s why I wanted to talk to you. You know I have to name a Secretary of Education… right?”

“Yes sir. And no thank you I can’t leave El Milagro.”

I think he laughs.

“Well what I really want to know is what is on your wish list for the new Secretary of Education. You know, what has to happen for you to get your kids to grade level and not sacrifice the quality teaching and learning that our students and teachers deserve?”

So I think about it for a second and consider whether I am dreaming or maybe I’m getting punked by those French deejays who bamboozled Sarah Palin or maybe I have just been working too hard lately and I’m hearing voices-like President-Elect Obama’s. But sometimes you suspend judgment long enough to roll the dice. And so I did.

10-priorities“Well sir… I have Ten Items on My Wish List For The Newly Appointed Secretary of Education To Address While We Work To Overcome Circumstances Created Less By Pedagogy than by Public Policy. If you wouldn’t mind passing them along to the Secretary, I’d really appreciate it.”

“Of course. What are they?”

“Well, if we are going to provide the world class education that everyone has been talking about, here is what your Secretary of Education could do:

1. Provide health care for all of my students to address the scourge of childhood obesity, diabetes, and poor nutrition;health-care

2. Ensure that every child has access to comprehensive eye exams and appropriate interventions when they are struggling just to see– let alone to read;

3. Ensure that every child has regular dental checkups and access to highly qualified dentists so that my students’ baby teeth aren’t rotting in their heads;

4. Provide the funding support and infrastructure so that all of my students can attend preschool like the affluent kids do;

5. Create a way for every child in America to have a laptop and access to the Internet so that poor children aren’t pushed further behind by the technology divide that favors their more affluent counterparts;

6. Divert the 10 billion dollars we are currently spending every month in Iraq and re-invest in the modernization and construction of state-of-the-art school buildings in every community in America;

7. Guarantee a college education of the highest quality for all children so they are motivated to apply themselves academically;

8. Eliminate unemployment so that the parents of my students can properly provide the basic necessities for their children-food, clothing shelter;

9. Significantly raise the minimum wage so that our parents are not forever struggling against the tide…fighting the unwinnable battle to stay ahead of a runaway economy and its stunning indifference to the working poor…standardized_testing

And… let’s see… I guess this is a big one…

10. Eliminate politically motivated accountability systems that, for the most part, test our students’ ability to test while ignoring all of  their other assets: like their creativity and their critical thinking and problem solving and communication skills; and their proficiency with technology and their ability to speak in multiple languages or lead others or serve their community…”

“Sir… are you still there?”

I can hear only music in the background and I am in the foggy no-man’s-land that exists somewhere between blissful sleep and consciousness. Still, I wonder if he got my list. I wonder of his new Secretary of Education: Linda Darling-Hammond or Joel Klein or Kennedy or Powell or Weingarten or Cornell West or Rhee or you or whomever he picks– will get my list. I hope so. El Milagro is no dream and our children are depending on it.




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time2Generation We kids are artists, chess players, musicians, singers, designers, athletes, dancers, actors, playwrights, fashion innovators, tech-savvy inventors, engineers, space travelers, environmental activists, civil rights activists, and scholars. They are forward thinking, technologically gifted (i.e., connected), intensely socially integrated, and ethnically diverse. Many of them just helped elect the first African American president in our nation’s history. They are roughly between the ages of 8 and 30.

So is it me? Or have we somehow managed to reduce their brilliance to the rather narrow band of competencies once considered appropriate for 19th century prairie schools?

They are, after all, judged in our schools on their ability to select one pre-ordained “correct” answer from a list of 4 possible choices on sterile and standardized tests designed independently by each state. States which, by the way, get to test whatever they want to test as long as they test that which is valued by one very onerous and unfunded mandate called No Child Left Behind.

prairie-school-21The education of Generation We has in effect been reduced to basic skills in reading, grammar rules, math, and test taking. In response to the accountability and testing movement, we have regressed toward a narrow curriculum once quaintly defined in one-room prairie school houses as the “3R’s”: readin’, ritin’, and ‘rithmetic. (At least ritin’ requires thinkin’. ) Now the curriculum focus is defined by W.O.T.T! What? What’s On The Test. As in…”Today, class, we will study whatever’s on the freakin’ test”!!!!!

But if we are still capable of learning anything we should have learned by now that one of the defining characteristics of Generation We is that they are not going to be pigeon-holed in percentiles and proficiency levels. 

