Tag Archives: El Milagro

LEADERSHIP

 

IMG_8638I’m honored that the Association of California Schools Association (ACSA) positioned my article right up front in their September-October issue of Leadership Magazine!  We’ve done some good work at Bayfront and Mueller. Much more to do.  We are El Milagro.

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The article is here:

How Children Led One School’s Cultural Evolution

 

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Filed under California charter schools, charter schools, college, El Milagro, innovation and change, public education, resiliency

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

Learning From Lucero: Another Face of the Dream Act

249026_166056856898935_354667876_nIn thirty-some years as an educator, I have never seen a child quite like Lucero Chavez.  My first recollection of her is not just her dark eyes, wide open and ready to learn.  Not just her extraordinary drive– that silent motor that hummed somewhere from deep inside her.  Not just her willingness to push mountains of assignments and projects and papers and essays and school tasks faster than her teachers could assign them. Not just her manners, though she has those in abundance. Not just her excellence.

Instead, my first recollection of Lucero Chavez is of her indescribable grace. I clearly remember, mostly as she got older, that she was a presence, in any room or gathering.  A very quiet presence. Even mysterious.

At Mueller Charter School, we have had thousands of children blessed with many different gifts and talents– some discovered but most still incubating.  The longer they are with us on their journey from kindergarten through middle school, the more we become aware of them: kids that are funny, or athletic, or bright, or troubled, or loud, or musical, or demanding, or engaging. Leaders, followers, drivers, entertainers, statesmen.  Individually, they emerge from their self-imposed shadows on the strength of those unique qualities.  Indeed, the great joy of teaching is watching a young person begin to flower and evolve.  And we have had so many students who were blessed in so many different ways.

But none of those were the gift that set Lucero apart.

It was her grace; an almost-haunting presence that was part intellectual, part spiritual.  Inside any classroom, and in the hundreds of weekly assemblies in which Lucero participated over the years– even gatherings outdoors– I can still see her.  Always as close to the front as she could get, always sitting up straight—not for the sake of perfect posture—but so that she could more efficiently absorb every word that was spoken. No matter how crowded, no matter the climate of the room–wherever you stood or walked or paced, if you were speaking– her eyes were riveted.  Eerily attentive.  As if she were dependent on every syllable and teaching for her very breath—no matter how nonsensical, or vapid, or routine, or insignificant.  As if you and Lucero Chavez, were the only two people in the room.

Lucero Chavez has an extraordinary desire to learn from people and places and events around her.  Her thirst for learning is both palpable and insatiable.

It would be so easy to mistake her devotion to learning as simple compliance, or a young girl’s blind obedience to authority.  But from the moment Lucero Chavez first realized that she had a power within her to literally change the world—somewhere back in her first years at Mueller Charter School—she has been on her own remarkable journey.

In her junior year of high school, while the ever-shifting economy was grinding down so many families across America, it was grinding down Lucero’s family too.  Soon they lost their home and a place in the market.  All the while, in tragic and silent dignity, she endured.  Endured the ambiguity that poverty creates—the uncertainty of the train derailed.  Endured her parents’ pain and the loss of her room and her kitchen table and the hallway lined with her honor student certificates and photos dancing in the ballet folklorico.

But she embraced homelessness with the same dignity and attentiveness that she embraced all her other learning experiences.  She sat up straight, her dark eyes wide open and fixed on going forward, and she continued her journey.

UnknownBy midway through her senior year, she had been accepted to every college and university to which she applied.  Her first choice was Dartmouth.  And because her family was still reeling from homelessness, she would need financial assistance to go so far away.    So like thousands of other high school seniors, she began the process of applying for financial assistance. And in piecing together her life history in response to the many prying questions written to ascertain whether Lucero Chavez was diligent and deserving enough to pursue her dream of attending such a prestigious Ivy League college – she discovered something about herself she never knew.  Something her parents had never told her.  Something potentially more debilitating to a kid than sudden homelessness. Something that in the present light of divisive national politics and racism—would destroy a weaker person and all her dreams.

Lucero discovered she was not an American citizen.

