Tag Archives: school reform

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

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

BULL’S EYE

I don’t know where the bickering has taken the lawmakers on Capital Hill.  I don’t know if we are closer to a bill that begins to slake American’s out-of-control thirst for guns.  But I found this photograph from Education Week to be chilling:

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These are educators in Clifton, Texas at a shooting range. The new professional development.

Does anyone honestly think armed teachers make our school safer?

I’m thinking about  the lockdown we experienced last year when some tweaker off the streets  jumped a fence and entered one of our classrooms with a knife in his hand.  I’m thinking about how many teachers I passed on my way out to confront him in the classroom.  The look in their eye.  The terror. I have no idea how many people might have been hurt if one of those panicked teachers had whipped out a gun (they would keep it locked up, right?)… managed to load it (locked in a safe, un-loaded, right?)… aimed it at the wild-eyed  intruder and commanded him to drop his weapon.  And of course he wouldn’t have complied any more than he complied with me when I offered to escort him off the campus.

So what do naive, common citizens do when they are armed to the teeth and staring down an stranger at their school and the whole episode does not seem to go according to the script from the “School Safety Plan” or the last tv show they watched that made it all look so easy and antiseptic.

What happens when a teacher kills an un-armed visitor who poses no real threat at all?

What happens when a teacher starts spraying bullets through classroom walls into areas where other kids have “ducked and covered”?

What happens when the intruder quits laughing long enough to take her weapon away from her– and now instead of being armed with a pen knife he is armed with that freaking gun?

UnknownThe NRA has figured it out.  They know how Apple Computers benefitted from their partnership with schools (considerably more than schools benefitted!) and how the endless cycle of technology upgrades has affected their stock market fortunes. They see thousands of schools, millions of educators, and an endless stream of future customers sitting in desks learning about the Second Amendment of the Constitution. They see momentum building off of the Sandy Hook tragedy, and they want to ride it all the way to Wall Street. It’s a bull market.

They see pictures of entire school districts teambuilding out on the firing range. Target practice for God and country;  improving public education in the bargain.

Not me.  I still see that terrified look in our student’s faces as they ran out of that classroom, fleeing for their lives.  And the relief when it ended so quietly and peacefully.  No one hurt.

Nothing good will come from more guns in places where they don’t belong.  Just more red dots on the HP map depicting the number of gun deaths since Sandy Hook:

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Filed under children at risk, Common Core State Standards, El Milagro, Fighting for Ms. Rios, gun violence, innovation and change, President Obama, public education, teaching, technology in schools, Uncategorized

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

STAMPEDE TO THE TOP: A RACE TO RUIN

Several things happened this week that gave me pause:

First I saw on CNN the story about a little fourth grader in Texas who hung himself in the school restroom.  The child psychologists all attributed his death to depression and the economy and the pressure he likely felt as he made his way through school.  But he was nine.  And while depression may be on the rise (like obesity and diabetes and other childhood illnesses) it hardly explains such an extreme response.

I wondered…  what was it about his school that added to his hopelessness?  Or what could have been different for him?  Were his talents and interests nurtured?  Or had he been reduced to a test score and a proficiency level?

Then I started my class at USD on Tuesday.  I am teaching a course on Education Reform.  In an attempt to introduce the students to El Milagro, I shared an I-Photo slide show of our kids over the years.  It captured the spirit of children dancing and singing and celebrating.  Talented.  Diverse.  Exultant.  But there were no pictures from this school year.

So I wondered… what kind of climate have we created for the children of El Milagro lately?  Is it a refuge from the stress of their struggling families? Or have we pushed ourselves too far out on that assessment ledge… and in the name of someone else’s definition of accountability… hung our toes over the brink?

Then I listened to President Obama talk about his vision of education in the State of the Union.  In it he said:

“This year, we have broken through the stalemate between left and right by launching a national competition to improve our schools. The idea here is simple: instead of rewarding failure, we only reward success. Instead of funding the status quo, we only invest in reform – reform that raises student achievement, inspires students to excel in math and science, and turns around failing schools that steal the future of too many young Americans, from rural communities to inner-cities.”

I wondered… isn’t that a frighteningly narrow definition of “school success?”

So then I started reading Yong Zhao’s book entitled  “Catching Up or Leading the Way where he states that China is going the opposite direction as the US right now.  That they value outputs and student achievement for sure, but they value the inputs too.  Zhao urges American educators (of which he is one) to rethink the preoccupation with testing and national standards:

“America is at a crossroads. We have two choices.  We can destroy our strengths in order to catch up with others on test scores, or we can build on our strengths and remain a leader in innovation and creativity.  The current push for more standardization, centralization, high-stakes testing, and test-based accountability is rushing us down the first path.  What will truly keep America strong and Americans prosperous is the other path because it cherishes individual talents, cultivates creativity, celebrates diversity, and inspires curiosity.”

I wondered…What are we doing for our children?  Are we handing them musical instruments to play their hearts out on, inviting them to dance, coaching their teams, encouraging community service, investing in their health, encouraging them to think, inspiring them to invent and innovate, handing them a camera to capture their youthful energy in photographs?  Or are we drilling them on test taking skills?

The Race to the Top may actually be a stampede over the edge of the cliff.

I wondered… what have we learned from that tragedy in Texas?

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Filed under El Milagro, gifted children, innovation and change, President Obama, public education, school reform

MORE THAN JUST THESE THINGS, OUR LIVES CHANGE WITHOUT HAIKU- LOST IS HUMAN TOUCH

The Huffington Post includes a list of 12 common items that have become obsolete this decade. Check ’em out.  If newspapers, and landline phones, and calling, and cameras with film, and fax machines, and wires and CD’s and dial-up internet and telephones and encyclopedias and the yellow pages and catalogs and hand-written letters may have all become obsolete… what in if anything, became obsolete in our public schools during the same time period?

