Category Archives: empathy

Power and Privilege and the Boiling Frog

“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.”–A Nation at Risk, 1983

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All schools have a choice. My schools have a choice. Bayfront Charter High School and Mueller are at a familiar crossroads, and the world is not waiting. On January 20, Trump will begin to govern as he promised and we can prepare our students to compete in that game or we can soldier on—business as usual.

And as usual, we ain’t taking that chance.

Inside my building are Latinos, immigrants, girls, African Americans, LGBT kids, Moslems, Jews and children of democrats. At least that describes 99% of them. And of those, 85% qualify for the free federal lunch program on the basis of their parents’ income. They are–if we falter– the next generation’s working poor. And they are all in our new government’s crosshairs to either deport or demoralize.

America’s educational system has experienced multiple defining moments during which sweeping social or political events have led to ideological and transformational change in the direction of our schools.

Think US History 101:

In the earliest days of our country’s founding, there was a clear religious motive behind teaching kids to read. As waves of Christians colonized the new world, they brought their Bibles and handed down their favorite verses to children who were expected to spread the good news. After the Revolutionary War and the subsequent ratification of the US Constitution, our Founders banked on an “informed citizenry” to nurture and grow the new experiment in democratic governance .

Fast forward 100 years and the industrial revolution churned kids out of farms and prairie schools and into factories that prepared kids for the factories.

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Then in 1958, the Russians launched a rocket into space, and the subsequent race to the heavens was on. Sputnik scared the crap out of America’s post-WWII “Greatest Generation” who realized in the span of one evening newscast—that their kids had somehow been passed up in math and science. So the education pendulum swung to math and science with a vengeance—and schoolkids paid.

Then there was the Civil Rights era. The malaise of the 70’s. Forced desegregation and bussing and waves of white flight to suburbs and private schools. And education was the medium for maintaining the sociocultural and economic advantage that was a perceived birthright of white families.
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The ominous warning of “A Nation at Risk” in 1983 unleashed the pendulum again. Reagan’s ‘rising tide of mediocrity’.

Then the Apple IIe drove a whole generation of post-Viet Nam War era teachers to ask “what am I supposed to do with an Apple IIe?” And they used them as door stops on the theory that this too shall pass.

By the early 2000’s Bush had appropriated no child left behind from the Children Defense Fund and we were awash in still another pet project of Republicanism: “back to basics” and the core belief that what we really need to do in schools is just test the hell out of kids and fire the teachers and the schools that can’t produce evidence of extraordinary achievement.

Public education. America’s whipping boy. Always something.

So now what?

George Bush’s “soft bigotry of low expectations” has given way to trump’s straight up, bold-face racism. And our students have heard every word.

ap_77642174753What is the purpose of schooling in a trumpian culture where bluster and lies and bullying and misogyny are rewarded with keys to the White House; when shadowy election schemes and gerrymandering and voter suppression and an archaic electoral “college” are intentionally designed to undermine democracy; when in 2016 it is harder for citizens to cast their ballot then it was in the era of poll taxes and literacy requirements; when it is impossible for citizens to believe that their vote is even really counted; when half our nation considers it anarchy to remind ourselves that black lives matter?

unknownRemember the parable of the boiling frog:

If you place a frog in a pan of hot water– he’ll jump right out. But if you place that same  frog in a pan of cold water, then bring it gradually to a boil—he will be oblivious to the changing temperature. Pretty soon it’s too freaken hot to jump!

Our schools move too often like the boiling frog. They wait until it is too late to jump, and for our children, even generations at a time, the results are fatal.

One thing this past election has taught us is that our students need the skills to navigate a massive sea of propaganda and misinformation that seems to routinely persuade the adults to vote against their own best interests. They need a discerning eye that separates entertainment from “the truth”; that rejects Facebook’s brand of political discourse and revives the tradition of deep critical thinking and informed debate.

They need to compete in a workforce that demands higher levels of thinking, innovation, and entrepreneurialism.

They will need to find their generation’s “true North”. And then their voice. And then a spirit of activism which is in their DNA: empathy, vigilance, authentic patriotism, and advocacy for others.

