Monthly Archives: June 2009



I’m invited to guest blog on Leadertalk on the 20th of every month.  I haven’t missed a day yet. Didn’t miss yesterday either.  So I woke up Saturday morning and watched the amazing events unfolding from Tehran and simultaneously tried to organize my thoughts around what was a very busy week for charter schools right here in California.

Check out my June post entitled “Change Gonna Come

Leadertalk is one of several blogs that are linked to Education Week.  It is a good site for tracking the voices of school leaders across the country.  The voices are many and varied:  some innovative, some naive, some courageous, some humorous, some defiant, some just looking for direction.  Some, like mine, seeking to capture El Milagro.

Leadertalk files all posts under each author’s name.  You can see the list of guest bloggers in the right-hand column. Click on Kevin Riley and you find the monthly posts that I have contributed this year.  

My favorite?  My tribute to our new President published January 20th, on the day of his Inauguration.

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Filed under El Milagro, President Obama

JOURNALING CHAOS 6: “Rains in Oakland”


The “I Ching” teaches that “Before there can be great brilliance… there must be chaos.”

This is PART 6 in a series of blog posts that document our research, strategic thinking, observations and debates as we take on one of the last vestiges of the industrial revolution: the practice in schools of organizing kids into grade levels according to their chronological age.

Maybe it’s me.  Maybe I have “charter envy”.  

Maybe we just haven’t figured out all the things that The American Indian Charter School in Oakland has discovered to drive up their test scores.  With an API of 967, they are one of the very  highest performing public schools in California. Moreover, 88% of their students qualify for free an reduced lunch, so they have somehow managed to overcome poverty.

grailjpegIn fact I wondered if they had found the Holy Grail. I wondered if maybe my ideas about insuring that kids mastered the standards before they moved to the next grade level… might be a little draconian;  maybe even unnecessary.

A donor from the Koret Foundation in the Bay Area was adamant in her praise for The American Indian Charter School:

“They really should be the model for public education in the state of California,” she said.

And she also said: “What I will never understand is why the world is not beating a path to their door to benchmark them, learn from them and replicate what they are doing.”

So short of “beating a path to their door” I decided to at least read the recent LA Times article wherein these quotes were found, along with a general description of just what is happening to engender such astounding results at The American Indian Charter School. The reporter, Mitchell Landsberg, was clearly impressed and even amused by the leadership there. But perhaps surprisingly, he seemed a little conflicted on whether what was happening at The American Indian Charter School– not withstanding an API of 967– was actually good for kids. 

la times

But we steal good ideas so I read on:

I read that the school administrators take “great pride in frequently firing teachers”.  Ok.  But we don’t do that at El Milagro. We choose to not give up on  people whether they are students or adults.  So I’ll leave that plan to Oakland and keep reading.

I read that they hand-pick their students and that as one administrator (and parent of a student in the school) confirmed: “They have kids who could go anywhere in the state and succeed.”  Well that’s good for them.  We have kids like that at El Milagro too.  Except they didn’t start off that way.  We didn’t get to cherry pick them. We worked hard and the kids worked hard and their parents worked hard to achieve a level of proficiency. We don’t choose our students… they choose us!

one roomjpegI read that they have, by design, no lab equipment, no computers, no televisions, no games at PE.  They mock multicultural curricula (“the demagoguery of tolerance”)  and reject efforts to build children’s self esteem.  It shows. The director refers to students of color as “darkies”!

Anyway, the tools of instruction at The American Indian Charter School are textbooks and worksheets. It is teacher talk and drill and kill. Hmmmm. Disappointing.

Then I read how discipline is so strictly enforced.  After school and Saturdays.  They are not above calling kids out, humiliating them, punishing them, forcing them to wear embarrassing signs.  One student had his head shaved in front of the school for stealing!  “Classes are preternaturally quiet and focused” writes Landsberg. “They have been told to keep their attention on their work.  They do as they are told.”

Now I am aghast.  So I checked on the website and it is indeed a school in California and the year is indeed 2009 and The American Indian Charter School is indeed a school lauded by the likes of George Will as a model that could close the achievement gap in America.  And admittedly, they do have that amazing API.

Then I read that attendance is mandatory (as it is at El Milagro, too. To an extent.)  When an African American student took a day off from the rigors of The American Indian Charter School to watch the historic inauguration of President Obama with his family, he was punished with extra work and the principal’s recommendation to a private high school he wanted to attend was rescinded.  His mom was justifiably outraged and removed him from the school.  The principal defended her actions:  watching the inauguration, she argued, “is not part of our curriculum.” Now I am outraged too.

