Tag Archives: Inauguration

STIMULUS: 20 Leadership Lessons From Barack Obama

stimulus | ‘stim yul us
noun (pl. -li | -,li)

• a thing that rouses energy in something or someone; an interesting and exciting quality

pres1On this, the thirty-day anniversary of the historic Inauguration of our 44th President, this much is clear: when it comes to leadership, Barack Obama has some game! In just four weeks (about the time it took most of us to figure out where the restroom was in our new school), President Obama has named and re-named cabinet members, passed a nearly $800 billion stimulus package, flown to Denver, Phoenix and Ottawa, launched Hillary into the Far East, visited a Washington DC charter school and took Michelle to dinner on Valentine’s Day. Whether you agree with his policies or not, there is much to learn from this president’s powerhouse approach to governing.

Metaphors for leadership abound– in Fortune 500 Company CEO’s, NBA basketball coaches, and admirals who have captained naval ships. You can find their books in Borders or read about them in Fast Company. Or you can follow CNN on Twitter and study how one man, our president, has approached his first month on the job and confronted the most complex and urgent crises of our generation.

So whatever your role in schools might be, here are “20 Leadership Lessons” from the dynamic presidency of Barack Obama:

1. Keep your eyes on the prize: There is nothing like a wordle to know you are consistently ‘on message’.

2. Invite them to the barbecue: Stepping outside of the hallowed halls helps to build social networks with allies and adversaries alike. Kegger at the White House!”

obama_running_blueflys_blog_flypaper_123. Don’t wait: Hit the ground at a sprint and knock over the furniture. Launch and learn!

4. Keep your family first. Period.

5. Feed your inner gym rat: Stay fit!

6. Bipartisan “process” is secondary to doing the right thing: So do the right thing.

7. Be resilient: After the inevitable setbacks, betrayals, and disappointments… you have to bounce back stronger.

8. Don’t be a sap: “I am an eternal optimist,” said the President. “Not a sap!

9. Read stuff!


10. Don’t give up your Blackberry: Especially if it is your link to the only people who will tell you the truth.

11. Speak to the conflict: When you speak from the heart to the needs of people that didn’t vote for you, that’s real Servant Leadership.

12. Have some courage. Enough said.

13. Sneak out to dinner: (But leave your Blackberry at home.)

14. Change the culture to change the outcomes: Replace the curtains hung by your predecessor and then make up your own rules.

lincolnjpeg15. Stand tall on the shoulders of giants: Don’t wobble, they became giants for a reason.

16. Appreciate the ghosts. (If I lived in the White House I would walk around at night and listen to the spirits whisper.) Our schools have a history too.

17. Surround yourself with the best people you can find: Build your own team of rivals.

18. You belong in the room: So when you feel like you are over your head, it is good to remember that you were hired for a reason.

19. Communicate… communicate… communicate: Make it your gift.

And finally, whether you are an urban school district superintendent, the assistant principal of a small elementary school, or the most powerful leader of the free world, one month on the job–

20. Remember that HOPE is what brought you here.


(Cross-posted at Leadertalk, a blogging community for school leaders hosted by Education Week.)


Filed under President Obama, resiliency, spiritual intelligence


Like this tag cloud designed by Wordle, everyone heard something different in President Obama’s Inaugural Address:


I don’t know what images or themes resonated for you, but Nelson Smith, the Executive Director of the National Alliance of Charter Schools reviewed the historical Inaugural Week in his Charter School Blog, and he heard this:

I found a strong echo of our [charter school] model in this passage of the President’s inaugural address:

 “The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works — whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end.”

What this means for charter schools can be found on the new White House web site under Education Agenda. President Obama promises to “double funding for the Federal Charter School Program to support the creation of more successful charter schools,” but warns there will be “a clear process for closing down chronically underperforming charter schools.”

Fair enough.  As on most things, I agree with President Obama (and Nelson Smith, too). But how will the President define “successful charter schools?” and what are the criteria for an “underperforming school?”  

Presently “underperforming schools” become “underperforming schools” when their test scores in math and reading fall short of the prescribed benchmarks called Annual Yearly Progress or AYP. And since nobody wants to bear the mantle of an “underperforming school”, you can be sure we all teach the heck out of math and reading.  President Obama recognizes that schools have narrowed the curriculum in response to these pressures at the expense of science and technology and social studies and the arts.  And recess. He calls it teaching to the test.  I call it teaching to what is tested. Others may call it teach what you better teach if you don’t want lose your charter or be called an underperforming school.will-i-am

Nevertheless, as Will.i.am says “It’s a New Day” and thank God for that.  We have a mandate for change.  And since I don’t mind using test results to determine how effectively schools are serving children and their families, I don’t care whether president Obama changes the whole assessment game or not.  

What I do care to C H A N G E is how we recognize and define successful schools– charter or otherwise. Math and reading results are one indicator, but can we get some love for the other extraordinary things that happen for children at El Milagro?