Plenty.

Here are 12 things that have become obsolete in public schools during the past NCLB decade:

• Critical Thinking

• Hands-on Science

• Field trips

• Morning Recess

• Grades based on Teacher Judgment

• Creative Writing

• Physical Fitness

• Bilingual Education

• Haiku

• Fine Arts

• Tolerance

• Extracurricular Activities

You can keep up with what’s obsolete in your school by checking your local newspaper.  If you can find one.

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THE TURN-AROUND PLACE

Allen Odden is a professor of educational leadership and policy analysis at the  University of Wisconsin-Madison who claims to know how to turn around low achieving schools.  In fact he wrote a book about the topic called “Ten Strategies for Doubling Student Performance”.  He doesn’t work in schools, he studies those of us who do.  So his premise is that school turnarounds are not a new phenomenon and that “we”  know how to fix them, and “we know how to literally double student performance in low income schools, and in the process take huge chunks out of the achievement gaps that separate students along racial and socioeconomic lines.”

In a recent article in Education Week entitled We Know How to Turn Schools Around, Odden identifies 10 core elements he picked up from studying schools just like El Milagro.  Here is Odden’s checklist:

ONE: Create a sense of urgency.

TWO:  Set ambitious goals: (e.g.; to double student performance on state tests, to double the percentage of students scoring at advanced levels, to make sure that no student performs below the basic level at the end of 3rd grade, and that all students leave that grade reading on level.)

THREE:  Throw out the old curriculum and adopt new textbooks, create new curriculum programs, and start to build, over time, a common understanding of effective instruction.

FOUR. Move beyond a concentration on state tests and use a battery of assessments, including formative and diagnostic assessments, common end-of-curriculum-unit assessments, and benchmark assessments.  All of these enable teachers to make midcourse corrections and to get students into interventions earlier.

FIVE:  Create and implement an intensive and ongoing professional-development program. (The best schools form collaborative teacher teams— aka, professional learning communities—that meet often, make use of student data, and work with school-based coaches to improve curriculum and instruction.)

SIX:  Provide extended learning time and extra help for all students to attain proficiency. (e.g., Some combination of one-on-one or small-group tutoring for struggling students, together with extended-day and summer programs that emphasize providing academic help.)

SEVEN: Use time effectively. (Core instructional time for reading, math, and increasingly science is protected from intrusions; each minute is devoted to teaching the class. Literacy time often is extended to 90 to 120 minutes a day.)

EIGHT:  Teachers lead grade- and subject-based professional learning communities. Most of the instructional coaches are the school’s best teachers, and they orchestrate the overall professional-development system. And principals provide real instructional leadership.

NINE: Staff members read the most recent research, reach out to experts in the field, look for and use best practices, and take responsibility for assessing the impact on student learning of what they do, improving instructional practices when student results are not what’s desired.

TEN:  Recruit the talent needed to accomplish lofty goals and implement the collaborative and powerful educational strategies discussed here.

Ok.  So that is his list.  It just so happens that at El Milagro we have been down the path on all 10 core elements.  They are in place. Maybe that is why we have never missed an AYP goal, never missed a year of positive gains on the API, and recently been named a Title I Academic Award Winning School in the state of California.  Or maybe our success has come from going even deeper when initiating school reforms.

There are three problems with the good professor’s premise:

First, it assumes that a “turn around school”  is one that is getting better test scores.  But  perhaps the bigger challenge in school leadership is protecting kids from the craziness of schools obsessed with higher test scores– while still getting higher test scores! It is harder to get results when you refuse to become a test prep academy or when your school still values the meaningful extracurricular activities that don’t always directly tie in to testing (like athletics, theater, the arts, and music).

Secondly,  this article (and the publication of his book!) assumes a college professor has some authority on an issue he has “studied”… as opposed to a having actively engaged in the work of really turning a school around!  It is much like hiring a sports writer to coach an NFL team to the Superbowl or a film critic to create an academy award winning movie.

Finally, in concentrating on these broader, more obvious initiatives that we already stumbled across years ago… Odden’s list misses (at least )10 core elements that run even deeper into the DNA of a successful school.  For example, we have found that to turn a school around and sustain long term, continuous improvement, you must:

• Strike a BALANCE between raising students and raising test scores

• ENGAGE CHILDREN  in their own learning and growth; help them to be experts in analyzing their own test data and set goals accordingly

• Lead parents in a community transition from parent involvement to PARENT ENGAGEMENTwhere parents’ energy is first and foremost directed toward helping their child be a successful learner

• Integrate successful TECHNOLOGY solutions that bridge the digital divide and simultaneously accelerate learning

• Create systems that support STUDENT WELLNESS (academic, social, emotional, mental, medical, dental), especially for students who are otherwise at high risk

• Promote healthy NUTRITIONAL HABITS  and a climate that promotes daily exercise

• Maintain a BEHAVIOR POLICY  that is clear, democratic, humane, and prudently applied (as opposed to “zero tolerance”)

• Promote COMMUNITY SERVICE and each students’ capacity for contributing to others

• Create a sense of individual EFFICACY  among staff and students

• Foster RESILIENCY in individuals and in the school organization as a whole.

Those are my ten.  For now. There will be more innovations for professors to study in how we turn our schools around.

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Filed under charter schools, El Milagro, innovation and change, public education, resiliency, school reform, standardized testing, teaching