Our kids will need the armor of resiliency– in the face of an apparent national sentiment that their success, their future…their very lives may not matter at all.

So in our school at least, at Bayfront Charter high School, EVERY student will be…

  • Ready for college whether they go there or not; and they will be
  • Equipped with the real 21st Century skills: including the ability to think, create, communicate and play nice with others; and they will be
  • Masters of technologies that are befitting of digital natives; and
  • Keen and curious observers of their community– with a depth of civic literacy and   global awareness; and finally, they will be
  • Beneficiaries of learning that is confined by neither time nor space.

In defiance of who this president promises to be, we will be proactive. The water’s on the boil… but our children rise.

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Filed under 21st Century Skills, California budget, charter schools, college, El Milagro, empathy, immigration, innovation and change, ISTE Standards, public education, resiliency, school reform, standardized testing, technology in schools, the Dream Act, Trump, Uncategorized

EL MILAGRO GROWS

images-1Sometimes we have an idea… and we search for a pathway to bring  that idea to fruition. And sometimes we don’t.  And sometimes our ideas just roll off the edge of the keyboard like once-familiar coins that have long since lost their shine.

So that drive along Bay Blvd. last October was not one conducted with any great promise.  There was no urgency to find this building– dropped so neatly by the side of the road.  There was no expectation.  I was just driving– and sometimes that’s all it takes.

I wonder if the universe reached into the driver side window and grabbed the wheel and pulled me to the curb.  Or whether it was the building itself.  Or the magnetic force of ideas stacked for years and waiting to take wing.  Seabirds…pinned to the wind and pushed as if flying sideways would always be their lot.

But then in instant those ideas are all set free… because that is what we live for.

So I was in the moment and Bayfront Charter High School was born. By providence.

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United States University is a half mile away from El Milagro.  It is a newly renovated 30,000 square foot building with 18 colorful classrooms, and meeting spaces.  They are a small private university that caters to working adults.  75% of their students are on-line and the rest come at night.  They could have leased a double-wide storefront in the strip mall; built a one room virtual schoolhouse sandwiched between 7-11 and the beauty supplies.

But they didn’t. They rolled the dice on a business model built for agility and open to change. And that decision contributed to Bayfront Charter High School, too.

So there it sits.  A gorgeous building with exquisite functionality– architecture in search of its own meaning along an undeveloped bay front– and instantly, it became the face of a dream that had been incubating for years.

In 2007 we launched our middle school called  Mueller Charter Leadership Academy (MCLA) because it broke our hearts to graduate six graders and send them off to a two-year under-performing school that was public education’s answer to purgatory.  The traditional middle school is that two year wasteland that promises neither rigor nor relationships.  So we built our own bridge and by-passed it all together.

Then we started to take a closer look at the comprehensive high schools with nearly 3,000 students.  In those schools kids have to compete for every inch of support. They compete for attention, for opportunities, for services, for lunch, for access. They compete to get into the freaken rest rooms.

images-2Maria went to one of those neighborhood high schools and was told by a counselor that she needed to go to the community college because her grades weren’t good enough for a four year university.  She disagreed and today she is a sophomore at USC. Aldo was the class valedictorian last year but they decided not to let him deliver the valedictorian speech because it didn’t conform to their expectations.  He’s at Dartmouth.  Jose’s parents called multiple times to speak to a counselor and were consistently instructed to leave a voicemail message.  They never called back.  Alejandra wanted help in her math class– but the tutoring times she was given by her teacher were actually the teacher’s lunch time.  And he ate lunch in the faculty lounge.

We decided that if these high schools aren’t going to teach the students that we send them– if they are not going to inspire and lead and love and counsel and advocate and push and support and celebrate the children we have invested nine years in– we will take them all back.  And we will do it ourselves.

But this building had to fall out of the sky on that October morning in order for us to do that.  And then other stuff had to fall out too.  And so it did.  And now its March and we are on schedule to open the doors in July to our first 150 freshmen.  The Class of 2018.

El Milagro grows. Bayfront Charter High School.

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Filed under California charter schools, charter schools, college, El Milagro, empathy, Fighting for Ms. Rios, innovation and change, public education, school reform

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