Monthly Archives: March 2009


marshGunpowder Point is bathed in ocean breeze and bird poop.  It is now a protected marshland in what seems to be the last square foot of undeveloped land in Chula Vista.  Bordered by freeway noise to the east, and insulated by acres of natural foliage, the Nature Center leans into that stealthy wind.

turtle_lagoon_frontAnd all of this matters.  The Nature Center is less than two miles from El Milagro and is perhaps a missing piece to the persistent dream we have had of utilizing the natural resources of San Diego Bay as a daily classroom.  It is one thing to go on a field trip … it is another thing to attend school in the slough, to walk among the endangered Clapper Rails, and observe the hypnotic swimming patterns of sand sharks. Every day. As a part of the curriculum. 

forclusre1The Chula Vista Nature Center is facing tough times in the struggling economy.  Chula Vista itself was once listed among the fastest growing cities in America.  Today, whole rows of streets and neighborhoods prop “For Sale” signs on foreclosed lawns, where the dreams of families were packed so hastily  and moved, months ago, to higher ground.  The city is in trouble.  And they fund the Nature Center.  So we want to help.  

After years of diligent budget management under  the watchful eye of  Mr. Wizard, Mueller Charter School is well positioned to weather the otherwise unforgiving fury of a distressed state budget.  So we want to lease a classroom space from the Nature Center.  We want to move our middle school science classroom there and weave them into the daily rotation.  Instead of going to science in room 902, their classroom would now be located on Gunpowder Point.  We can provide the City of Chula Vista a badly needed new funding stream to save the Nature Center; they can provide us a chance to model learning in the real world– the charter vision come to full fruition.  

This is an area rich in history.  It was once home to the Kumeyaay Indians and Spanish settlers.  It still bears the ruins of the old Hercules building where kelp was harvested for gunpowder and potash in World War I.  It was a lemon grove and movie set.  It was the scene of horrific fire that destroyed it all.  And beneath the protected marsh and slough, you just know, generations of human settlement have collected layer upon layer of artifacts.

baldeagleheadImagine children rotating through varied learning opportunities over the course of a school day: contributing to data collection and exhibit management, developing individual research projects that make a significant contribution to the body of knowledge accumulated here, serving as museum docents and guides at the sting ray petting area, performing community service to help maintain the sprawling acres, advocating for green energy.  Imagine children not just simulating the work of science, but being scientists. Contributing.  Developing not just an appreciation for the fragile interdependence of  living ecosystems, but a profound reverence for their own place in the world.  Here there are owls and sharks, reptile and eel aquariums, there are marshland aviaries, and shoreline birds.  There are rare sea turtles.  There is an adult bald eagle.  

Every day, every student would pursue answers to one urgent question that scientists all over the planet are researching.  Something like this:   “How do human developments along our natural waterfronts contribute to and compromise the fragile ecosystems that exist there?”  Our 7th and 8th graders would explore, investigate, experiment, and publish their findings through wikis and blogs in collaboration with children from around the world.  

This is real science.  Authentic learning.  John Knox says you have to teach and learn science with all five senses– and for all you’re worth.  You have to be outside.  In the middle of it.  You have to get your feet muddy and splash aquarium waste water on your shoes.  Appreciate the stench of the owl barn. The sting of the cactus needle.  The rotting kelp.

We are poised for an extraordinary partnership and, for our students, the learning experience of a lifetime.  Here on Gunpowder Point, where early Chula Vistans fought the world war from the banks of San Diego Bay, there is an opportunity to give meaning to the daily joy of learning.  Here in the marsh and the wetlands– new fire.



Filed under California charter schools, charter schools, El Milagro, environmental studies, teaching



Yesterday was my day to post on Leadertalk, which is one of several blogs managed by Education Week. Educational leaders are invited to participate– and my day is the 20th of every month.  So I am always thinking about what I want to post on Leadertalk.  It is harder to add photos and I feel a little more confined, like I have to be much more careful since it is someone else’s deal.  Nevertheless, as a neophyte blogger, it is a cool opportunity.