Keenan is a perfect example. He is not particularly strong in ‘readin’, ritin’, or rithmetic”. But his short term and long term memory is so acute he memorizes song lyrics the first time he hears them. He masters technology the moment he touches it: cell phones, laptops, I-pods, video games. (I wonder why they even bother to print owner’s manuals and directions any more… Gen-We kids don’t use them!)

aAnd he is a walking billboard for Avalon Tattoo in Pacific Beach. He is running out of space on his otherwise beautifully sculpted body to permanently ink icons or sayings or cryptic celtic designs. He designs is own tattoos because he can. It is his body and maybe after 12 years of captivity in someone else’s definition of art and literacy his designs are liberating. At one time he might have passed as an anti-social biker or a carnival ride operator or an island warrior. Today, his Facebook page has hundreds of “friends” from all over the world–most of whom have liberating tats of their own!

Throughout his school experience he was warned that he has to score Proficient on the California Standards Test and pass the High School Exit Exam or he’ll be doomed to a lifetime of failure. What does a tech-savvy, socially connected, Generation We kid with a superb memory and a willful defiance of traditional school norms do with his life when he grows up and struggles with the “readin’, ritin’, and rithmetic'” that we told him was so important?

He becomes fluent in American Sign Language. It comes as natural as new cell phone protocols. He remembers every gesture and symbol from the instant he learns it. He has mastered a skill set that he can actually use in the service of others; a vocation that is not tattoo-aversive.

Seems like we could learn from kids like Keenan that our schools should not be designed by educrats obsessed with the prairie grass that they see waving in their rear-view mirror.

Now let’s see. How do you “sign” the word Gifted? It’s not on the test.



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A flurry of blogs—including Scott McLeod’s Dangerously Irrelevant” have invited their readers to write an open letter to President-Elect Obama.  It is a cool idea so I decided to write one.  If you scroll down to the next post you will find it.  But then I saw Larry King interview Maya Angelou about her poem “On The Pulse of Morning” which was written for Bill Clinton on the occasion of his first inauguration.  Dr. Angelou said she has not yet been asked to write an Inaugural Poem for President Obama but said she would write one for him anyway– which is also a cool idea.  So I wrote one of those too. 

This is my Poem on the Inauguration of America. It was written moments after CNN announced Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States. It gives voice— at least for me— to the deep emotions, the catharsis, and the extraordinary pride I feel in him. And in America.  And the very long road we have walked.


“Here on the pulse of this new day, you may have the grace to look up and out and into your sister’s eyes, into your brother’s face, your country and say simply, very simply, with hope, good morning.”

–Maya Angelou “On The Pulse of Morning” 



January 20, 2009
Written for Barack Obama,  the 44th President of the United States
By Kevin W. Riley



I  am.

Hope has, even for America’s moment,
Brought more than this moment of redemption.

Though I am shackled and thrown upon the swollen deck,
Seaborne and riding the stench of slavery to some new world- lost to life.

Hope. Though I am asleep in Lincoln’s apocalypse.
I am Gettysburg and Manassas and Shiloh.
The dead stacked and shoveled into history’s silent pocket.
In the atrocities a war wrought, even the birds were lost for song;
their throats clutched
In witness of humans who could be so calloused and so cruel.
All in the name of Freedom.

I am innocence: Emmit Till and Little Linda Brown
and Addie Mae Collins and her three young friends.

I am the blessed martyrs. I am Medgar Evers.
I trust Malcom X with my fury.
I marched from Selma to a Birmingham Jail.
I ripped away the judge’s hood that silenced Bobby Seale
and enjoined the Freedom Riders to endure the flames at Anniston.
I heard the chilling voice of Bull Connor and the sting of riot dogs.
The fire hose.
I saw school buses ignite Roxbury and trigger decades of white flight.
And still I stand.

I am the preacher-prophet who foretold that we would reside one day
in a promised land.
He must be with us now.
Though the years have kept his visage young…
His eternal voice is crisp as fire
As he sings from the mountain top.
This morning I heard the sky rejoice-
like the deafening wail of 10,000 hurricanes.

I am Lazarus.
I have redeemed the blood of a beloved brother, gone 40 years.
(Bobby’s picture is still among a shrine of holy cards
in a little house in San Antonio
Where Abuelita says her morning rosary
To Cesar Chavez and a wall of popes whose names she cannot pronounce).

I am JFK for whom Ireland still weeps.

I am redemption for centuries of sorrow;
For a word so foul it sticks in civil throats like drying cactus–
Thistle and rust, decapacitating…
A poison elixir that not all our years combined can exorcise.

I am first Hope. Jackie Robinson and Thurgood Mashall.
I am the first black pilot, the first black principal,
the first black business owner, the first pioneer.
I am first to serve, first to play, first in science,
and first to sail deep into space. 
And yet I am last.

