Tag Archives: CST


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


turtle 2-1This is the 2nd 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!  

DSC_0050It is the first day of school and so our students return.  It is mid-summer… most school districts will not call their students back until after Labor Day.  Not El Milagro, though. We start early. So ready or not, they are are descending– in droves.  Record high enrollment and a long waiting list means business is good.

This year there are some new things, like our Full-Day Kindergarten program.   And there is an automatic back gate in the staff parking lot that allows teachers to drive up and never get out of their cars as the fence opens and closes behind them. But that’s not our best new feature.  This year we are partnering with the Chula Vista Nature Center and moving our middle school science program right into the middle of their facility.

The Nature Center sits on a reserve at the edge of the San Diego Bay, two miles from Mueller Charter School.  There are aquariums and marshes and protected reserves that surround a natural, outdoor classroom.  It will provide  our students with a rare opportunity to learn in a real-life laboratory of interconnected ecosystems… every day.  It is a reminder that we cannot get so preoccupied with standardized testing and teaching the basic skills required to score well– that we forget to create opportunities for authentic learning too.  Opportunities to think, imagine, create, explore, discover, question, use the technology, solve the riddles of the universe and learn to love learning.

box-1The Nature Center is our reminder that we are out of whatever “the box” is and our students could be the beneficiaries.  

Last Friday the whole staff met at the Nature Center for a morning of activities and learning together.  They explored the many exhibits and habitats there.  They created themes around some of the big ideas of life science like adaptation and evolution, scale and structure, systems, the magic of water, color and song, and interconnected relationships in nature.  

And we searched for balance.

Or at least a definition for it.  And we discovered that definition in the very dream of what we think the Nature Center partnership can be for kids.  If we are truly “balanced” we would do all three of these things well:

• FIRST : We would enthusiastically play the testing game and make sure our kids have the basic skills they need to excel in math and reading; that we get the big scores to keep our autonomy and independence– and our charter!  We would also work urgently to achieve all the AYP goals and to assure that that our API is pushing into the stratosphere.

sea turt-1• SECOND: Beyond basic skills, we would work just as hard to provide a more authentic, thinking curriculum that allows children to discover their natural gifts and interests.  A curriculum that features the interesting stuff that engages students every day.  Like the Nature Center and all its wind-framed beauty and ocean air;  its banks of slippery seaweed, its deep fish tanks that stink. Or the tidepools, tucked snugly up against shallow marshes that splash mud and seawater on kid’s school clothes when the tide is up. Or rare creatures on loan from their fragile ecosystems; sometimes strange life-forms that can make  kids smile when they hold them in their hands.

• FINALLY, we would help our students develop as literate, interesting, passionate, connected, people. We help them develop the habits and attitudes of successful learners: Respect. Responsibility. Commitment. Character. And other stuff too.

The Nature Center is more than a metaphor–  it is an authentic learning lab, a model for what schools must do to provide all children with a context for growing up as complete human beings.  So that is the balance that we seek school-wide: 1) the basic skills required to demonstrate mastery on standardized tests, 2) the rich thinking curriculum to engage our students with their world, and 3) an emphasis on nurturing the character traits of successful citizens and learners. 

If we achieve that, it will be a great year!


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Filed under charter schools, El Milagro, environmental studies, gifted children, innovation and change, standardized testing, teaching

JOURNALING CHAOS 7: “It’s in The Salsa”



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

This is PART 7 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.

el patio dayThe history of El Patio Restaurant is written in its walls.  It is as old as California.  Father Serra may have stopped here for handmade beef tamales on his journey north to build California’s first missions.  His ghost is still in the corner, plugging the jukebox with strange coins and listening to classic ’60s low rider anthems and tejano ballads.

El Patio is where the Wizard and I go for lunch when we want to incubate ideas. Perhaps it is the layers of aging hot sauce on the floors and splashed partly up the side walls. Perhaps it is in the jalapenos.  Or the jukebox inspiration under Father Serra’s watchful eye. But for some reason, at El Patio, the creativity flows.

So yesterday we had lunch and caught up on our latest thinking in how we might organize a school without grade levels and what effect it would have on overall student achievement and what new metrics would be useful in monitoring the change.

Our ideas on a school without grade levels came in a series of “What ifs…”

ideasWhat if we don’t include  KINDERGARTEN or FIRST GRADE in the ungraded program, but since they feed into it, we don’t allow students to advance without first demonstrating grade level proficiency?

El Milagro will open a Full-Day Kindergarten for the first time this year.  The timing is awesome.  When we launch the ungraded system,  students will enter school with a full year to make up for having not gone to pre-school, or not learned their letters, or having never read with their parents, or not knowing their name. But while neither Kindergarten nor First Grade would be part of the “ungraded” program, we will expect students to be proficient before they leave either grade. 

ideasWhat if we eliminate Second Grade, Third Grade, Fourth Grade, and Fifth Grade?

Students are currently assigned to these grade levels on the basis of two parameters:


1) Their chronological age, and  

2) The grade level they completed last June.

