Reflections on School and Life in the Midst of COVID-19 (#1, Beginnings, March 17, 2020)

March 17, 2020

Last week was one of the craziest weeks I’ve had as an educator and perhaps as a human being. Whether or not to close schools was a huge debate for our area and for the country. Many parents and medical professionals were saying that the sooner all schools closed, the more quickly the nation could slow down the spread of COVID-19. But it was also a debate on child care, as closing the schools meant that working professionals, including first responders and medical professionals, might not be able to go to work if schools were closed. I heard from parents and medical professionals about that as well. It was a week where the news was changing every hour, rumors were flying, and emotion was high. For the first time in my life, even more than 9/11, a sense of panic has been evident throughout the nation in terms of making sure people felt that they had the supplies they needed to survive. I heard from employees and I heard from parents, and it truly was a 50/50 split on what was the best tactic to take. And, by the way, it was a highly emotional 50/50 split. I was in regular communication with individual board members, with the Department of Public Health, with other superintendents, with the County Superintendent, with employees, and with district leaders. In the end, we made the decision to close our schools about a day before the County and the rest of the world did. And now, there are only a few schools in the nation, if not the world, that remain open. We have entered a new and hopefully unique phase in our lives.

As we begin this week without students in our schools, there are many important items to work out. We have to address how we are going to effectively and lovingly teach our students, how we are going to best utilize all of our employees, how we are going to keep our employees and our students safe, and how we are going to continue to get the necessary work of the District done. Our teachers began planning for this possibility well before our decision to close, but they are learning a whole new world of online instruction. We are already hearing amazing stories about how our teachers are interacting with our students. One of our kindergarten teachers is already legendary in my mind because I had the chance to see her first video for her kindergarten students, where she was wonderful, but her outstanding performance was truly hijacked by Coco the cat. Her cat made several appearances in the video, and if my kindergarten student had seen that, he would have been head-over-heels for Coco the cat. Even I can’t get enough. I can’t wait to see Coco the cat again! I look forward to seeing many more examples of our teachers working with our students. I am hoping that our parents, when something great happens, will let me know about it. Our teachers are often too humble to share the great things they are doing. That being said, I hope everyone is patient with our teachers, because again, this is a whole new world. Our schools are closed for four weeks at this point, but I know many professionals are saying it will be at least eight before schools across the country re-open, and tonight, the Governor said we may not re-open before the end of the school year. Nothing is certain at this point, and we will continue to learn.

I have many different perspectives on this remarkable time period, which has only just begun. Of course, I am superintendent of our schools here in Manhattan Beach, so I have that perspective. I am married to a 5th grade teacher at a Malibu elementary school, and I have Jill’s perspective as she learns her way through this. And I have the perspective of my two sons. My younger son Dawson is a junior at Malibu High School. He was out of school last year for six weeks because of the Woolsey fire, and now it’s happening again. What a crazy experience for him. And my older son, Ryan, is an attorney living up in Sacramento, so I have his perspective as well. I am thinking that maybe I can share glimpses of all these perspectives in the upcoming blogs. I think it will be a good record of a unique time in our lives, and I hope that it can provide something – I don’t even know what that might be – for others as we work our way through this time. I will be doing my best to make several blog entries a week as we live through this unprecedented time. Even if it is read by only a few, I hope it can be supportive to those, and I know I will benefit by taking the time to reflect, write, and share.

Wishing you all good health,


Lawnmowers and Snowplows

When I was a high school principal, a parent of a senior came up to me and asked, “Did you really tell my son he should turn down his college admission offers and go be a professional musician instead?” I smiled and said that yes, that was my advice to him. She shook her head and said she had not believed her son when he told her. Part of my advice may have been because in my next life I’d love to be a professional musician, but most of it was based on my knowledge of him, his abilities, and his dreams. We both laugh about it now, as that choice has worked out pretty well for him. Phew!

My point is, there are many paths to a successful adulthood, and college, particularly the name of the college, is not the only determinant of our children’s future success. Two of my friends who I would call extraordinarily successful did not go to college at all. And there is ample evidence that, for people who go to college, the name of the college they attend has little to nothing to do with their future success (see Frank Bruni’s – Where You Go is Not Who You’ll Be; Challenge Success White Paper – Why College Engagement Matters More that Selectivity). As Jason Gay stated in a recent Wall Street Journal article, “College is college – some schools have more to offer than others, but in your life, you’re going to meet plenty of useless dingbats who went to the most distinguished colleges in the country. You’ll also encounter wizards who barely went to school at all.”