Like when we …carlos

• introduce our children to the latest technologies…

• or teach them to think…

• or refer them to the eye doctor for properly fitting glasses…

• or teach them proper dental hygiene so their teeth aren’t rotting in their heads…

• or  teach them to sing and draw and recite their poems on a stage…

• or  teach them that their forefathers won congressional medals of honor in foreign wars too…

• or help them preserve and perfect their native language…

• or connect a family to health insurance…

• or help Rafael properly grieve for his relatives who were recent murder victims in Tijuana’s horrific drug wars…

• or help Laura stay grounded even as she  is about to lose her mom to stomach cancer (which is a big deal because her dad passed away two years ago)…

And so forth.  Supporting kids in crisis– isn’t that high performance too?

Just last summer, Nelson Smith and The National Alliance of Charter Schools published a tool they call “Quality Indicators“.  It’s one way to expand the definition of what a successful school is.  So at El Milagro we decided to integrate the general concept into our charter as we get ready to take it to the local governing board for re-authorization in March.   We will be able to describe the goals of our charter in broader terms than just academic achievement– but also longitudinal growth, progress of English Language learners and the sense of engagement for students, teachers and  parents.

                                                             *                *                  *

So when Wordle created their cool tag cloud from some of the major themes and words that were used by President Obama in his Inaugural Address, they were unintentionally shining a bright light on his priorities.  The bigger the word the more often he used it.

 I like that C H A R T E R and  C H I L D R E N are so predominantly positioned on the top of the box, and in the center– and that they are surrounded on all sides by C A R E  and  C O O P E R A T I O N and W O R K and  H O P E.


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Filed under California charter schools, charter schools, El Milagro, President Obama, public education

We Will Arise and Walk Again

mural2I celebrated another birthday this week and I realize with each passing year how much I have learned in my life. Every day, every week, every year.  And the lessons keep coming.  But the ultimate lesson of where we all go from here– no matter how deeply I reflect– I can never quite resolve. I only know that we are here and we are gone.  And that somewhere our spirits and our souls are transformed and we slip quietly out of view of those we leave to the Earth.

In the meantime, we live and we learn.  And we enjoy occasional moments of profound transformation.

flagsThis weekend, we are all on the precipice of such a moment.  One that stirs our history and our hopes. There is an unmistakable spiritual presence emerging even while our nation reels from conditions that might otherwise seem awfully bleak.  In three days, we will arise and walk again.

I am reminded of the dangers of attributing superhuman qualities to one man.  But for nearly a decade Americans as a people have sputtered and flailed and failed mightily to grasp or hold the greatness that we once believed we were pre-ordained to achieve.  Our world is is in turmoil.  The fabric of America, is in tatters.  And we have turned to a person possessed with uncommon wisdom and natural gifts– not the least of which is his deeply inspiring spiritual intelligence.  

daughtersjpgThis week, as he braces for Inauguration Day and the ride of a million lifetimes,  Barack Obama published a letter that he has written to his daughters: “What I Want for You– And Every Child in America”.  In it he says:

“When I was a young man, I thought life was all about me-about how I’d make my way in the world, become successful, and get the things I want. But then the two of you came into my world with all your curiosity and mischief and those smiles that never fail to fill my heart and light up my day. And suddenly, all my big plans for myself didn’t seem so important anymore. I soon found that the greatest joy in my life was the joy I saw in yours. And I realized that my own life wouldn’t count for much unless I was able to ensure that you had every opportunity for happiness and fulfillment in yours. In the end, girls, that’s why I ran for President: because of what I want for you and for every child in this nation.” 

For those of us who have raised our own children and who know what it means to delay our own personal ambitions and dreams so that our babies might realize theirs– it is an extraordinary admission.  

How many parents have watched their infants sleeping and longed to provide the world for them?  We so desperately want to remove the heartaches and failures and disappointments that might discourage them.  We sacrifice to provide for them.  Each generation stretches to the very boundaries of its collective talent  to make the lives of the next generation that much easier, that much more fulfilled.  It is what parents are expected to do.  “Devotion” is listed in the job description.

dad-daughter1So for his part, Barack Obama has merely ascended to the most difficult job on the face of the earth– to become the most powerful living human being– to make the world a better place for the daughters he loves so dearly.  He has risen above paralyzing political divisions for the opportunity to change the course of America.  To become president, he merely had to transcend centuries of racism, intractable prejudice, and a tortured national history of self-hatred that manifests itself in bigotry and intolerance.father-daughter1

Uncommon devotion.

And he writes:

“That was the lesson your grandmother tried to teach me when I was your age, reading me the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence and telling me about the men and women who marched for equality because they believed those words put to paper two centuries ago should mean something.

She helped me understand that America is great not because it is perfect but because it can always be made better-and that the unfinished work of perfecting our union falls to each of us. It’s a charge we pass on to our children, coming closer with each new generation to what we know America should be. 

These are the things I want for you-to grow up in a world with no limits on your dreams and no achievements beyond your reach, and to grow into compassionate, committed women who will help build that world. And I want every child to have the same chances to learn and dream and grow and thrive that you girls have. That’s why I’ve taken our family on this great adventure. 

I hope both of you will take up that work, righting the wrongs that you see and working to give others the chances you’ve had. Not just because you have an obligation to give something back to this country that has given our family so much-although you do have that obligation. But because you have an obligation to yourself. Because it is only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you will realize your true potential.”

