Monthly Archives: August 2009


tedjpegThe lines draw to the heavens today… and I am paying attention.

Jose-01The Space Shuttle Discovery has ascended into orbit after long last, carrying the hopes of NASA– but also the son of migrant farm workers. Jose Hernandez picked cucumbers in Stockton as a child. Today, he is among the Latino community’s most distinguished members, circling our planet as an astronaut on his first tour in space.

And yet, at the exact same moment, our nation celebrates the life of the very senator that made Jose Hernandez’ journey possible. The Lion. Asleep now to us and for the moment surrounded by our nation’s most powerful leaders, he is bound for eternal rest with his two brothers. These Kennedy’s were my family’s patron saints. They were the source of my idealism. In their quest to pave the way for sons of farmworkers and daughters of former slaves, they changed the face of our nation. They compelled us all to live our lives in the service of others.

Senator Kennedy fought for heath care and education, social justice, and the journey of the poor. He survived the tenure of 10 presidents, beginning with his own brother’s. In over 4 decades of political battles, he wrote over 1000 laws and bills so that the civil rights of all Americans might come to full fruition. He stood for our nation’s defense. And world peace.

He fought so that there would one day be a seat on rocket ships for the likes of Jose Hernandez and the children of El Milagro. And like his brothers before him, his passions were crystallized in the Catholic tradition, as if Jesus himself approved. And he surely would.

processionIn his passing, the media has focused intently on his life. The good and the bad. The public giant, the private man. The triumphs– and the darkest hours inevitably shared on a bright bright stage. The long march to Arlington behind the riderless pony and our fallen President. That amazing euology for Bobby that has echoed for 40 years. The one that inevitably tantalizes us to pause in deep reflection, to think– if Jack and Bobby had lived a full life… what might have been.

Images of my childhood.

My own father passed in 1986. My mother just two years ago. Today would have been her 85th birthday. She would have sat in front of the television like she had for all the Kennedy funerals, rosary in hand. Holding on to her emotions until the floodgates opened with the “Ave Maria”. Tears streaming for Irish patriots.

obama and tedThe symbolism and powerful metaphors would not have been lost on her. The Latino astronaut circling above. The new President delivering another eulogy for the ages. Young. Handsome. African American. Beneficiary of all those who came before to pave a road, however narrow, toward real equality—but especially Ted Kennedy.

To tell you the truth, I’ll feel better when the Discovery and our new President are safely home. There is risk in soaring. No one knows that better than this noble family. But of course, our greatness comes only from those willing to rise above the expectations and the odds, above the bigots and the small minded… above the politics and the fear.

There is less celebration here on earth today than there is in heaven. The last brother has made it home. He said of Bobby:

“My brother need not be idealized or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life. But to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war… and tried to stop it.”

Today, all earthly powers have one eye on the heavens and the sleeping Lion. “But the work goes on. The cause endures. The hope still lives. And the dream will never die.”

3 brothers


Filed under El Milagro, health care, President Obama, public education


imagesThis past week I contributed a sort of reprise on my “My I-Phone is Smarter Than Your Kid’s Teacher” post.  Still!

 It went up on Education Week’s “Leadertalk” site  and right away one reader commented that I had articulated the essential problem with teaching (today’s) spoiled rich kids: they need to be entertained.

The funny thing is is I never said anything about the I-Phone as a device for entertaining kids.  I described it as a powerful tool to engage them.  All of them.  Not just “spoiled, rich kids”.  But also kids still climbing out of America’s deep economic chasm, the technology gap, and the great divide.

jugglerjpegSo I wondered whether some educators are unable to distinguish between entertaining kids and engaging them.  Or, put another way, whether they think you have to entertain them to engage them.

By now you know we got our test scores back from last year and we weren’t happy with them.  We got record high gains from several grade levels and that was good.  Our 8th graders improved in every category and that was good.  Our 4th graders and 7th graders had strong results in writing and that was good.  But we also experienced a dramatic decline in critical areas and our English language learners didn’t make the improvement we had worked for.

So we didn’t move the needle.

But sometimes teams learn more when they lose a game than they do when they win.  If you are open to learning as an organization, losing can be transformational.  So El Milagro is twisting through another radical transformation. Precision. Alignment.  Urgency.  