She had been brought to the United States illegally as an infant.  Brought by parents who could look beyond the border walls and see Unknown-1the lights of America and know that that is where they wanted to raise their little girl.  And so they came.  Like your forbearers and mine.  Not for their own gain, but for Lucero.

And she has consistently rewarded her parents and family and teachers and friends– giving back to them through her remarkable academic and personal excellence.

In June of 2013, Lucero Chavez represented the 700 graduating seniors of Hilltop High School as their class valedictorian, and delivered her message of resilience to the world.

It was extraordinary in what she didn’t say.  She didn’t describe her struggles through poverty.  She never once mentioned her acceptance letter from Dartmouth or boast about her extraordinary academic achievements in multiple languages.  She didn’t mention that she opted to attend University of San Diego– partly out of fear that, as a result of her now-public dilemma,  her parents could be deported.  She didn’t rail on our policy makers for their inability to deliver a definitive message or compassionate safeguards through the so-called Dream Act.

Instead, she delivered a hopeful and familiar message that spoke for the common and routine experience of every high school kid in the room: the insecurities of adolescence, the joy of Friday night football and prom, the relative accomplishments of student leadership groups, and of course, the relationships.

Grace.

Beyond that, for Lucero Chavez at least, the future is less certain.

I sat at the edge of my chair and listened.  I hung on every word.  And as she spoke, I could not take my eyes her.  Could not fight back the tears of pride and regret that I was not more of a light for her– this extraordinary young woman grown before our very eyes.

Twelve years ago I wrote the vision statement that defines our school today: “Our Children Will Change the World.”  It was not meant to be a just another cheesy slogan with which to decorate school stationary.  It is our collective vision.  It means that these children– mostly Latino, mostly from high poverty homes where parents sacrificed everything for the education that they never had—these children who are easy to ignore and discount and write off and deport—will have the capacity and opportunity to literally change our world for the better if we position them to do so.  If we provide them with the caring and support.  If we maintain high expectations.  If we provide them with opportunities to fully develop their gifts and their voice.

imageIn the weeks leading up to her Valedictorian speech, Lucero was beset with media outlets requesting interviews and longing to tell her story.  Even CNN.  She is the face of homelessness.  The face of an immigration policy in desperate need of a champion.  And ironically, the face of American excellence.  She is single-handedly changing the world.

And now, after thirty some years in education, and tens of thousands of students– most now grown to adults—my own personal mission is fulfilled.  By none, more remarkable, more courageous, more resilient, more blessed… than Lucero Chavez.

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Filed under bilingual education, California charter schools, children at risk, El Milagro, Fighting for Ms. Rios, gifted children, immigration, President Obama, public education, resiliency, spiritual intelligence, the Dream Act

PILOT OFF THE LOW TRACK


imagesToday I watched our 6th graders participate in the statewide pilot of the new Smarter Balanced test. Fortunately it didn’t count.  It was a pilot.  The results will not show up on a letter home from the state superintendent of instruction.  They will not be in the local newspaper.  They will not be shoved like ill-fitting shoes into a clumsy calibration of school improvement or the relative deficits of assorted critical subgroups. They are neither summative nor formative.

There will be no rallies or celebrations or incantations to orchestrate.

They walked into the computer lab wholly unprepared and unfazed.

I observed our students closely because state and national assessments of academic proficiency should not be a mystery.  If we want to measure the degree to which children have mastered common core state standards, they shouldn’t get tripped up by idiosyncrasies of the testing instrument.

And that’s why we volunteered to pilot the test.  And I’m glad we did.

We’ve been taking  the computer-based MAPS test three times a year since 2006, and kids’ familiarity with the laboratory atmosphere  was evident: the ubiquitous adult proctors roaming the room, the sparsely decorated walls, the cramped workspace.  The sterility.  The humming AC.  The numbing silence.

I watched as our students struggled against the adaptive technology.  They managed their personalized 10-digit student id’s and they logged on.  They battled through computer glitches, error messages, and inexplicable re-sets that bounced them off the test network altogether.

But that was only the beginning.  Once underway, it became immediately evident that our students are woefully un-prepared for the Common Core.