I am Hope.
I ride a mighty wave.
I stand on shouldered giants, most for whom history has not reserved a name.
I am beneficiary of the wishes and the words and the blood of legions.

I rise by the toil of Chisholm and Jordon;
on the scaffold stairs built by Jackson and Charles Houston
and Andrew Young.

I am
Hope– tempered, with no guarantee.
But if ever He loved a people
Surely now He has heard our prayers…
Whispered through days and years and generations–
Through all America’s time
To let us be who we must be;
To even once know what it means to be ONE nation.

I am only Hope.
My arms are thin.
I speak as if all of God’s angels have somehow filled my lungs
with righteous air.
I am your mouth. His voice.
Our hands–
That the promise of humankind might at last be realized.

But I cannot be who YOU will not be…

So now my name is nailed above Katrina’s door,
Above the Wall Street debacle and the house of cards.
My name is nailed to Iraq and Jerusalem, to all ancient Persia–
And to the suffering of Darfur.

And as I go, so go a hundred nations.

Freedom shines,
A loud bell tolls the moment.
We are astride a wondrous day.
History will remember us as giants…
Or it will not.

Redemption has a name.
I am Obama. And mine is a holy song.



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Dear President Obama:




Respectfully Yours,
Kevin W. Riley, Ed.D., Principal from Mueller Charter School
and the Students of “El Milagro”
Chula Vista, California

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Wolf Blitzer Projects Win for Punahou School

Educators are supposed to be disciplined at presenting issues and election themes and even presidential candidates to students in a wholly neutral way. We want students to weigh the facts (what are the facts?) and think for themselves. It is an exercise in democracy and critical thinking. Even if they are only eight. We are conditioning them to one day take their place among the discerning electorate. 

That’s not the only reason why public school educators are obliged to neutrality in matters of politics. Our eight year olds are impressionable but their parents are the electorate and they will not abide any hint of indoctrination. Besides, what faculty is unanimous in their support for one presidential candidate over the other? So at my school, just two days from an historic national election, we have fulfilled our unspoken commitment to neutrality. 

But it gets harder by the second.

On this somewhat overcast Sunday Southern California morning, I am in a state of deep reflection. We have every television in the house blaring different cable news channels. I haven’t watched an NFL game in weeks (though I caught part of the World Series during Rachel Maddow’s commercial breaks). It is the not-so-calm before the election storm. I can’t wait.  I can barely sleep.  Something is happening here that has resonated with many educators, myself included, on a deep, deep level.  

I am guilty of having told students– for the past 30 years– that if they work hard, study hard, stay focussed… they can achieve anything in America. I said it in the 1980’s as an English teacher for children who were bussed across town in the name of the court-mandated desegregation program. I said it in the 90’s to children in the juvenile court schools as they finished their GED’s in the custody of California’s Probation Department. I have said it for the past ten years at Mueller Charter School where 95% of our students are Latino and most will be the first members of their families to go to college.

Many of us also knew that if we were going to make promises to children about the benefits of hard work, we would have to do our part. We would have to redesign our schools so that they were more inclusive, more vigorous, more meaningful, more effective. We would have to eliminate gaps in learning outcomes that persist along racial or ethnic lines. 

So today we bear witness to the ascendency of one presidential candidate who took the advice of his teachers. He worked hard. He took inspiration from his family roots, his mixed-race identity, his lack of resources. He was beneficiary of neither short cuts nor favors. This morning he stands on the edge of history with the potential to unite a nation in desperate need of hope and optimism. He is poised to bring a new level of meaning for those of us who have committed our life’s work to the service of children in public schools. 

In California we will have to wait until the wave rolls past on Tuesday night. But I will be awake at that historic moment.  I’ll wait for Wolf Blitzer to tell the nation that CNN has projected a winner. And on Wednesday morning I’ll go back to work and outwardly maintain my political neutrality– as if we can’t say his name and shout for joy in the same expression of congratulatory praise. But if the pre-election punditry holds– if those televisions normally reserved for Sunday’s NFL speak hope to power– “we have a righteous wind at our backs.”  And I will for the first time feel a personal sense of vindication among children. I will honor the educators of Punahou School in Honolulu who during one faculty meeting or another were no doubt told that you have to have high expectations– you have to treat every student like they may one day be poised to change the world. I will believe it is finally true: that if our students work hard, study hard, and stay focussed…they can achieve anything in America. 

They can even become President of the United States.


(Cross posted on Leadertalk)

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