These grade level grouping decisions are  not based on achievement or mastery (which is what the California Education Code requires!).  They are based solely on students’ age and time spent sitting in a seat.  


ideas...What if  these four grade levels (2-5) morphed into one UNGRADED PROGRAM (that admittedly needs a catchier name!)?

• We could eliminate the traditional, 10-month, September-to-June school calendar;

• Group students by chronological age for science, social studies, PE, the arts and home room;

• Re-group students for language arts and math based on their MAPS assessment scores (we call them RIT scores);

• Identify, early in the school year, which level of the California Standards Test  each student is preparing to take  (the Grade 2, 3, 4 or 5 version)– based on the level that they last demonstrated proficiency on; and

• Offer students the opportunity to move through the four levels at their own pace.

ideasWhat if…students progress to each new level solely on the basis of merit and demonstrated proficiency– just like what happens in Tae Kwon Do… and just like what happens in college.  No free pass.

Such are the brainstorms of El Patio where every idea generates new questions and more “What ifs”.  That’s what is fueling the creativity.  By the time we were rolling on ideas for 6th grade we were on our third glass of ice tea… arms flailing, spitting tortilla chips, interrupting each other mid-idea. We wondered:

ideasWhat if we change the structure for 6th grade?

6TH GRADE would definitely be the moment of truth for this whole scheme.  There will be only two ways that a student can exit our UNGRADED program and enter our 6TH GRADE :


1.  They can  “Test In”, by demonstrating mastery of the 5th grade CST, or

2.  They can “Age In” because  if we don’t move them along they are going to turn 93 before they ever get out of Mueller Charter School.

Student who are moved into the 6th grade program solely on the basis of age (and not proficiency) will be provided an intensive program from the strongest teachers we have.  These classrooms will be self-contained and will require students’ full participation in afterschool tutoring, intersessions, and independent skill development in the computer lab.

Students who “test in” to 6th grade,will participate in a departmentalized program patterned after our 7th and 8th grade Leadership Academy.

And our 7th and 8th grade students, because they are selected for our Leadership Academy on the basis of their willingness to work hard, will continue in a departmentalized, accelerated program that is designed to prepare them for advanced placement courses in high school.


Lunch was over and before we headed back to school, the Wizard and I agreed on one final and point that will make or break the success of this systemic change. We must still balance the demand for accountability on tests with the obligation we have to our students to inspire a love of learning an thinking and creating and discovering their full range of gifts.

The ungraded elementary program will enable us to focus on basic skill development and mastering grade level competencies. But  that is not where the real teaching and learning lies.  The chronological age groupings will offer students opportunities to work across age groups, academic disciplines, and performance outcomes to fully develop as learners.

That is balance… and our best thinking from El Patio, where the salsa marinates in an ancient recipe and an old mariachi on the jukebox wails: “Que si…”.  

What if.



Filed under California charter schools, charter schools, El Milagro, innovation and change, Un-graded schools


abacusjpegIt’s Week 2 of the California Standards Test and students are fingering their math facts like an abacus.  Many of our children couldn’t wait for the math portion of the CST.  They are descendants of the Mayans and ancient astronomers of the Yucatan.  They know mathematics.  It flows through their blood in algebraic platelets and word problems with multiple right answers. 

Math is our advantage.

But these are also the children of the video game and “Guitar Hero”; the dance step and :30 second wait for an Original Dream Machine with an extra energy boost.  They call upon the internet and it responds immediately– or they will divine a better connection.

The response is immediate.  The results appear promptly.  And the sociologists decry us all as the generation(s) somehow spoiled in our expectation of instant gratification.  And they may be right.


But when it comes to the standardized testing game, we receive anything but instant gratification.  In fact, we will wait three months for the results.  They will come in late July, most likely the first week after our teachers return from a brief summer nap.  By then they will already have met their new students and new colleagues and new parents.  And right about the time that they are adjusting to the idiosyncracies and learning styles and potential and challenges of a new class, last year’s data will arrive with a crash on the doorstep.  Like the morning paper thrown too hard from a passing car.  One that slams the screen door at the bottom and sends the frightened cat racing through the house with her ears pinned back.  Scared shitless.   

The test results will of course make headlines in the local section of the Union-Tribune.  There will be a complete analysis.  They will be posted school by school on the internet.  And those of us who strain every day against an odd alignment of conflicting systems, will immediately recognize that no matter how good the news or how bad the news… there is not a thing that can be done now to change our history.

Schools will go into Program Improvement.  There will be sanctions and consequences.  Administrators will be shuffled.  Teachers will be placed on assistance plans.  But none of those steps can change the outcomes from a group of children who have now come and gone.  

So if the California Standards Test is so important that it can change lives and careers and entire communities… why does it tak three months to get the results?

