Category Archives: California charter schools

THROUGH THEIR EYES

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IDEO, the Palo Alto company famous for designing Apple’s first mouse back in the 80’s, has since created user-centered solutions for everything from computer games to ice cream scoopers, defibrillators and shopping carts.  As one of the world’s leading innovators in Human-Centered Design,  they even create strategies to address such social issues as poverty, nutrition, health, water and sanitation, economic empowerment, access to financial services, and gender equity throughout the world.

It should not be surprising that they also have some thoughts about designing our schools from the perspective of the students who attend them every day. Everything from the culture of school environments and education reform initiatives, right down to more user-friendly student desks.

And, of course, Aiden also has some ideas about school designs as he develops his journals in Fighting for Ms. Rios.

Ultimately, Fighting for Ms. Rios is not just about a kid and his teacher.  It’s deeper than that.  It’s a case for intentionally designing student-centered schools around a culture of what the corporate world refers to as “deep customer empathy”.  Authentic relationships.  Mutual respect. Caring. User-centered design!

imagesThe notion of “empathy” is a central tenet of Dev Patnaik’s book called Wired to Care. Patnaik, a renown business strategist, writes about how organizations of all kinds prosper when they tap into a power each of us already has: empathy, the ability to reach outside of ourselves and connect with other people.  He believes that when people inside a company develop a shared sense of what’s going on in the world, they see new opportunities faster than their competitors. They have the courage to take a risk on something new. And they have the gut-level certitude to stick with an idea that doesn’t take off right away.

In Patnaik’s view, people are naturally “wired to care” and many of the world’s best organizations are, too. But they must learn to stop worrying about their own problems and see the world through each other’s eyes.

Ms. Rios had a natural gift for empathizing with her students and Aiden writes about it constantly.  In “THE NINTH JOURNAL: The Last Day” he says:

During that time Ms. Rios found hope and inspiration in her students. She believed in every last one of us from Trinity to Atticus Hinzo to Rafael to Angela to Charlie Flowers and Remy Padilla and Vera Ruiz and Inca and even Lester…and me. And Raymond. Especially Raymond.

Raymond, is a special needs student who was placed in her classroom to test his ability to adapt to every-day school routines.   He struggled… (because he had special needs!)  Ms. Rios’ class would have been the perfect placement– but she was a brand new teacher and too easily influenced by Wanda, the burned-out teacher next door.  As we come to know Ms. Rios from Aiden’s writings– a natural born teacher wired to care– we realize that giving up so quickly on Raymond was very much out of character for her:

In his few short weeks with Ms. Rios, he had taught her more about teaching than any university or workshop or conference or colleague ever could.  She knew in her bones that she had given up on Raymond far too soon and she vowed to never let that happen again.  She regretted listening to Wanda.  She should have been Raymond’s advocate.

From that day forward, Ms. Rios never quit believing in her students. No matter what.  She remained resilient. (From “Lambs”)

It is possible (and critical) to design and manage schools–including the systems, services, relationships and programs– from the student out… instead of the outside in.  But to do so, we truly have to see the world through our students’ eyes.  That’s really what “deep customer empathy” is all about– and why, by the end of her first year, we come to regard Ms. Rios as such an extraordinary teacher.  And why Aiden becomes the voice of children in schools everywhere.

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Filed under California charter schools, charter schools, children at risk, El Milagro, empathy, Fighting for Ms. Rios, gifted children, Human-Centered Design, innovation and change, public education, resiliency, school reform, spiritual intelligence, teaching, user-centered design

THE MILAGRO TRILOGY

For a while I was blogging all the time. Right here.  Some really, really good stuff.  I cranked out blog post after blog post– at least once a week– usually on Saturday mornings.  I would consistently check my stats and it looked like, depending on what I wrote, I’d have quite a few people dropping in.  Then something happened.  I got so tied up in writing and editing my second book, I couldn’t pour any more creative energy into sustaining my blog.  So I didn’t.