So why in the world do so many of us care so much, stress so much, and do all sorts of things to get our children into the most prestigious college possible? Why would parents risk their integrity, and their children’s integrity, by cheating in the college admissions process? Most of us would never even consider something that extreme, but it does represent the anxiety that plagues many parents and students, especially in a community that values education so highly and that is populated by so many highly successful college educated adults. In the wake of recent events, I have heard several stories of college students and graduates who called their parents and asked them if they pulled strings to get them into college. That’s a heartbreaking question on many levels, and it speaks to the culture that we live in, the pressure we put on ourselves and our children, and our perceptions about the whimsical nature of the college admission process, especially at the most “elite” schools – based not on substance but on luck, or fate, or a thumb on a scale. We have to do something about this. I hope this recent cheating and admissions scandal can be a catalyst and help pull us back from this insanity.

Our message to ourselves and to our kids about college should be simple: It’s going to be OK.

There are a lot of things in parenting that matter way more than where our children go to college. Are we raising children who are hard workers, who can overcome adversity, who are kind, who are passionate about something, who will be good parents and partners and friends, who strive to improve, who are confident in their own self-worth, who are ethical, who are healthy, and who know they are loved?

Julie Lythcott-Haims, who will be speaking at Mira Costa this Sunday afternoon and Monday night (sign up here), writes in her book How to Raise an Adult, “Why did parenting change from preparing our kids for life to protecting them from life, which means they’re not prepared to live life on their own?” I’ve heard this parenting technique called lawnmower parenting – blazing a path in front of our kids so that not a single blade of grass gets in their way. (In the north they call it snowplow parenting. I love southern California!)

And as we have seen, this approach is dangerous not only to children but to their parents as well. Lythcott-Haims adds, “Not only does overparenting hurt our children; it harms us, too. Parents today are scared, not to mention exhausted, anxious, and depressed.” I’ve seen it. It’s real. It doesn’t need to be this way. But it’s not just something we can flip a switch and change.

My youngest son is a sophomore in high school. I find it hard not to ask about his grades, and I don’t like it when his grades are lower than they I think they should be. But I’m working on it. Maybe I write these blog entries to remind myself to practice what I preach. BUT IT’S NOT EASY! I try to focus even more on what he loves to do, his friends, his challenges, and what he’s trying to get better at. Or just to talk about what he loves – movies, food, golf, video games, e-sports, or good things happening in this world.

What’s especially challenging for our parents is that many of us are talking the right talk, but our kids don’t believe it. They have accepted the false elite college premise, and they work each other up about it relentlessly. That’s why cheating is an epidemic in schools today. The cheating in today’s high schools isn’t from the Bluto Blutarsky’s of the world who are trying to improve their 0.00 GPA. They are A and B students wanting all A’s. Challenge Success has written a White Paper on that too – Cheat or Be Cheated – which examines the culture of cheating. Jason Gay adds in his article, “Not everyone cheats. Not everyone cuts corners. There isn’t a diploma in the world more valuable than your integrity – and you can’t buy your integrity back.”

I write this for parents because it starts with us. Although we shake our head when we hear about the parents who paid big money, lied, or cheated to get their children into college, the factors that led to those behaviors are all around us every day. I encourage you to listen to Julie Lythcott-Haims and/or read her book, then talk about it all with your friends and fellow parents. Let’s shut down the lawnmowers and let our children fend more for themselves, practice self-advocacy, overcome problems, and even experience failure.

As for us, you know that we here in MBUSD are working on this too. We are striving to make our schools healthier places for our students. We are making changes to the amount and types of homework we are assigning; we now end the first semester in high school before winter break, allowing for a true break; we have Link Crew and WEB programs, both designed to welcome new students to a school; we cap AP classes for students at four; we have the “office hours” schedule at Mira Costa, making Wednesdays a unique day at the high school; and we are encouraging our students to be mindful in a variety of ways. And we’re still working on it.

We are all in this together.