So I decided to post a hybrid piece, combining the elements of what I published here at El Milagro Weblog last week and my idea for today. 

Because as of today we are 5 instructional weeks from the California Standards Test (the CST’s!)  and our teachers are studying their formative data and making some very strategic adjustments in how they work with their students on the final push.  5 weeks is the blink of an eye and they know it.   We are still a long ways away from where we need to be.  In fact, our MAPS data tells us that 22% of our English language learners are now operating at a proficient level in language arts and 23% in math.  We need at least 50% proficiency to reach the state’s Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) goal.  

This is crunch time.  Our teachers are as serious and as focussed as I have ever seen them.  There is no panic.  There is no quit.  There are no false illusions about where we are.  So it will be interesting to see how our students perform on California’s standardized tests in May.  

field-goal1This is also the time period in which we cease to philosophize about the wisdom of standardized tests and what the pre-occupation with language arts and math might be doing to our students’ broader abilities to think and innovate and solve problems and reason.  This is not the time to engage in the political debate.   An NFL coach may not like the rules for sudden death overtime, but when you are out of downs on your opponents’ 20-yard line, you better just trot out your kicker for the game winning field goal and argue about the rules of the game later.

ny-timesjpeg2So we are playing to win.  And when we win, we expect that there will be some interesting headlines in the morning newspaper.  Something like:



“California Charter School Shocks Education World”


“Mueller Charter School Achieves Unprecedented One-Year Gains”


“State Department Questions Legitimacy of Dramatic Test Results


It is a healthy exercise  to visualize your organization’s success and there are many ways to do it.  But try visualizing the newspaper headline that captures the essence of your  mission and celebrates the moment at which all your collective dreams and ambitions come to full fruition.  What will the headlines say? 

“Charter School Caps Decade of Innovation by Tipping 901 on API”


As a visualization exercise, this headline is dramatic.  But it is more than an exercise… it is our mission.  And it is attainable.  We have implemented a longer day, a daily English language development program in every classroom, our assessment tools have improved and so has our capacity to use technology.  And those are just the highlights. So now all that is left is five weeks of instruction, a 45-yard field goal (against the wind)  and the long vigil at the news stand.  Just what will your headlines say? Perhaps ours will read:

“California’s Top-Performing

School Lives up to Its Nickname:

El Milagro!”


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Filed under California charter schools, El Milagro, public education, teaching, technology in schools



“Every so often, throughout our history, a generation of Americans bears the responsibility of seeing this country through difficult times and protecting the dream of its founding for posterity. This is a responsibility that has fallen to our generation. Meeting it will require steering our nation’s economy through a crisis unlike any we have seen in our time.”

This past Tuesday  morning, President Obama presented his proposed education reforms to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Washington DC.  If the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce is going to advocate at all for Latinos and their children in the United States, they should take great confidence away from that bright, bright morning at the Marriot Ballroom.  In the background of the President’s message  is an economy that has been ground down to the core by too many individuals who were entrusted to leave the machinery of commerce better than how they found it.  But once they got their hands on the wheel, the temptation to achieve personal gain, the lack of compassion, the lack of regulation, the lack of restraint, the lack of moral guidance, the lack of patriotism–  led the country and the rest of the world– right over the cliff toward economic collapse.

stock-mrktjpegThis happened on the last President’s watch, the one that talked about patriotism and Christian values and keeping America safe.  The one that imposed No Child Left Behind on America’ s schools and accelerated an era in which the illusion of accountability and achievement has merely driven schools to gun the motor, spin the tires in the mud, and lurch forward in the wrong direction in a cloud of spent energy and system-wide exhaustion. Just like the economy.  President Obama said:

“Despite resources that are unmatched anywhere in the world, we’ve let our grades slip, our schools crumble, our teacher quality fall short, and other nations outpace us. Let me give you a few statistics. In 8th grade math, we’ve fallen to 9th place. Singapore’s middle-schoolers outperform ours three to one. Just a third of our 13- and 14-year-olds can read as well as they should. And year after year, a stubborn gap persists between how well white students are doing compared to their African American and Latino classmates. The relative decline of American education is untenable for our economy, it’s unsustainable for our democracy, it’s unacceptable for our children — and we can’t afford to let it continue.” 