Now “Fighting for Ms. Rios” is complete and soon to be released.  It is a story told by a highly gifted fourth grader named Aiden who is not only an extraordinary young writer, but he is amazingly perceptive about adults and their schools. And he can fight.  Aiden writes a series of nine journals over the course of the school year, chronicling his experiences with his friends and with his remarkable first year teacher– Ms. Rios.

I had lots of people edit my book and at one point even had it placed with a publisher called Park East Press.  But I realized publishing can be a sleazy business if you get caught up with the wrong folks– and Park East Press turned out to be the wrong folks.  So I wrestled my manuscript back from them and decided instead to join the hundreds of other entrepreneurial writers and inventors and musicians and filmmakers who value their voice… and I placed my book project on Kickstarter.  Check it out.  There is even a book trailer there.

In the meantime… “Fighting for Ms. Rios” will be released on bookshelves and Kindles in September.  But that’s not all.  I’ve nearly finished a sequel called “Broken in the Middle,” where our gifted little writer, Aiden, is now in 7th grade and struggling to rise above the worst adversity that a kid will ever face.  The theme of the book is resiliency, and it is a hopeful story.

And of course there is a sequel to the sequel.  In “Catching In A Crowd” Aiden is a senior who attends a very unusual charter high school.  He is a decorated high school athlete, but the real offers are coming in from schools that specialize in creative writing.   In the final book of what has now become the Milagro Trilogy, Aiden’s journey through the K-12 system is complete.

So that’s where I’ve been.  Writing the Milagro Trilogy instead of blog posts.  But I intend to resurrect my blog, if for no other reason than to update you on the progress of the Trilogy and Aiden’s latests exploits.

Let me know what you think.

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Filed under California charter schools, charter schools, El Milagro, gifted children, innovation and change, public education, resiliency, teaching

THE SUMMER TRIANGLE

Our stars mock us.  I realized that this morning when I read about the Summer Triangle which will appear tonight in the eastern sky just after dark.

There are three stars in the Summer Triangle and while they appear to look the same… they are not even in the same constellation.  Altair is 17 light years away.   That means, in the parlance of astronomers, that the photons of light that strike our eyes tonight actually left their source back in 1994.  Seven years before No Child Left Behind launched our present preoccupation with accountability (and the madness of interminable testing)… Altair issued light.

Vega is some 150 trillion miles away and it’s light left 25 years ago—just after A Nation at Risk called out our schools for their extraordinary mediocrity.  It is also the year that President Reagan decided that he would honor teachers by sending one up on the space shuttle.  We all regretted that decision:

“…they slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God”

On the final vertex of the Summer Triangle sits Deneb.  At a distance of 9,000 trillion miles, we are seeing light that has actually been traveling through space since the 6th century.  And yet when we look at Deneb, the untrained eye will merely see a twinkle… and wish upon a star.

So here’s the point.

For decades we have been in search of stars.   We call them “exemplary” schools, “break-the-mold” schools, “distinguished” schools, “blue ribbon” schools, “award wining” schools.  We mine them for their essence and too often discover one disappointing commonality:  their commonality.

I wonder which “stars” you follow.  I wonder whose light you take your inspiration from.  I wonder why there are so many stars flickering and fading in the cosmic panorama of public education— like heavenly bodies whose light is owed to the by-gone genius of some other era.  Like 1994.  Or 1986.  Or 1886.  Or the 6th century.

Stars are not as they appear.  They are inspired by old and even ancient energy.  They are romanticized and gazed upon and dreamers set their sails by them.  But while they are universally regarded as a metaphor for excellence; for champions and models and promising performers and the best of the best– they are quite literally, a portal to our past.

My charter school is in perpetual orbit in search of new and different results.  There are at least three constants:  our kids keep coming, every one is unique and different, and we can’t live on your star.  We survive on our wits and creativity and courage to change.  On leaning forward.