So what is the curriculum?  This reads like a horror story.  Where is the magic that explains 967?

I read that the curriculum is, in essence, the California Standards Test.  The American Indian Charter  School” relentlessly and unapologetically teaches to the test.”  They teach almost nothing that does not directly affect standardized test scores.  

And so, taking all of these strategies together, the best practices of the American Indian Charter School– teach to the test, military style discipline, drill and kill, no computers, humiliate the kids–  their students score well on the CST and it all adds up to an API that we should all aspire to and “replicate.” Is that the story?

Well no thank you. If George Will wants to hold out models of schools for others to replicate he can.  But there is nothing about this story or this school that reflects the kind of excellence I would seek for my own children. Good enough for the “darkies” though, hey Mr. Will?


So now I have lots of questions:

Where is the commitment to children, the passion, the love of teaching and learning?  Where is there room for creativity and innovation. Where is the intellectual integrity? How do children become technologically literate in places like this? How do they learn to write and solve problems?

And is this really the price we have to pay to bleed high API numbers out of communities that are already struggling?  Is the California Standards Test a legitimate measure of school success if somebody can produce these results using such outdated and oppressive instructional approaches?

I like the Bay Area and I like Oakland.   I like the rain there.  And I am sure I would like the kids and the teachers of the American Indian Charter School. But you cannot rise to the heights our children deserve by riding on the wings of Icarus.  This is not the Holy Grail.  So if you don’t mind, we will keep looking.



Filed under California charter schools, charter schools, El Milagro, public education, standardized testing, teaching


sunset cropped


I saw the sun set at El Milagro today.  The evening crawl.  Like the traffic that frames our western borders.  A limp, two-day old graduation balloon waved in a gentle evening breeze, still pulling at its navy blue tether that kept it ribboned to a building rail.  The truth is, even if we freed it now it would not have enough gas to fly.  

bl balloonsAnd I can relate.

The 2008-09 school year ended in a frantic week of things to be done, and papers to sign, and questions without answers unless previous questions were answered first.  Students to place. Parents to assuage.  

Three eighth graders posted a classroom rampage on You Tube and their parents argued that vandalism was relative and that it was simply ill-timed mischief and boys will be boys and and they had never been in trouble before and they had been at El Milagro for 9 years and relatives were coming from Mexico and anyway Tommy made them all do it.  And all the while I could seek the regret and deep sorrow in the students’ eyes.  Good kids.  Dumb prank.  And my mom was always right when she said “This is going to hurt me more than it will hurt you.”

Our Friday-Last-Day-Of-The-School-Year staff meeting featured teachers’ children and spouses and special guests.  And a salute to the six teachers who are leaving El Milagro.  

The last day of school is no longer bittersweet to me.  There is no sweet.  It is too much ending and good-bye; to children who have orbited around me like silent moons for nine years.  Their names are sometimes not so clearly connected to their faces.  They evolve and change from 5 year-olds to 14 year-olds and in their graduation dresses they so suddenly cease to look like children at all.  But in any case, we weave a ceremony around them as if another rite of passage is necessary for them to leave us…  as if we can delay what the march of time has preordained… as if we could hold them back. As if we could hold them.  

I am wired for the rhythms of daily school routines.  I awake to them even when I resent them. And in a blink they will start again… a new schedule with new kids in new jeans and new backpacks and new books handed out by their new teachers.  We will herald the 2009-10 school year as “the year” though for what we will never quite be sure.  And soon we will be so deep in it all again that these beginnings and endings will fade. And that is the daily routine. The weekly, monthly, yearly… life routine that soothes the sadness of their leaving us.  Again.


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JOURNALING CHAOS 5: “School Runnings”


The “I Ching” teaches that “Before there can be great brilliance… there must be chaos.”

This is PART 5 in a series of blog posts that document our research, strategic thinking, observations and debates as we take on one of the last vestiges of the industrial revolution: the practice in schools of organizing kids into grade levels according to their chronological age.

At the end of the day on Friday I received a phone call from Max in the Superintendent’s office.  Max was contacting all the principals in the district to get our individual prediction on what we anticipate our API will be this year.  We all have a guess.  We live the API. 

woodThe API is California’s Academic Performance Index.  It is a long and tortured statistical calculation that synthesizes each school’s test results into a 3-digit number. Every student at every grade and every subject area is calculated and “processed” like an elegant wood chipper that grinds otherwise healthy leaves and limbs into useful chips. It weighs the number of students that score proficient and reflects overall organizational growth from year to year. Every school in California is obligated to somehow reach the API promised land of 800 or face the fate of the mastodons.