– Mike Matthews

LiveWell Magazine Interview with Dr. Matthews and area superintendents

BCHD sat down with the heads of the three Beach Cities school districts to discuss the challenges and opportunities facing students today – and how they are tackling it all together.
There’s so much happening in our schools and the lives of today’s students – from stressful academic demands to social-emotional well-being. So, we thought it would be a perfect time to have a discussion with the superintendents who are guiding Beach Cities’ school districts:
  • Patricia Escalante (Hermosa Beach City School District)
  • Dr. Michael Matthews (Manhattan Beach Unified School District)
  • Dr. Steven Keller (Redondo Beach Unified School District).

Here are highlights of the roundtable conversation.

Q: Since each of you were in school, how has life changed for K-12 students?
A: Escalante: “Social media is the obvious (difference), but kids in my day still got feelings hurt. It was maybe more passive-aggressive because people would talk behind your back or send notes about you. With social media, everything is so instant. We only had CBS, NBC and ABC. No cable TV, no 24-hour news cycle.”
Matthews: “When I went to high school there was actually little pressure about which college to go to. None of my friends talked about it, my parents didn’t talk about it. But that is one million degrees different right now. (Life) was much lower key when I was in high school. No social media, so I didn’t know what I was missing out on. I’m sure it was a lot, but I didn’t have social media to remind me about all that.”
Keller: “Technology obviously is ubiquitous now, in every shape, matter and form. Computer labs were just starting when I was in high school; now everyone’s got a device. It’s a different game. Access to information is real-time, and that has its pros and cons. If you are a great parent, though, it can actually serve you well.”
Q: Are Beach Cities kids under more pressure to get into the best colleges?
A: Escalante: “Short answer: yes. But, I think our kids are hungry for a deeper understanding about themselves. They are no longer thinking that they’re just born a certain way – they are learning they have control. But they are under a lot of pressure. The pressure to go to the “sweatshirt colleges” is real in our community and it’s a lot to put on kids, especially the ones who don’t fit into that pigeonhole. Those kids need to know it’s okay to take a different pathway to success; it’s beneficial to think outside of the box and be creative. These are the conversations we need to be having as parents and teachers with our children.”
Matthews: “To Pat’s point, a key piece of research is set to be released from Stanford in the next week that essentially shows the lifetime income differential between the top 200 colleges in the country is marginally different. That means whether you’re going to Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Yale or the University of Arkansas, your income isn’t going to vary much, on average. Assuming that’s what the research shows, I can’t wait to share that with the community.” (To read the report from Challenge Success, click here)
Keller: “Rather than base the whole college process off the question of: How much money will I make when I graduate?, I urge our kids to focus on becoming better, more informed citizens. Make a better use of your time on earth; try to make the world a better place. And if money follows and capitalism thrives, then great. That’s the honest conversation I’m having with our kids and the community – and I think our community understands the importance of it.”
Q: How has the relationship between health and school evolved over the years?
A: Matthews: “We don’t need to do a lot of pushing to have our students striving to be the very best academically. They’re already doing that on their own. Our job has transformed into turning this quest for excellence into a quest for student wellness. It’s a push we’re making with teachers, counselors, parents and students. And Beach Cities Health District is a big partner for us. I’d say we now focus as much on student wellness as we do on academic excellence. It’s a giant change.”
Escalante: “The conversations between the three districts have become more frequent, richer and more focused on the wellness for kids. We are operating with like minds and have support from each of our boards. It’s more powerful when we can work together and have common frames of reference and language around wellness for kids and expectations. And I agree with Mike about BCHD…We truly see the health district as an absolute working partnership to support total well-being. I’m sure all three districts feel that way.”
Keller: “I totally agree with Pat and Mike. The whole focus on social emotional well-being – our kids being physically fit, having great nutrition and academics – are all pieces and values we believe in and transfer to the 20,000 South Bay kids that we serve. It’s just who we are as people. The heavy lift is for the teachers and staff and Beach Cities Health District to systematize and implement. But that’s a good place to come from, where you believe in it before you even start.”
Q: How would you describe your district’s relationship with Beach Cities Health District?
A: Matthews:“BCHD has been a great partner for us, but they’ve also pushed us. The health district is singular in its focus, so they always come to us with programs to support areas of need, like social-emotional wellness. They push us to be better and it makes us healthier.”
Keller: “Our staff, kids and parents benefit from the longevity of the synergy we’ve had with BCHD. Kindergarteners come in and are, for lack of a better word, indoctrinated into our well-established culture of physical and social-emotional health. It’s not all about test scores; it’s also about their health and their family’s health. So, I think that our relationship over the last decade has been very helpful. People move here expecting this relationship, expecting BCHD to be involved. I think parents are well aware of it, and, hence, our enrollment has increased over the last 12 years. I think it’s partially because of our relationship with Beach Cities Health District.”
Escalante: “In 2012, BCHD came to me in my first year as superintendent with MindUP, a program designed to teach children how to regulate negative emotions and their internal decisions by teaching them mindfulness practices and how their brains work. Initially, we were worried about appearing too new age, but we ended up launching it, having success with it and are now a California Distinguished School because of it. MindUP is a great example of how BCHD has given us a lot of different tools to approach our students’ health more holistically.”
Q: You seem to be in sync philosophically; do you have strong working relationships with one another?
A: All: “We do, yeah.”
Keller: “I’ve been here the longest (since 2006) and for me (collaboration) started when Mike became superintendent (in 2010) … I never really connected with Hermosa until Pat came along (in 2012). It’s reached the point where we all even know each other’s kids.”
Matthews: “Steven invited me to lunch right when I came in, and then we both met with Pat when she came in. (We now) call each other, text each other, meet together and do some planning. Also, whenever there’s a question or an issue, we respond to each other immediately, and I’m grateful for that.”
Q: Here’s a fun one: Which is the best high school in the Beach Cities?
A: Escalante: “I’m staying out of this one … (laughing).”
Matthews: “Here’s what I’ll say, we’ve got great school districts. You can’t go wrong. That’s all I’m going to say.”
Keller: “Ten years ago, I would’ve said it depends on what you are looking for in a high school, and I’d have described two different schools – one more focused on academics and ours more focused on the whole child. But that’s no longer the case. Mike changed that when he was hired because he understands the value of the whole child approach. So, I agree completely with what Mike said. You really can’t go wrong.”
Q: The three of you wound-up in the South Bay, but where did each of you go to high school?”
A: Keller: “I went to South Torrance High School.”
Escalante: “I went to Palos Verdes High School.”
Matthews: “I went to high school in Little Rock, Arkansas. So, we’re all pretty local.”
Read more in the latest edition of our LiveWell Magazine.