So President Obama  connected the dots on the moribund economy and our bankrupt schools and the illusion of academic progress for a nation leaving virtually all of our children behind.  The two systems are inextricably bound.  

While there may have been too few voices signaling our economic demise with any authority or passion, we have been signaling the alarm from within our schools for 8 years:  educating children, particularly those who are severely impacted by our nation’s recession, requires a lot more than threats and bullying over standardized test results. But just as opposition to the war in Iraq was regarded as unpatriotic, warning of the dangers of such a myopic view of teaching children was disregarded as “excuses by educators who are afraid of being held accountable.”

We merely linked the academic future of our children to the economy and to the federal government’s responsibility to help ameliorate  those punishing risk factors that inhibit children’s learning.  And we were right.  In fact, two important studies were released this week that neatly framed President Obama’s vision for public education.  The first was a joint study from the Education and Public Interest Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder and ASU’s Education Policy Research Unit.  That report described seven “out-of-school factors” that profoundly influence students’ academic success and lead to inequalities among children: prenatal care; health care; food insecurity; environmental pollutants; family stress; neighborhood characteristics; and lack of extended learning opportunities, such as preschool or summer programs.  The report’s conclusion is that schools cannot address these variables alone.

And we’ve been saying that too.

20090323_107The second study came from the National Center on Family Homelessness who now estimate that one in every 50 American children is homeless. In summarizing the report  Time Magazine’s stated, “The consequences of homelessness are profound. Homeless children are twice as likely as other children to be retained, or held back, one academic year, or to be suspended or, ultimately, to drop out of school altogether. School districts across the country report a growing share of students who are highly mobile — who move multiple times within a school year. With each move, experts say, such students are at risk of falling some six months behind, or more, in their studies.” And as a result of our economic downturn, the trend of homeless children is growing.

Under the leadership of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and President Barack Obama, we have an opportunity to reverse the downward spiraling course of public education as we simultaneously address childhood risk factors associated with our volatile economy.  And in fact, Mueller Charter School has been on that path for years– not because of any inspiration from NCLB, but rather, in spite of it!  From the energy and innovation and subversive entrepreneurialism that comes from being an independent charter we have created a school environment that models– at least in part– the President’s Five Pillars of Education Reform as he presented them on Tuesday: 

First Pillar:  Investing in early childhood initiatives like Head Start;  
Second Pillar: Encouraging better standards and assessments by focusing on testing itineraries that better fit our kids and the world they live in;         
“We will end what has become a race to the bottom in our schools and instead spur a race to the top by encouraging better standards and assessments.  That’s why I’m calling on states that are setting their standards far below where they ought to be to stop low-balling expectations for our kids. The solution to low test scores is not lowering standards — it’s tougher, clearer standards.  And I’m calling on our nation’s governors and state education chiefs to develop standards and assessments that don’t simply measure whether students can fill in a bubble on a test, but whether they possess 21st century skills like problem-solving and critical thinking and entrepreneurship and creativity.” 
Third Pillar:  Recruiting, preparing, and rewarding outstanding teachers; treating them like professionals and holding them accountable;
Fourth Pillar: Promoting innovation and excellence in America’s schools… supporting charter schools… reforming the school calendar and the structure of the school day;

“Now, even as we foster innovation in where our children are learning, let’s also foster innovation in when our children are learning. We can no longer afford an academic calendar designed for when America was a nation of farmers who needed their children at home plowing the land at the end of each day.  That’s why I’m calling for us not only to expand effective after-school programs, but to rethink the school day to incorporate more time -– whether during the summer or through expanded-day programs for children who need it. “

Fifth Pillar Providing every American with a quality higher education–whether it’s college or technical training.