In “The Myths of Innovation”, Scott Berkun writes  “By idolizing those whom we honor we do a disservice both to them and to ourselves… we fail to recognize that we could go and do likewise.”

Like right now. In the next few stress free weeks– in the shower or kayaking or stargazing on a summer break—fresh ideas will incubate.  We will find our own inspiration.  Our own solutions.

So tonight I am going out to look for the Summer Triangle just because I talked about it here.  (Without my Pocket Universe Ap I won’t be able to tell Deneb from Vega and all their light will look the same.)  I’ll admire its symmetry, but not its wisdom.  The rest is up to me.

“It is an achievement to find a great idea,” writes Berkun.  “But it is a greater one to successfully use it to improve the world.”

(Cross Posted on Leadertalk)

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SAVING SIR KEN

Lately I have been thinking about Spielberg’s movie “Saving Private Ryan”.  Not because we just celebrated Veteran’s Day or because I am particularly inspired by war movies, but because I have been researching models for effective teacher leadership.  And not-so effective models, too.  And because, for a moment there, we lost sight of our mission, just like Captain Miller’s troops.

It happened yesterday when my staff watched Sir Ken Robinson’s video clip on the relative zaniness of the American public education system. We all seem to share a common loathing for standardized tests and what they do to our teaching.  The absence of science and physical education and critical thinking and poetry and joy is conspicuous in our efforts to meet this year’s version of the AYP.  There is deep stress in that.

Moreover, we are healing from a self inflicted (though well-intentioned) wound since we expanded from seven multi-age classrooms to 21 in one year.  Our teachers are struggling.  Searching for support.  Venting. Identifying their frustrations and cursing our commitment to innovation.  And cursing me for promoting the idea in the first place.  Fair enough.

But in the emotions of the moment during our weekly staff meeting when all of our teachers’ patience was at the boiling point, we all forgot that our school is driven by a mission.  Eleven years ago we vowed to get 90% of our students to grade level. At the time, only 19% were there.  That was considered par for our demographics- a low income school 7 miles from the border to Tijuana. But we knew that our students and families and teachers were better than that.  We knew our students had it in them.  We knew our kids would be saddled by low expectations for the rest of their lives unless we changed the culture of achievement at our school and throughout our community.  And so we did.  And now 70% are proficient…and climbing.

Our mission is decent and worthy.  We are not inspired by NCLB or the superintendent or the fear of being labeled an underperforming school.  We are driven, purely, by the boundless potential of our students.

So we promote authentic teacher leadership and democratic models of decision making because we believe that that is the pathway to achieving our goals.  It is the way in which we will get that final 20% proficient.  There is no other roadmap.  No one person has the “right answer’ so we count on all of our teachers to share their expertise for the good of the whole.  It just seems like lately we have gotten distracted by the challenges of implementing  large scale change and we have lost our acuity for identifying the alternative tactics and strategies necessary to move forward.  It is killing morale.  It is testing our resolve.

In the end I am sure Sir Ken Robinson is right and we are all complicit in the destruction of America’s system of public education because we defer to the standardized test.  But that is the game we are in.  That’s the deal. Even when the troops are restless. Sometimes leadership is pointing the compass back to “true north” and holding on to the rudder for all you are worth.

There is a scene in “Saving Private Ryan where Captain Miller’s battalion disintegrates into a dangerous rabble of griping hot heads armed to the teeth and threatening to shoot each other. They had had enough of ‘the mission’.  But he stood his ground in the midst of the chaos. He was calm and decisive.  And for the sake of dramatic effect and unity of purpose, he reminded them all of their lives back home.  Earlier, they had placed bets on what their captain did for a living.  Remember his answer?

He was a high school history teacher.  Mission-driven. A model of teacher leadership.