This is after all the age of technology.  Instant gratification.  If it is so high a priority, tell us how our students did on this morning’s math assessment… but tell us now.  I’ll even give you a week. No excuses.  I don’t want to hear how many schools there are in California and the hundreds of thousands of tests that have to be scanned or the logistics of reporting it all back or any of those other stock complaints.  When we were chided about our low API a few years ago, no one wanted to hear about our families in crisis or our children who have lived in multiple foster homes or the child attending his 22nd different school or the inherent struggles for second language learners.  The mantra of the “Age of Accountability” is “No Excuses!  So we will push our students up the mountain side in search of miraculous growth.  We will keep them whole and alive.  We will challenge and cajole and celebrate them.  And we will test them.  

testAnd this morning, they will each complete question number 21– a pre-algebraic word problem with one absurd possible answer choice, one answer choice that will trick a number of children who aren’t yet test-savvy enough to smell a rat, one answer choice that is correct and one answer choice that goes down smoothly…a sugar sweet placebo to remind us all that standardized, multiple-choice tests are to the disadvantage of the children that actually think. But they don’t know if they got question #21 right. They don’t know if they fell for the tricks and the traps so they cannot make mid-flight adjustments like they do on their video games. They’ll never know.

And by the time the results come back they won’t care!  Because kids are like that. They want to know the results right now… or heck with it.  By next July they’ll have other fish to fry.  For teachers it is a different story.  The percentage of children that tanked on #21 will be instructive.  Sort of.

giftsBut imagine what our teachers might do with the data if they could get it back next Tuesday. As they unwrap the tangled trends: 

• They could review the results with students so they know where they are strong and what areas they need to work on with 5 weeks left in this academic year.

• They could create an individualized summer learning plan for students so they could bridge some gaps in their learning before the next school year starts.

• They could meet with parents and triangulate the CST results with evidence of classroom work and other local assessments.  By then, parents would know exactly what level their children are on– their academic strengths and areas for growth.

• They could provide parents a summer reading list based on the CST lexile report.

• They could bring some closure to the school year and prepare each child’s file for transferring on to the next teacher.

• They could identify appropriate grade level placements for the next school year.

• They could meet with next year’s teacher with definitive data.

• Grade levels could re-group around the data and identify areas that need to be re-taught, or celebrated, or re-enforced, or tossed out altogether.  

• They could make informed decisions about the programs and policies and approaches and innovations that were successful and the ones that weren’t.

• They could fully capitalize on their expertise in using data to leverage informed, strategic change.

And of course we do all of these things in time.  But if the system were better aligned, and the data were returned to us, and the legislators and test bureaucrats in Sacramento had to stretch as much as we did… we would all have the tools we need when those tools would have the greatest impact.

At El Milagro we are in search of results.  Now.  Instantly.  No excuses.

gold 840

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



(NOTE: As the Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) goals continue to accelerate, more and more US schools will be categorized by the pejorative brand: “Program Improvement School”.  NCLB’s kiss of death.  By 2014 as many as 90% of America’s schools could be categorized as underperforming “Program Improvement” schools.  Perhaps it provides a handy label for politicians to rail on public education in general… but inside our schools, where we know our children’s names and faces, it is a different story.

This is the THIRD POST IN A SERIES as Mueller Charter School awaits its test results from the 2007-08 school year. Look for the SERIES every Monday as we get our results, assess the trends, and make strategic adjustments for the coming year.)    

Any day now the results will be in.

This is the time of year when California pushes out thousands of boxes filled with green and white test summary pages that serve as verdict on a year’s worth of instruction, effort, and innovation.  A year’s worth of hopes and dreams even when we know good pedagogy cannot thrive on hope.  A year’s worth of teacher meetings, parent conferences, home visits, student counseling, late afternoon training, pre-sunrise prep sessions.  A year’s worth of pouring through data, looking for trends,  making adjustments, researching best practices, assessing our kids again.  And again. A year’s worth of cheerleading, motivating, cajoling, pushing, driving, rebuking, challenging, modeling, observing, coaching, collaborating, whispering. 

When UPS pulls up we will all race to the window with our hands on the glass.  Like Christmas.  “They are here!”

 The boxes will  roll up ominously—if not unceremoniously—on industrial strength cargo carts.  We’ll pry their lids open and take the grade level summaries right off the top.  And in a matter of moments… the verdict will be in.  We know where to look.  We know how to crunch the numbers. We’ve been here before.  Too many times.

At Mueller Charter School our mission is to get 90% of our students to grade level.  To do so requires that we overcome poverty, overcome California’s insistence on testing children in a foreign language (English), overcome family crises, overcome a community’s near collapse from escalating fuel costs and home foreclosures, overcome public policy trends that are indifferent to students’ health care needs, and overcome industry expectations that are based on a conviction that we can’t overcome any of these things. 

We already know that our English language learners are at risk.  Our charter is at risk too as we come perilously close to the “Program Improvement” tattoo.  We won’t likely discover that 90% of our students tested at the Proficient level on the California Standards Test this past year.  So we will have to regroup and find a different path. Like every year.

The students don’t report to their first day of school until Monday  but already we are exhausted as we anticipate the possible outcomes on a test now three months old and an academic year whose destiny we can no longer influence.

Any day now, the results will be in.  

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