Reach for the Stars: My Promotion Address to the Manhattan Beach Middle School Class of 2018

Congratulations to the MBMS 8th Grade Class of 2018.

Your class has chosen the theme, “Reach for the Stars” for this ceremony. And why not?

It’s way better than themes that Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh might have chosen:

  • What’s the use?
  • I shouldn’t even try.
  • Nothing’s going to change.

Reach for the Stars is way better.

Everyone knows that if you want to become a better athlete or a better artist or musician, you need to practice, work, and learn from a good teacher or coach.

But for some reason, most people don’t believe that we can become smarter. People think that we were born with a certain amount of smarts, and that’s just not going to change.

Brain research has proven that is just not true. Just as you can reach for the stars and become a better athlete or a better artist, you can become smarter. Scientists and researchers call this a “Growth Mindset.”


Many brain researchers have shown proof of Growth Mindset, but some students and teachers still don’t believe it. We have to convince students, parents, AND teachers that the growth mindset is real and needs to be utilized.

So how do you get smarter? How does this growth mindset thing work?

  1. Challenge yourself. Try hard stuff. Find interesting problems and try to solve them. Push yourself. Don’t take the easy way.
  2. Fail. Learn from your failures. When you challenge yourself, you will fail. Brain researchers are saying that nothing promotes growth as much as learning from failure. We have teachers and students who define F-A-I-L as First Attempt in Learning.  I love it.
  3. Explore new ideas through reading, Care about something! Learn about it! Do you know how you become a better reader? By reading more. Fall in love with reading and you’ll have something to enjoy your whole life and your brain will grow.
  4. Be careful with social media: There are two big evils in social media: The first is FOMO – The Fear of Missing Out – because you focus on the cool things others are posting. Believe me, no one’s life is super-duper awesome every minute. The real-life stuff we deal with is not what you see on social media. The second evil is the unfortunate propensity of some people to be mean and try to bring people down. Be careful.
  5. Take care of your brain. Again, let’s look at brain research and science. If you want your brain to grow, there are two most important habits you can develop: (1) get enough sleep. You need more than you think. Do everything you can to get that sleep. (2) Don’t use drugs and alcohol. Your brain is growing and developing, and nothing can slow down that growth more than drugs and alcohol.