For those of us who have devoted our life’s work to the service of children– whose schools reflect our own beliefs in the virtues of justice and equality– the Inauguration of Barack Obama is a moment of blessed redemption.  

I forwarded President Obama’s letter to Keenan and Kira and I am looking forward to discussing it with them.  

“I hope both of you will take up that work, righting the wrongs that you see and working to give others the chances you’ve had .”

I am not usually so reflective on my birthday.  But at this moment, the past and future seem to be aligning.  The lessons of the universe… the mysteries of life.  The devotion of our ancestors… our hopes for our children. Our historical struggle… our resurrection.  

So on we go.  January 20, 2009. We change the world.


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Filed under President Obama, public education


A flurry of blogs—including Scott McLeod’s Dangerously Irrelevant” have invited their readers to write an open letter to President-Elect Obama.  It is a cool idea so I decided to write one.  If you scroll down to the next post you will find it.  But then I saw Larry King interview Maya Angelou about her poem “On The Pulse of Morning” which was written for Bill Clinton on the occasion of his first inauguration.  Dr. Angelou said she has not yet been asked to write an Inaugural Poem for President Obama but said she would write one for him anyway– which is also a cool idea.  So I wrote one of those too. 

This is my Poem on the Inauguration of America. It was written moments after CNN announced Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States. It gives voice— at least for me— to the deep emotions, the catharsis, and the extraordinary pride I feel in him. And in America.  And the very long road we have walked.


“Here on the pulse of this new day, you may have the grace to look up and out and into your sister’s eyes, into your brother’s face, your country and say simply, very simply, with hope, good morning.”

–Maya Angelou “On The Pulse of Morning” 



January 20, 2009
Written for Barack Obama,  the 44th President of the United States
By Kevin W. Riley



I  am.

Hope has, even for America’s moment,
Brought more than this moment of redemption.

Though I am shackled and thrown upon the swollen deck,
Seaborne and riding the stench of slavery to some new world- lost to life.

Hope. Though I am asleep in Lincoln’s apocalypse.
I am Gettysburg and Manassas and Shiloh.
The dead stacked and shoveled into history’s silent pocket.
In the atrocities a war wrought, even the birds were lost for song;
their throats clutched
In witness of humans who could be so calloused and so cruel.
All in the name of Freedom.

I am innocence: Emmit Till and Little Linda Brown
and Addie Mae Collins and her three young friends.

I am the blessed martyrs. I am Medgar Evers.
I trust Malcom X with my fury.
I marched from Selma to a Birmingham Jail.
I ripped away the judge’s hood that silenced Bobby Seale
and enjoined the Freedom Riders to endure the flames at Anniston.
I heard the chilling voice of Bull Connor and the sting of riot dogs.
The fire hose.
I saw school buses ignite Roxbury and trigger decades of white flight.
And still I stand.

I am the preacher-prophet who foretold that we would reside one day
in a promised land.
He must be with us now.
Though the years have kept his visage young…
His eternal voice is crisp as fire
As he sings from the mountain top.
This morning I heard the sky rejoice-
like the deafening wail of 10,000 hurricanes.

I am Lazarus.
I have redeemed the blood of a beloved brother, gone 40 years.
(Bobby’s picture is still among a shrine of holy cards
in a little house in San Antonio
Where Abuelita says her morning rosary
To Cesar Chavez and a wall of popes whose names she cannot pronounce).

I am JFK for whom Ireland still weeps.

I am redemption for centuries of sorrow;
For a word so foul it sticks in civil throats like drying cactus–
Thistle and rust, decapacitating…
A poison elixir that not all our years combined can exorcise.

I am first Hope. Jackie Robinson and Thurgood Mashall.
I am the first black pilot, the first black principal,
the first black business owner, the first pioneer.
I am first to serve, first to play, first in science,
and first to sail deep into space. 
And yet I am last.

I am Hope.
I ride a mighty wave.
I stand on shouldered giants, most for whom history has not reserved a name.
I am beneficiary of the wishes and the words and the blood of legions.

I rise by the toil of Chisholm and Jordon;
on the scaffold stairs built by Jackson and Charles Houston
and Andrew Young.

I am
Hope– tempered, with no guarantee.
But if ever He loved a people
Surely now He has heard our prayers…
Whispered through days and years and generations–
Through all America’s time
To let us be who we must be;
To even once know what it means to be ONE nation.

I am only Hope.
My arms are thin.
I speak as if all of God’s angels have somehow filled my lungs
with righteous air.
I am your mouth. His voice.
Our hands–
That the promise of humankind might at last be realized.

But I cannot be who YOU will not be…

So now my name is nailed above Katrina’s door,
Above the Wall Street debacle and the house of cards.
My name is nailed to Iraq and Jerusalem, to all ancient Persia–
And to the suffering of Darfur.

And as I go, so go a hundred nations.

Freedom shines,
A loud bell tolls the moment.
We are astride a wondrous day.
History will remember us as giants…
Or it will not.

Redemption has a name.
I am Obama. And mine is a holy song.



Filed under charter schools, El Milagro