When students are provided with rigorous instruction, transparent goals and objectives, a clear sense of purpose– and the tools to achieve their learning tasks– they become “engaged”.

I don’t know if we are going to be handing out I-Phones to expedite the engagement of our students. It isn’t really the point anyway.  What really matters is that we seize upon children’s imagination and their innate capacity for managing their own journey.  We should be models for that.  We are on that journey too.  

Anyway, you can’t entertain kids if you are not entertaining.  You can’t engage them if YOU aren’t engaged.

Are you engaged?



Filed under charter schools, El Milagro, innovation and change, school reform, standardized testing, technology in schools


turtle 2-1This is the 3rd in a series about our partnership with the Chula Vista Nature Center at Gunpowder Point. These posts will document our progress as we move our middle school science program off campus– to a satellite classroom called the San Diego Bay!

across the bayOn Tuesday we launched seven of our 8th grade girls into the bay.  The Nature Center is an extraordinary lab for studying the the marshes and reservoirs and natural bayfront ecosystems, but nothing compares to being in the water itself.  Splashing through the mud-decked channels in the shadows of the powerplant.  Battling the currents.  Reading the tide.  Checking the waterproof bird guide against strange-beaked egrets and massive herons.  

So that’s where we went.

Harry owns Chula Vista Kayaks and he is our partner in our effort to get all of our middle school students out on the water at least once every quarter.  Just about anybody can paddle a kayak.  They are stable and low to the tide.  You get wet.  You feel the water.  You smell the exposed shells baking even on cloud-covered mornings like this.

into marinaSo we launched from the boat ramp: Harry, seven students, Conchita (our office manager)  and me.  Into the calm marina, out past the last moored pleasure boats, a hard left around the jetty, and into the open bay.  The day before we had taken seven of the boys so we anticipated a :30 minute paddle across the water to reach the isolated channels on the other side.

Sometimes when you are teaching kids you can anticipate stuff like that.  But then there are those lessons you could never have anticipated.  There are those lessons that end up being far more instructive to the teacher than they could ever be for students.  Like on this morning.  On San Diego Bay.  With seven middle school girls in kayaks.  

The first four students got the hang of paddling instantly and powered across the water with Harry and Conchita. Vanessa had started off with the others, but rapidly ran out of gas and fell off the pace. The last two struggled to paddle at all, and the tide immediately pushed them sideways closer and closer to the rocks of the jetty.  They had no technique.  No basic skills.  

As an intermediate level kayaker, jettyI could model the technique for them.  And so I did.  But they still pushed close to the rocks.  So I tried to explain the technique– but now their kayaks were relentlessly  pressing against the jetty edge.  Then I tried to encourage them… but my voice was muffled by the momentary panic, the surging water, the steady roar, the helpless on-lookers.

But in the end, this is a bay– not some 10-foot crashing surfline along the ocean cliffs– so eventually the girls were able to turn their kayaks into the current and push away.  They were finally free of the jetty and  into the open water.  So we were back on course,  some 800 yards behind the others. I offered to turn back with the girls to the calm marina and just wait for the others to return. But they wanted to go on.  For the next ten minutes I watched them splash and flail and try everything they could to get some traction.  light bulbFinally, the light bulb clicked on. Maybe they were tired of being so far behind.  Maybe they felt a sudden urgency to catch up with the others.  Maybe they didn’t want to get left out there on San Diego Bay all day.  Maybe it was just a developmental thing– they just needed to practice and fail and adjust and fail some more.  But they didn’t quit.  And just when it looked like we might spend the rest of the academic year out there trying to move in one direction or another, two middle school girls somehow turned into kayakers and found the rhythm to power across the water and catch the others just as they entered the channel.

The return trip was very different.  There were now six girls in the pack with Harry and Conchita, paddling like scupper pros and confidently dangling their feet in the water.  They were enjoying the bay and the birds and the amazing realization that this was actually a school day and they were in their science class!