Most of all, believe that your best and smartest days are ahead of you. Brain research is on your side. Don’t let others define your story. Set big fat hairy goals for yourself. Be OK when you fail, and try again. Never stop growing. Never stop reaching for the stars.

Congratulations again to the MBMS 8th Grade Class of 2018, to your parents, and to all of your great teachers who have made a difference in your lives.

My Comments at the Beach Cities Health District Summit on Youth Stress and Substance Abuse

I had the honor of attending an amazing event in our community today. Beach Cities Health District sponsored a Summit on Youth Stress and Substance Abuse. This is a huge issue for our community, for the communities of the Consortium 2030 group, and for the nation as a whole. We heard from 12 students in our local middle and high schools. They spoke about stress, the value of teachers knowing them well, the amount of vaping that is permeating teen culture and our schools, and so much more. They were great. One of my favorite comments was from a student who said, “I am expected to do the best I can, actually, to do more than the best I can.” We heard from former US Representative Mary Bono Mack, who shared stories addiction in her family, and gave ideas for how we can work together to support individuals and families in crisis. It was a powerful summit, and I am grateful for being able to participate.

Along with our other local superintendents, I was asked to make remarks at the summit. Here is what I shared.


MMatBCHDI had a beautiful start to my day today. Fifty-one graduating seniors, their parents, and their Meadows Elementary School teachers reunited on the Meadows Elementary School cafeteria. There were tears, smiles, laughter, and comments about how the teachers used to be taller. It reminded me of the joy of friendships, of powerful teacher-student connections, and of a community celebrating together.

It was a great lead in to this amazing summit, as we work together to make life for our youth healthier, safer, and happier.

This is a powerful room of people actively seeking to improve social emotional wellness, diminish stress, and end substance abuse with our youth. Some people in the room are interested in learning more, a few may be skeptical, most are concerned, some have devoted their professional and personal lives to this cause, and some are here full of pain from the suffering or even the loss of loved ones. That’s the range of people we have in this room and in our schools.

I want to thank Beach Cities Health District for sponsoring this summit and for helping to start this conversation. The original Blue Zones report made it clear that our communities are stressed places. It does not look that way on the surface. I heard someone say that we are like ducks. We look all nice and peaceful, but underneath the water, we are paddling like hell, going somewhere in a hurry or just trying to stay afloat. We are a stressed community, and our kids feel it. I’m a parent of two young men, ages 27 and 15. I’m an educator for the near 7,000 students in the Manhattan Beach School District. I join all of you in trying to find that right line between encouraging, pushing, caring, and unconditionally loving our own children and the children of our community.

Our students are stressed. Read Denise Pope’s book, Overloaded and Underprepared. Read Frank Bruni’s book, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be. Students are stressed about college. Parents are even more stressed about college. They burden themselves with loads of classes that are often just too much. Go to Families Connected meetings, sponsored by amazing parents like Laura McIntyre. Our students don’t sleep enough. They worry that their lives may not be as interesting as what they see on their social media feeds. They witness people being mean to each other and to them. Our students are certainly stressed.

On the other hand, our students have joyful experiences as well. I saw it this morning. Last week, I got to see our choir singing joyfully in Disney Hall. I see it with students in marching band performing on the field, or in an amazing musical, or on a sports team achieving a new personal record, or on the robotics team, or in a class they love smiling because of what they learn and how they are learning it. One senior last night admitted to an auditorium of parents and students, “I’ll say it, I love math and I thank Mr. Chou for making me love it in 5th grade!” I see that joy when I shadowed students and witnessed the power of friends reconnecting at lunch, at nutrition breaks, or just saying hello in the hallway.

It’s not all darkness out there. There is a lot of light, as evidenced by their joy and smiling.

How do we help that power of light to prevail over the dark powers of stress, sadness, and anxiety? Because when that power of light and joy does not prevail, that’s when substance abuse sees an opening. And it will jump at that opening.

What can we do to help our students succeed with the right amount of stress? How can we help the light to prevail?

I’m a big believer in the concept of Flow. I even read Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book and understood at least half of it. Here’s what I do understand about flow. There is no better time to be alive than when you are so immersed in something that time ceases to exist. For me, that can be moments with family and friends, bicycling, cooking, learning something new, reading, swimming, golfing, in a fascinating conversation, in a high-quality meeting, solving a complex problem, and many other times. In those times, there is no worry about anything. The next thing is nowhere in your mind.

