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gretzkyCorporate CEO’s and forward thinkers like to use the Wayne Gretzky analogy.  Gretzky scored 940 some goals in his 20 career in the NHL.  But he never skated to the puck in order to take his magic shots.  If he skated to a hockey puck angling off the boards at 100 mph, it would be gone by the time he got there.  So Gretzky was as good as any hockey player that ever played the game… at skating to where the puck was going to be.

That’s forward thinking. Broad vision.

timeSo in light of the Wayne Gretzky analogy, this week’s lead story in TIME Magazine is reassuring.  California, it seems, is not falling off into the Pacific Ocean after all.

Oh sure, there are earthquakes and wildfires and crazy environmentalists chaining themselves to the railroad tracks in defense of the ecosystem.  There are gangs and home foreclosures, long unemployment lines and long lines at the frenzy-producing freeway merge.  There may be shuttered businesses and legions of workers whose origins are driving Lou Dobbs nuts.

But in general, there is enormous up-side in the Golden State and its powerhouses of innovation that are skating to where the puck is going to be.

Michael Grunwald writes:

It’s still a dream state. In fact, the pioneering megastate that gave us microchips, freeways, blue jeans, tax revolts, extreme sports, energy efficiency, health clubs, Google searches, Craigslist, iPhones and the Hollywood vision of success is still the cutting edge of the American future — economically, environmentally, demographically, culturally and maybe politically. It’s the greenest and most diverse state, the most globalized in general and most Asia-oriented in particular at a time when the world is heading in all those directions. It’s also an unparalleled engine of innovation, the mecca of high tech, biotech and now clean tech. In 2008, California’s wipeout economy attracted more venture capital than the rest of the nation combined. Somehow its supposedly hostile business climate has nurtured Google, Apple, Hewlett-Packard, Facebook, Twitter, Disney, Cisco, Intel, eBay, YouTube, MySpace, the Gap and countless other companies that drive the way we live.

Innovation implies the flourishing of  ideas that haven’t even been launched yet, defying the status quo.  It rewards early adopters and those who integrate technology in the most unlikely of ways.  Like Kogi, writes Grunwald, the Korean taco truck that announces its location via Twitter. “The beauty of California is the idea that you can reinvent yourself and do something totally creative,” says Kogi’s Roy Choi, a former chef at the Beverly Hilton. “It’s still the Wild West that way.”

But as forward leaning as the TIME Magazine piece on California is, it missed a chance to recognize that our schools have also evolved at light speed from the Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

When Grunwald celebrates the culture of innovation that produces breakthroughs in chip-industry, solar, LED lighting, green materials, the digitized grid, biotech, algae-to-fuel experiments, synthetic genomics, carbon-capturing-cement, sugar to diesel, semiconductors, and energy-efficient windows… he could have been a game changer himself… the first to recognize the relationship between innovative public schools and the fast companies they serve.  Instead, he states that California public schools “pose a real obstacle to the dream of upward mobility” and that they have been “deteriorating for years.”

Really? Deteriorating?  You are clearly thinking of Spicoli’s public schools.  Not mine!


California passed its charter law  in 1992, one of the first states in the country to do so.  There are now 750 charter schools serving 276,000 kids. 90 new charters opened in 2007 alone.  There are charters of every kind from High Tech High to El Milagro.  They flourish in a state that is unique for its size and diversity. Where 64% of its student population are children of color… third, only behind Washington DC and Hawaii.  A state where nearly half the students qualify for free or reduced lunch and where 1 out of 4 are English language learners.  A state that invests only $9,152 per student  (while New York invests  $15, 981 per student).  And where we don’t make excuses.

And while other states are relaxing their standards or lowering the cut point that determines grade level proficiency, California remains one of the most difficult states in America to test out at grade level.  The expectations here are sky high.

There are still many underperforming schools… but I don’t know where they are.  And if I did, I wouldn’t defend them.

I do know however, that schools like El Milagro continue to compete in an environment that is destined to change.  We will not be able to sustain schools as test prep academies to the exclusion of the real skills and talents that will feed into our innovative industries.  Solving energy and the riddles of biomedicine can not come from multiple choice tests.  The future demands creativity.  Critical Thinking. Resilience.

So you can be sure there are schools like mine, skating to where we envision the puck will be.  That’s California too.  Revolutionary thinking and the wild, wild west.


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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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