The Smarter Balanced math exam is a one of the feature products known as “next generation assessments.”  While there are a handful of multiple choice questions, the bulk of the test demands critical thinking, adaptability, persistence, authentic problem solving and a cross-curricular knowledge base. They are the 21st Century skills and we’re just not good at invoking those.

images-1Our students have gotten comfortable with selecting their answer from four possible options staring back at them from a scantron sheet. The answer was always there.  They didn’t have to calculate anything. They could guess.  And better yet, they could race through a test filling in bubbles with reasonable assurance that, in the end, their answer sheet would look like everybody else’s. Just complete the page and the stress provoking  irritant will go away.

Actually the Smarter Balanced pilot test made me realize just how destructive our current accountability system called No Child Left Behind has really been.  For the past twelve years we’ve been required by state and federal laws to focus on basic skills at the expense of creative and critical thinking.  There is a gap– (more like a chasm)– across socioeconomic levels of neighborhoods.  But it’s not just an achievement gap.  It’s also a gap in what is taught and what is learned; the scope of the curriculum offered.  For schools that are compelled to squeeze every API point as if blood from  a turnip, the 21st Century skills are a luxury item.  Test prep and remediation and interventions crowd out creative writing and project based learning.

High achieving schools, on the other hand, in predominantly affluent and white neighborhoods, have continued to provide advanced students with a comprehensive curriculum; one that challenges students to think and innovate and apply their skills to authentic tasks.

Which group of students is best equipped for the most ambitious college and career pathways?

We have the results we designed for.  We’ve all contributed to a scheme that perpetuates the pernicious effects of academic tracking.

But in looking over the shoulders yesterday of otherwise frustrated and befuddled and totally unprepared twelve year olds, I saw a glimpse of a very different future.  One in which all schools, regardless of zip code, will be driven by high expectations and the pursuit of authentic, marketable skillsets that prepare kids for life beyond these lab tests.

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Filed under 21st Century Skills, California charter schools, Common Core State Standards, El Milagro, innovation and change, post-secondary education, public education, school reform, Smarter Balanced, standardized testing, tracking

FEARING SHADOWS: OUR SCHOOLS AT THAT FAMILIAR CROSSROADS

“When you come to a fork in the road… take it.” — Yogi Berra

images-1We stand at a crossroads and I realize I’ve been here before.

If we continue to do what we are doing– to walk a curricular path that is confined to reading and math and mastering only one language — we will not die.  But many of our children will.  Just as they have during this past decade when school reform meant preparing students for standardized tests that ignore the many natural and innate ways in which kids are actually intelligent.

Or we can go back to the old road– the one we all walked through the 60’s and 70’s and 80’s when we were just kids ourselves;  where inequalities were enshrined in law and in our cultural DNA.  Remember that road?  The public school system convulsed from one legal mandate to the next trying to reflect the very Constitution we taught in social studies every day:  Brown v Bd of Education, PL94-142, Title IX, Lau v Nichols, and on. And on… until we got it (sort of) right.  In that era, there were no standards.  No expectations.  No accountability.  And little growth. Children of privilege did as well as they wanted. Children of color… not so much.  And the achievement chasm split the socioeconomic continuum like a great Grand Canyon.  There were haves.  And not.

And now there is a pathway toward the Common Core.  This is where the handwringing begins.Unknown

This is when educators fear a loss of control– as if they forgot their place in the political machinery of public education.  (Don’t you know? Public tax dollars pay for schools and salaries.  Those dollars are allocated by elected officials.  Those elected officials represent voters who demand certain actions in exchange for their votes.  Things like… schools where all children are learning what the community wants their children to learn.)

This is when the loudest voices are often from those who haven’t even read the standards, but envision a set of mind-numbing factoids that every kid will be required to swallow.  They hype their own fear.  The nationalization of learning.  The standardization of our kids.  (Wasn’t there a song about that from Pink Floyd or somebody?)

This is when educators begin to doubt their capacity to behave as they would have their students behave.

After a decade of complaints about the road we were currently on– the so-called reform road– we are beginning anew.  We are on the cusp of another full-scale transformation from basic skills and test prep academies to 21st century skills.