“To tell you the truth Max… I have no clue.  You want me to just pull a number out of the air?  

“Yep… the Superintendent wants every principal’s prediction.”

“Well…last year we ended up at 797 but our school-wide goal was 801.  We just missed it.  A little better result from this grade or that grade and we would have made it.  Just make up a number?”

“Whatever you think.”

skiWe just held the Olympic Festival yesterday, Max.  The best one in 9 years.  We had a 1000 students participating with well over 100 adult volunteers and parents and guests.  There were 25 different events for kids.  We had two former olympians.  We had India’s first ever winter olympian, for God’s sake.!  She is an Alpine ski racer, Max! But the Olympic Festival and our community spirit and Alpine skiers and our year-end celebration have nothing to do with our API.  It doesn’t compute.”

“I just need a number Dr. Riley.”

“Our 6th graders bombed the local measures.  I think they might have done it on purpose.  Only 7 out of 120 students were proficient on the math section.  How do I factor that in, Max?”

“Uh…can’t help you on that one.”

“But then again, on the MAPS assessments our 6th graders were right on pace.  And that is a much more difficult assessment, don’t you think?”

“No clue sir.  I’m not familiar with SNAPS.”

wall“And we know that if 50% of our students– especially 50% of our English language learners– don’t score proficient on the California Standards Test we will miss the AYP benchmark for the first time and we will go into Program Improvement. We know that.  We are climbing a mountain.  So we added a full hour to the instructional day and tried to target students who were borderline.  And every teacher provided English Language Development to every student for :35 minutes every single day. Damn…  that has to count for something!”

“So you want me to put you down for 801 again?”

“Yea, I guess so. NO! I can’t say 801… that was last year’s goal.  This year our goal is 840!”

“So you want me to put you down for 840?”

“C’mon Max…there is no way we hit 840.  Too many distractions over the longer day.  I think our teachers got burned out mid-year.  We pushed too hard.  By March we had to make adjustments just to keep their morale up. If we caught it soon enough and made the best of the additional hour and kept our focus in every classroom…  we could get a pretty good bump in our API.  But if not… if we really did lose a significant number of our teachers somewhere on the journey… we are hosed.”

“Sounds like you want to stay closer to the 801.  You have to say at least 800.”

“We could go backwards Max!  We could go back down to 790!  When the district told everybody in January that they had to resign to stay at El Milagro or return to a district school… it affected morale too.  18 of our teachers are district employees and 15 are employees of Mueller Charter School.  What a freakin’ mess!  It never should have worked out that way.  Five of our veteran teachers decided that they would leave El Milagro and go back to the district.  So we have been dealing with that and interviewing new teachers and writing letters of recommendations.  These are our colleagues we are losing!”

“Ok…  listen I am going to just say 795 for Mueller Charter School…”

“You know what the problem is here Max? The problem is we give the CST to students according to their grade level… instead of their level of mastery…”

Silence on the other end.

“Max… do you read my blog?”

“No I don’t have time to read blogs because I make phone calls like this all day and just try to stay ahead of the information that the superintendent is trying to gather.”

“Ok… just put us down for 805.”

“805…got it.  Thank you Dr. Riley, it’s been nice talking to you and….”

“And make a note Max that we are really looking hard at this whole system of grouping kids in grade levels according to their age.  It doesn’t make sense anymore. ”

“Ok I wrote that down.”

But of course I know he really didn’t.  And I realized immediately that this is exactly how the status quo stays in tact from year to year; how it absorbs change.  I had no business giving Max some arbitrary number meant to quantify the depth of teaching and learning that took place at Mueller Charter School over the course of an entire year.  The ups and downs.  The celebrations.  The growth and the turmoil and the daily struggle for fresh air. 805? 840?


It is the reason that we seek to challenge the very structure of how we group our students for learning and testing.  So I started to pull up my blog to re-read the questions I had generated last week and maybe add to the list.  Just then the phone rang again.  It was Max.

“Dr. Riley…  did you say an Alpine skiier from India?  Didn’t they make a movie about her?”

“No Max…  that was the Jamaican bobsled team.”

“Oh…yea…that’s right…Cool Runnings.”


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Filed under charter schools, El Milagro, standardized testing, Un-graded schools