I want us to create more opportunities for flow in our children’s and our students’ lives. I want us to have it in our lives!

One way we are trying to make that happen in MBUSD is by having students experience more Personalized Learning. When I was in school, memorization was the key to success. And I was pretty good. I still know the quadratic formula. I can still integrate calculus problems. I still know that there are 6.02 x 1023 molecules in a mole. I have no idea how to apply any of those things. With that type of memorization-centric teaching, who needs personalized learning?

But with the advent of the smart phone and technology all that knowledge is one button away. Some still argue with that. But many of us in this room used to know 40 phone numbers, now we are lucky to know 3. Does that keep us from talking on the phone? OK, does it keep any of us from texting?

Schools are no longer the repository of knowledge to be imparted unto students. We must be coaches, mentors, and we have to know our students. We need to teach them skills that can help them learn and succeed. We can help our students to grow and find their flow. Teaching has a whole new meaning these days, and it is more challenging than ever.

That’s what our social emotional wellness movement is all about in our schools. We are looking for ANYTHING we can do to chip away at student stress. We are looking for anything we can do to connect and help our students lead healthy productive lives. Here is what we are working on:

  • How do we make homework meaningful and never busywork, and not assign so much that our students have extreme burdens outside of school?
  • How do we create school schedules, block schedules, that make it easier on students to thrive each day?
  • How do we use counselors, classroom teachers, advisories, and more to help students connect with adults who care?
  • How do we create academic experiences that are appropriately challenging for each child and as meaningful as possible?
  • How do we convince parents and students that life will be OK, in fact our students will thrive, even if they choose to go to a college not ranked at the very top?
  • How do we convince our students and parents that taking too many classes can suck the joy and health right out of students’ lives?
  • How do we help our students to care for themselves and their brain health by getting enough sleep each night?
  • How do we encourage inclusiveness in our community, where everyone feels welcome, and no one feels isolated or attacked?
  • How can students include classes into their high school schedules that create a space where they can be joyful, pursue what they love, and experience flow each and every day?

That’s what we are trying to do in our schools. These are the questions our board is trying to figure out. We are working with students, parents, BCHD, our partner districts, our local therapists and health community, and anyone who cares. Some of you who are in the room with me know that not everyone believes the way we do. But I believe it, and I know you do too.

Everything we can do, every positive change we make, big and small, they all diminish the need for coping mechanisms like substance abuse and bullying, and they all increase our students’ potential for joy and flow.

That’s what we are all trying to do. We are not there yet. But our summit should remind us all that we are not alone and we are not giving up.

I thank each of you for every effort you make to help us in this quest.


I’m joined by Manhattan Beach Mayor Amy Howorth, MBUSD Board Members Jen Cochran and Ellen Rosenberg, Mira Costa Principal Ben Dale, and BCHD Chief Executive Officer Tom Bakaly.




Celebrating Astronauts and Teaching Excellence

When the last transmission for the International Space Station ended, the crowd in the middle school auditorium cheered wildly. The applause went on for over three minutes – more than 500 people swept up in the tremendous emotion of the moment. There were students, parents, and educators in the room, and every one of them was moved. The adults, understanding the magnitude, were using words like “spine-tingling” and “chills,” and looking around I could see that almost all of them (including me!) had tears of joy in their eyes. It was one of the most powerful educational events I have ever experienced in my 30+ years of public education. It was perfect, and it was symbolic of so many things we do right here in MBUSD.


It all started when one of our five Elementary Science Specialists, Ms. Joanne Michael, applied to the Amateur Radio on the International Space Station program to win a slot for ten minutes of ham radio time with an astronaut on the International Space Station (ISS) as it passed in range of Manhattan Beach. MBEF, Northrup Grumman, and her local radio club all supported her in the application process. She got the word in December of 2016 that she had been selected, then started doing the work to make it happen. She found fellow ham radio operators who would volunteer their time. She selected students of all grade levels to ask the questions, and prepared them to ask their questions in a strong voice using radio communication techniques. In order to communicate with someone in outer space, she figured out how to get an antenna mounted to the top of the MBMS auditorium. She took care of all of that, and the zillions of other logistics that all needed to happen just right to make the event work.