Never in the long (constantly changing) history of public education has there ever been a more promising opportunity to insure that every student has the skills and knowledge and values to compete and contribute in their world:  the ability to think creatively and critically, to seek relevance in daily school tasks, to readily apply new learnings to authentic problems, to communicate effectively in multiple ways and contexts and audiences.

Entrepreneurialism. Innovation. Civic Literacy. Activism. Voice.

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Progress.

At the crossroads, there is angst in the air.  There always is.

But when you come to that fork in the road…

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• More from Kevin W. Riley at the official website of The Milagro Publications

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Filed under 21st Century Skills, California charter schools, Common Core State Standards, El Milagro, Fighting for Ms. Rios, gifted children, innovation and change, public education, school reform, standardized testing, teaching, technology in schools, Uncategorized

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

MADELINE’S COSTUME

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The Human Rights Campaign has been profoundly influential in encouraging public schools to develop policies that protect students from any forms of discrimination or bullying– especially LGBT students.  San Diego Unified School District, for example, has developed a model, Board-adopted, anti-discrimination policy that assures children a safe learning environment, regardless of their “actual or perceived” sex, gender, or ethnic group identification.

Adopting policies that prohibit discrimination in our schools is essential for children and staff.  But the real work is in creating safe, inclusive, loving environments that are often the one safe haven in a community.  Like El Milagro.

In “Fighting for Ms. Rios,” Aiden introduces us to Matty in the Fourth Journal: Virtuosos.

Matty was an athlete. Matty was a fierce competitor. Matty played little league. Matty played kickball. Matty wore a Baltimore Ravens football jersey. Number fifty-two. Matty always had a short-cropped haircut and was tall and thin. Matty pounded Augie behind the backstop for trying to cut to the front of the kickball line. Matty cussed and spit and told crude jokes and talked with a full mouth.

For Halloween Matty dressed up as a professional baseball player. A catcher with eye black and all the gear and the shin guards and a cup. (Madeline’s Costume)

Aiden has been playing with Matty since the beginning of the school year, but it is not until the Halloween Carnival– when the kids take a bathroom break and go into separate facilities– that he discovers she is really a girl.  The other kids knew all along.  Perhaps they have known her since kindergarten.  Perhaps they paid attention when their teachers lined up the boys and the girls separately.  Perhaps in elementary school  it just doesn’t start to matter yet.

“Matty is a girl, you dumbass!” said Charlie Flowers. He stopped adjusting the crimson pirate bandana that bordered his crimson head. He paused and looked at me to see if I was serious. “She’s supposed to go into the girls’ restroom.”

Matty is a character based on several students we have served at Mueller Charter School.  Even in pre-adolescent years, some children identify more with children of the opposite gender– and at that age– it is often difficult to tell them apart.  Matty dressed like a boy, wore her hair like a boy, talked like a boy and behaved like a boy.  Enough to confuse Aiden, who seems to blush a little, shrug his shoulders, and move on:  “In any case, it just didn’t seem to matter much at the Halloween Carnival where, at least for one night, we were all hiding behind one disguise or another.”

We have seen children so insistent on behaving like a child of the opposite gender that they refuse to use the school restrooms.  So we just make quiet arrangements for them to use the nurse’s restroom whenever they need to.

Aiden comments on the sensitivity and compassion of the teachers at El Milagro and we can easily imagine that the staff there has adopted policies similar to those inspired by the Human Rights Campaign.  It is as if he knows, even at the age of ten, that  policies don’t change attitudes and that what really matters is how children are actually treated every day.

As we walked around the carnival, I watched all of the adults interact with Matty like she was any other kid. They all knew. Her former kindergarten teacher even called her by her real name: Madeline. “You look like a pro tonight, Madeline! You look stunning!” Matty smiled.

I had a new respect for Matty and for my school. I felt proud of who we were at El Milagro—a place where kids could be who they needed to be for however long it takes to work it all out.

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Filed under charter schools, children at risk, El Milagro, Fighting for Ms. Rios, gifted children, health care, public education, resiliency, school reform, spiritual intelligence, Uncategorized, zero tolerance policies