The ground shifted beneath our feet this week, as the President’s message signaled a change in course that favored children.  At nearly the exact same moment, 62 seventh graders from El Milagro were climbing the steps to a university that they had never laid their eyes on before. Our students visited San Diego State University, University of San Diego, University of California at San Diego, Cal State San Marcos and the Arts Institute.  In two weeks, our 8th graders will spend three days in Los Angeles visiting USC, UCLA, Cal State Long Beach and UC Irvine. They will see themselves in the faces of students on those campuses and their life course will be fundamentally altered: from their choice of friends to the goals they set and the courses they take in high school. They will likely be the first in their families to attend college. Their pathway will be made more clear as President Obama’s vision of education comes to fruition, and the unforgiving decline of America’s economy is halted.  

“We have a legacy of excellence, and an unwavering belief that our children should climb higher than we did,” the President said. 

In the meantime, we rise to the greatest challenge of our generation, to right the course of our economy and our public schools, and literally save our nation.


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“We are looking at schools that are producing genius… collaborative, gregarious, brave children who care about stuff  like their culture. Around the world people are testing out the ingredients of what makes that work and those ingredients are being assembled into some stunning recipes in different places.  It is a very exciting time for learning. It is the death of education but the dawn of learning and that makes me very happy.”

Stephen Heppell, CEO Heppell.Net, Ltd., UK from the video:  “Learning to Change– Changing to Learn”

2cIn 1985  I bought my first personal computer– an Apple IIc with the chicklet keybpoard and alien screen.  It seemed almost portable enough to carry around like a briefcase.  Or maybe like a computer that could sit right on your lap.  Compared to those old green Kaypros and clunky Apple IIe’s, it was revolutionary. I had a milk crate in my living room and that’s where I put the screen.  I wrote my entire dissertation on my Apple IIc and stored every chapter on a box of labeled discs.

I envisioned a whole classroom lined with Apple IIc’s.  I taught writing and the whole “word processing” phenomenon appeared– in the mid-1980’s– as if it was going to stay.  In fact, when the old grey-haired English teachers bitched in the faculty lounge about “word processing” and how it would never replace the pencil and paper and that it would only make children intellectually lazy because it insulated them from the rigors of real writing (which, to my knowledge, none of them had ever successfully  done)– I refused to join the debate.  I just went back to my classroom, wrote more grants (on my Apple IIc) and lined the walls with the computers that seemed to engage children in writing in a way that few other strategies could.  

mac-floppiesThen a teaching colleague named David Mika pulled up to Muirlands Junior High School with his new Macintosh thing.  You could actually manipulate the cursor right on the screen and “Oregon Trail” evolved accordingly.  And the discs were smaller and made of hard plastic.   They just fit in your pockets better.  They didn’t fly as well as the old floppy discs though.  (I could flip the old discs halfway across the playground.  Digital frisbees. They could put your eye out.  But soon enough they were replaced by CDs which sailed three times as far as the floppies so I startted to feel better about where the technology was headed.)  And so I upgraded my classroom with first generation Macintoshes while still making the best of the now-antiquated IIcs.

Then we could MacDraw and add art work and graphics on color screens.  Then there were internal operating systems.  Then they added audio.  And the high-techpersonal computer wars between IBM and HP and Compaq and Apple and others resulted in business disasters and technological wonders.  Marketing pitches tapped into a nation’s fears about losing our humanity.  IBM’s signature advertising campaign featured Charlie Chaplin in black and white, approaching the PC on a table adorned with a vibrant red rose.  “High TECH”, said John Naisbett, “demands high TOUCH.” And thus, the rose.

Soon enough computers were creating more computers.  The technology was showing up everywhere– from our watches to our automobiles.  And then the internet was born.  And then DVD’s and scanners and document cameras. Then IPods and IPhones and Kindles and Wordles and Wikis and Facebook  and Flip cameras and Wii and Prometheon Boards and Blogs and we know we are only scratching the surface of innovation that our economy and environment will inevitably demand.  Progress is insatiable.  That’s why it is called progress.