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BLAZED

Delaware and Tennessee were evidently the big winners in the Race to the Top dough.  Delaware, which was ranked No. 1 on the competition’s 500-point grading scale, will win about $100 million, while Tennessee, which came in second, will get something like $500 million.  That’s cool for them.  But I read their plans.  I studied the language.  They talk about:

Expectations, accountability, student achievement, test results, teacher evaluation, teacher quality, academic standards, standardized testing, labor and management and consensus and shared decision making…

Then I wondered…

Wasn’t  Race to the Top money awarded  to encourage school reform?  Real Innovation?  A billion dollars worth of fresh thinking?  Transformation? Transcendent change?

Isn’t it true that if you keep doing the same things over and over again… even if you call it something new… you’ll get the same results?

Tennessee’s Education commissioner, Timothy Webb said:  “We believe that if you take all of the technology out of the classroom, … but you leave the highly effective teacher interacting with students, the students will grow.  All those other things are great to have, but we know without a shadow of a doubt that we have to invest in great teachers.”

I get his point and they are not proposing to remove technology from their classrooms ( at least, I don’t think)… but the premise here is that teachers alone are enough to create extraordinary schools.  We know you can’t have extraordinary schools without them.  But what about a “highly effective teacher interacting with students” and using the tools that our students will actually need when they finally escape the gravitational pull of a K-12 public education system and go into the world to invent a new future?

Or at least try to keep up with the one we have.

Arne Duncan, our Secretary of Education said when awarding Tennessee and Delaware the RTTT  prize money:  “We now have two states that will blaze the path for the future of education reform.”  And I hope they do.

But if you are going to”blaze” a new path you have to first get off of the old path.

For less than the $500 million dollars that President Obama invests in racing to the top in Tennessee… there are schools that will be blazing!

El Milagro.

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Filed under California charter schools, charter schools, El Milagro, innovation and change, President Obama, public education, school reform, standardized testing, technology in schools

E-BAY’S LEGACY, AN ACT OF WAR

Meg Whitman once ran E-bay and now she is running for Governor of California. Her platform: she plans on creating jobs, cutting spending and fixing the education system.

Her fix for the education system?  More testing, more “accountability”, and converting failing schools into charter schools. E-bay must have gotten her best creative years.

I wonder, by the way,  what happens to failing charter schools on the Meg Whitman plan.  I wonder what she thinks charter schools actually are.  I wonder why every candidate running for public office wants to “fix” public schools… and if they can really see what is broken.

She says:

For years, California politicians have talked about building better schools. Few improvements have come despite billions of additional spending. Enough talk, we need action. We will lead the charge to put more control in the hands of local educators and parents.  We will put more dollars directly into the classroom instead of costly bureaucrats. If a school fails to improve after three years, under my plan it will automatically convert to a charter school. It’s time California schools make the grade. The future of our state depends on it.

Remember when Reagan was President and his education commission unleashed “A Nation At Risk?” They were convinced the education system was broken too. They said:

“Our Nation is at risk . . . . The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people . . . . If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war . . . . We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament . . . .”

An act of war?

But what if this notion of failing public schools is a myth?  a complete fabrication?   A distraction from the real root cause of America’s great divide?

If a house burns to the ground, do we blame the architect for the building materials used to construct the house?  Or do we recognize that the real root cause of the destruction… is fire!

If Meg Whitman wants to “fix” California’s schools, she needs to first “fix” the government and then “fix” the economy.  There is a reason why schools in low income areas are consistently outperformed by schools in high income areas: children in low income areas tend to be less ready for school, have less access to health care, be more susceptible to childhood obesity and type II diabetes, enjoy less parent support, have less learning resources and less access to technology.  For starters.  And they have no voice.

And while politicians like to call those ” excuses”… I wonder what would happen if the severe gap in economic prosperity was diminished.  What if all kids enjoyed the exact same benefits and life conditions whether they lived in Compton or Malibu?  What would our education system  look like then?

Politicians can’t fix schools– not with all of the standardized testing schemes in the world. Especially if they aren’t broken.  And there are plenty that aren’t broken.  Yet.