Six girls.  The seventh was Vanessa, exhausted from using muscle groups she never knew she had. So I tied her kayak to mine and together we paddled in.

sunsetjpegAnd that is the story.  And when I shared it with our teachers yesterday they could clearly see the metaphor:

“Students learn and develop in different ways…”

“We have to hang in their with our struggling students and look for different ways to teach them…”

“We can’t give up on students who might be way behind…”

“Once the light bulb goes off they may accelerate to the head of the pack…”

“We can’t leave a single child crashing against the rocks. Failure really is NOT a option…”

“Sometimes when kids are exhausted from the long, inspired fight against the tide, you just have to lash their boat to yours and tow them until they get their second wind.” 

At El Milagro we are going to help 90% of our students become proficient this year.  We learned from the jetty and the bay and the surging tide, that that is not possible unless we commit to every child, we monitor their growth, we make adjustments, we treat them according to their place in the journey.  We will push and tow them.  We will teach them to steer.  

Sometimes you set out to teach a lesson about egrets and come back to the marina having learned to navigate on the open water.  

better powerplant

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Filed under El Milagro, environmental studies, teaching


che     “Let me say at the risk of seeming ridiculous, that the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love…”   — Che Guevara


On Tuesday our 2008-09 test results finally arrived.  They were packaged neatly in a brown box, arriving on our door step like a UPS surprise.  A milk delivery.  Like an old Western Union Telegram containing some inevitable message that had to come sooner or later.

voodooSo we unwrapped the contents of the box and unfolded the scores like familiar laundry– grade level by grade level– and hung them on the clothesline:  math next to the lemon tree… while language arts dried in a Bay-soft breeze that otherwise cools the bouganvilla.  We figure if we treat our test results with such reverence, if we handle them gently enough, if we sprinkle them with holy water, if we read them by the light of a crescent moon, if we wait until the tides align, if we rub the rabbit’s foot, if we pay tributes to the voodoo altar… the news might be more favorable.

It wasn’t.

And so disappointment descends and we start to pick through the numeric bones like an autopsy:  

“We should have…”

“We could have…”

“This is because the ______ (fill in grade level here) grade teachers neglected to…”

“If only those ______ (fill in demographics here) students had just…”

“It’s all the _____’s (fill in excuse here) fault that we…”

The truth is, of course, we have complete control over our results.  El Milagro had record highs in 4 grade levels!  Our students are strong in writing and our 8th grade may have been the highest middle school in the South County. There were lots of promising trends. But the NCLB testing game is not just about trends.  It is about winning.  We are the baseball team that makes great plays and gets lots of hits and looks gorgeous in our uniforms… but can’t score runs.  If you can’t score runs… you won’t win games.


So for the first time in the 10-year history of the testing game, Mueller Charter School will join the inglorious club of Program Improvement schools who will be left scratching their heads and waiting for a knock on the door from the local expert who will bring a magic solution on how to terminate your membership from “the club” sooner than later.  

We decided not to wait.  It is a new season.  We are already re-loading. We are organizing to score more runs.  We realized that even though we keep getting better results each year, other schools are passing us like we are standing still.  We can’t tinker at change… we have to turn El Milagro on its head.

Che Guevara is the face of revolution– but as far as I know he never played baseball.  And he didn’t seem like the kind of guy who would belong to any club.

clothes line


Filed under El Milagro, innovation and change, school reform, standardized testing

Why we should give every Student an I-Phone as a Learning Tool…or…10 Reasons why my I-Phone is smarter than your Kid’s Teacher:







More and more  school districts are wasting their energy on trying to ban, capture or otherwise disrupt their students’ use of cell phones when they return to school in a few weeks.  Private schools are just as bad. One line of thinking is that they are a distraction that keep children from learning.  Which is a lot like saying books are a distraction. But if a teacher can be replaced by a kid’s cellphone… he or she ought to be! Here are ten tools I use every day as a principal.  In a school.

• Maps, directions and street level photos to any address or location on the planet
• Google Earth
• Unfiltered internet research
Aps for any subject (especially Major League Baseball); to say nothing of the easy-access Ap for Twitter and Facebook
• The capacity to communicate instantly with anyone in the world via text or telephone
• Access to YouTube and Podcasts
• Instant updates on the stock market and the weather
• Unlimited music through ITunes
• The ability to translate words and phrases from any language
• Calculator

Teachers can not only compete with these tools, they can harness them to provide their students with a portal to the world.  Isn’t that just good teaching?


Filed under innovation and change, public education, teaching, technology in schools