And that’s the history of computers in schools.  25 years in a nutshell–  from the Apple IIe to MacBook Pros on every desk and I wonder:  Why are we still not seeing a technology-driven transformation in teaching and learning?  And lots of other people are wondering that too.  In fact we have never seen a complete technology-driven transformation in our schools.  There always seem to be a few tech-savvy teachers on each staff– like David Mika. Eventually they end up in High Tech Charters or become district technology coordinators who advocate for the infusion of computers into every classroom.  They go to tech conferences and write Technology Plans and sometimes they get so comfortable in their knowledge and their favorite strategies that the tech wave crashes over top of them just like it crashes over everyone else and they don’t even know what hit them. 

The knack for integrating technology and effective pedagogy,  it seems, has to come from within.


So on Friday we had our weekly 15 minute staff meeting at Mueller Charter School.  The teachers were asked to watch the video “Learning to Change-Changing to Learn” on You Tube and to write a compelling question inspired by the video that no one else is likely to ask.  Create the $64-million question and bring it to the meeting. And so they did.  And in the space a of a very short time frame, 50 questions were generated that encapsulated all the fears and cynicism and pragmatic reticence and wide-eyed possibility that technology brings to the tough work of teaching children.  


Our teachers get it.  The world is changing.  The needs of our children are changing and you can see the themes reflected in the Wordle above.  Toffler said:  “Schools must not just prepare children for the future… they have to prepare them for the right future!”– one of  relationships, community, connectivity, and access.

i-poddiesjpeg1In the range of “50 Questions” there are the understandable doubts about techno-distractions and gimicks and silvery sirens that are more toys than tools.  There is evidence of the constant numbing pressure from standardized tests and unattainable goals of NCLB. Yet somehow there is also that awful realization that the video is right: that our “children are exposed to a much more rich and stimulating environment outside of school than in school.”  

And these teachers– most of whom belong to Generation Y; most of whom were raised and schooled in the post-Macintosh world when the light switch for the internet had long since been flipped on… most of whom have Ipods and text daily with friends and update their Facebook page in between prepping for another challenging week at El Milagro– these teachers still stretch to find the application. 

So my epiphany, humming like the IIc  with its ET-head monitor– lead to these   “5 Tenets for Integrating Technology at Mueller Charter School”: 

TENET 1: The mission of our charter is still to get 90% of our children to grade level as measured by the California Standards Test; 

TENET 2: Since the standards and competencies required by the CST are not enough, we must also help children develop the behaviors, attitudes and skills that are appropriate for the 21st Century: critical thinking, entrepreneurialsism, innovation, collaboration; (“I’m calling on our nation’s governors and state education chiefs to develop standards and assessments that don’t simply measure whether students can fill in a bubble on a test, but whether they possess 21st century skills like problem-solving and critical thinking and entrepreneurship and creativity.” –President Barack Obama, March 10, 2009)

TENET 3: There are multiple pathways  to mastery of these standards– but every pathway  requires that we ENGAGE our students in their own learning;

TENET 4: The “tools” for engaging learners may include pencil and papers, books, teacher charisma and other conventional methods–  but they include technology as well. (“Every turned off device ,” the video warns, “is potentially a turned off child.”)

TENET 5: The more IMAGINATIVE our teachers are in using technology, the more likely they will use the right technology in the right way for the right outcomes… and the more they will heighten student engagement… and inevitably, student achievement.

We are not short on imagination.  Nor are we lacking in resources or information about the latest in tech trends.  We only needed to pause between our own texting and Googling and downloading music to examine our teaching practice and assess the degree to which we use all of our tools to inspire and engage.

dsc019863Now that I think about it, every outstanding teacher I have met since  propping up my Apple IIc on a milk crate in 1985 seems to possess that common gift of Imagination.  They all have an ability to integrate the use of new tools, new strategies, new technologies to heighten student engagement, and to engender extraordinary learning. They are willing to stretch and take risks. To imagine.

I listened on Friday as our teachers discussed their 50 questions.  It was the sound of still another generation of teachers learning to change– yet desperate to maintain their humanity.  




Filed under teaching, technology in schools