But those same politicians do have an opportunity to significantly improve the quality of life for children.

To tell you the truth, I don’t think Meg Whitman plans on doing that as Governor of California.  I don’t think her fellow politicians in Washington DC plan on improving the quality of life for children either.  Even though my students would benefit mightily from having access to health care, our senators and congressmen can’t seem to get that done.  They are dysfunctional.  They appear to be paralyzed by their own political systems and structures and culture.  They are influenced and driven by a collective greed that blinds them to their opportunity to rescue America’s children… if not their schools.

Bill Moyers wrote:

No wonder people have lost faith in politicians, parties and in our leadership. The power of money drives cynicism deep into the heart of every level of government. Everything, and everyone, comes with a price tag attached: from a seat at the table in the White House to a seat in Congress, to the fate of health care reform, our environment, and efforts to restrain Wall Street’s greed and prevent another financial catastrophe.

The house is burning and the people positioned to extinguish the flames, are instead blaming the builders.  I propose we re-think the the myth:

“If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre governmental performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”

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Filed under California budget, California charter schools, childhood obesity, children at risk, health care, public education, school reform

LIVING STRONG

It seems like we are swimming in data.

The sun is shining and the lifeguard tower is buzzing with activity.  (I wonder sometimes if they are really keeping their eyes on the water.) I wonder who is up there at all. No matter, we have our fins… and we are swimming in a sea of data.

We swim with the tide and sometimes we push against it.  But one thing for certain when you are swimming in data:  there is no shortage of information.  And no shortage of assessments that produce the data.  It’s like an underwater upwell pouring volumes of new trends into the channel.  Creating more waves.  Faster currents.  A nuanced flow.  And of course, the occasional rip tide that threatens to pull you out beyond the comfortable landforms that tether us all to the beach; like this past week, when a rogue wave washed across and knocked us off our feet… just as we were looking comfortably in another direction.

New data.

California released the results of the 2009 Physical Fitness Tests that were administered  last Spring to all of our 5th  and 7th graders. In a nutshell… our kids tanked!  We were in the bottom 10 in a district of 44 schools.  Bottom 10 because only 14% of our 5th graders met the physical fitness benchmarks for all 6 (out of 6) exercises.  7th grade was not much stronger: 17% met all 6 benchmarks.

They were not asked to swim across the English Channel or benchpress their teacher’s Prius.  They were not required to compete in the Rock and Roll Marathon. They simply had to meet the benchmarks on a prescribed set of exercises:

Sit-ups

Push-ups

Sit and reach

Torso Extension

Interval Run (Aerobic)

Body Mass Index

14% were able to do it.  The very best school in the district managed to have 50% of their students meet the benchmarks.  Statewide… it was only 34%.

So during our staff meeting last Friday we looked at the data as if it were accurate and reflective of our students’ state of fitness.  We identified the tidal trends; made no excuses.  We asked what is up.

“What is up?  How is it that we are a charter school, with all the resources we need to serve our kids–  a track,  a fitness course, a PE program, competitive teams, and a director with a degree in Physical Education… and this is the result?  What is up?!”

And we brainstormed the root causes just like we dig deep into the data on reading and writing and algebra and math and science and social studies.  We looked at the trends.  We looked at our 5th graders’ relative strength (aerobic) and weakness (flexibility!) and how it seemed to shift by 7th grade where their strength was sit-ups and weakness was the torso extension (weakness in the lower back  is a bad harbinger for high school athletics!)

We concluded that these results stemmed from at least three conditions:

• First, we did not do a very good job of preparing our students (or teachers… or parents) for the 2009 Physical Fitness Test.  It twas an afterthought conducted hastily in the Spring while everyone had their eye on the California Standards Test.

• Second, our students are not getting enough EXERCISE.

