Tag Archives: Gunpowder Point


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


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