Many are sedentary couch potatoes who would rather play video games or watch television than go outside and exercise.  Sometimes overprotective parents encourage them to stay indoors.  And in some neighborhoods you can hardly blame them. Our school is bordered by trolly tracks a freeway and surface streets that race and crowd like freeways.  There are shady motels, apartment complexes with high turnover and strange faces, sex offenders, street gangs, graffiti artists, and a lot of unsupervised kids of all ages.  And there are limited places to exercise.

• Third, our students, in general, do not have healthy DIETS. They eat bags of red hot cheetos and takis the size of pillows.  They drink Red Bull and sugary juice mixes and 64 ounce caffeinated sodas– they consume endless fast food and junk food offered in over-sized portions.

And in a community bearing now the full brunt of the nation’s sagging economy–  the unemployment, the lack of health care, the work-three-jobs, the all nighters and grave yard shifts, the eat-to-survive and find-whatever-comfort-food-you-can— our children pay.

According to the National Association of Children’s Hospitals and Related Institutions (NACHRI):

“This is the first generation of children that will be sicker, and die younger, than their parents.”

At El Milagro, this got our attention. So we found some more data:

• 16 percent of children (over 9 million) 6-19 years old are overweight or obese — a number that has tripled since 1980.

• In addition to the 16 percent of children and teens ages 6 to 19 who were overweight in 1999-2002, another 15 percent were considered at risk of becoming overweight.

• Overweight adolescents have a 70 percent chance of becoming overweight or obese adults.

• Obesity-associated annual hospital costs for children and youth more than tripled over two decades, rising from $35 million in 1979-1981 to $127 million in 1997-1999.

• Nearly one-third of U.S. Children aged 4 to 19 eat fast food every day, resulting in approximately six extra pounds per year, per child. Fast food consumption has increased fivefold among children since 1970.

• Approximately 60 percent of obese children aged 5 to 10 years had at least one cardiovascular disease risk factor, such as elevated total cholesterol, triglycerides, insulin or blood pressure, and 25 percent had two or more risk factors.

• For children born in the United States in 2000, the lifetime risk of being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes at some point in their lives is estimated to be about 30 percent for boys and 40 percent for girls.

• According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Mexican-American children ages 6-11 were more likely to be overweight (22 percent) than non-Hispanic black children (20 percent) and non-Hispanic white children (14 percent).

• There are more than 8 million uninsured children in the United States.

Sometimes there are treasures that wash ashore from that sea of data.  There is an idea or a thought or a new direction or inspiration or a movement or even the seeds of a revolution.  Like this:

We realized our kids weren’t physically fit and that their lack of fitness was a result of poor NUTRITION and a lack of EXERCISE. And that, like many of the circumstances of their lives, much of it is environmental.  It is a socio-economic phenomenon.   It is for many parents a lack of knowledge, or time, or resources, or energy to encourage a healthier pattern.

And we haven’t helped. So starting in January we are no longer allowing bags of chips and sugary drinks and junk food snacks on our campus.  We are taking the 160-calorie sport drinks out of the vending machines and replacing them with bottled water.  We are prohibiting classroom parties that feature stacks of Von’s cupcakes and dixie cups filled with Mountain Dew.

Healthy snacks only. 100% frozen juice bars instead of popsicle rewards.

We will teach our students how to read nutrition labels.  We will give them the skills to defend themselves against the conspiracy of junk food marketers that intentionally manipulate ingredients– more fat, more sugar, more salt, bigger portions– to lure them in.

And we will inspire our students to exercise.  We will challenge them to be active at least :60 minutes a day.  Academic progress is in large part a function of wellness.  Kids who are fit and healthy and well nourished perform better than sedentary children whose eating habits are haphazard.

That’s what we learned this week from the sea of data.  It was a seminal moment.  A gift to our students that will no doubt take them some time to appreciate. To live healthy.

To Live Strong!

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Filed under California charter schools, childhood obesity, children at risk, El Milagro, physical fitness, public education