Early in the morning of the planned conversation, Ms. Michael went over to our middle school auditorium, which was large enough to accommodate all of the Meadows Elementary School students, many of their parents, and other guests anxious for this experience. She worked with her fellow ham radio operators, making sure the equipment and back up equipment had the best chance of working. There was so much that could go wrong, and there was just a single ten-minute window while the space station, travelling at 17,500 miles per hour, would be in range of her radio signal. Two of the last four schools had not been successful in reaching the ISS. Astronauts have interruptions sometimes! Technology has glitches sometimes. So much could go wrong. But not on this day.

Four hundred Meadows Elementary students walked to MBMS (no small feat in itself!) and gathered in the auditorium with their parents and other educators. Ms. Michael wore her astronaut suit that day. Of course she did! She made sure the 500 people in the audience knew to be perfectly still and quiet during the 10-minute talk. She made sure everyone knew this whole experiment just might not work, but that failure is how people learn. She reminded them that instead of clapping or cheering, they should give the sign language sign for applause or hooray, by raising their hands in the air and shaking them. (We have several deaf and hard of hearing students in MBUSD). She showed them the big screen with a red dot that moved over China, then Japan, then the Pacific. The dot was the ISS, and the circle around the dot showed when we would be in range for a conversation.

As the right edge of that circle hit southern California, she asked everyone to be quiet, and the ham operator started talking over the intercom, “NAISS, NAISS this is Kilo Mike Six Bravo Whiskey Bravo Come in.” Silence. He said it again, “NAISS, NAISS this Kilo Mike Six Bravo Whiskey Bravo Come in.” Silence. Four more times he called, “NAISS, NAISS this Kilo Mike Six Bravo Whiskey Bravo Come in.” Then, after the seventh call, a voice responded.

“Kilo Mike Six Bravo Whiskey Bravo this is Paolo Nespoli on the International Space Station.”

There were muffled noises of excitement in the audience, and as I turned to the audience, all hands were in the air waving vigorously. The silent applause was deafening and joyful. We were communicating with an astronaut in outer space! That’s when my eyes first starting misting up. It was such a moment, and every person in the room was completely engaged and would not have wanted to be anywhere else in the world.


The ham operator turned it over to Ms. Michael, who greeted the astronaut, then immediately let the students take the stage and start asking their questions. Here were some of the questions:

  • How do you get picked to be an astronaut? Over.
  • How do you eat without your food flying away? Over.
  • How long did it take you to get to the ISS? Over.
  • How do you take a shower in space? Over.
  • Does anyone ever get sick in space? Over.
  • What inspired you to be an astronaut? Over.
  • Can you see the hurricanes and the wildfires from space? Over.

Astronaut Paolo Nespoli called students by name. He answered their questions efficiently, but he filled his answers with interesting examples and stories. He made it personal, and you could tell that he loved this part of his job. The audience was perfect during the entire time. The sound quality was very, very good, but we were all watching the screen showing the ISS moving over Los Angeles, and then going in a southeast direction. It would not be long until it went out of range.

As I was witnessing the last few minutes, I was overcome thinking about the power of great teaching. This entire experience was happening because of one teacher’s efforts. Ms. Michael’s passion for science and for teaching science was behind everything we were all experiencing. She had invested hundreds of hours in making this happen, and she had gathered countless volunteers to invest similar amounts of time. And all of those hours were invested with no guarantee of how it would come out. Great teachers are risk takers and optimists. They try new things hoping that it will work out wonderfully and figuring out how to make lemonade when it doesn’t. Great teachers make connections with students and help the students to play an active role in the learning experience. Great teachers are models for how to be lifelong learners. Great teachers show their passion for a subject and inspire students to catch that passion.

On September 8, Joanne Michael gave us all of that and more in one of the greatest teaching and learning experiences I have ever witnessed.

After all the students had asked all of their questions, Ms. Michael got to ask a couple more. Finally, as the back edge of the circle had gone east of Los Angeles, she proudly signed off from Manhattan Beach. We heard the astronaut do the same, and it was over. There were a few seconds of radio and auditorium silence, then the crowd erupted in loud, joyous cheering that went on for what seemed like forever. They were cheering for Ms. Michael. They were cheering for science. They were cheering for space exploration. They were cheering for our ham radio operators and everyone who made this happen. Most of all, they were cheering because they were all part of something incredibly unique and special.

As the cheering died down, and we all returned to our lives here on Earth, I was and I still am overwhelmed with gratitude. I am grateful for Ms. Michael and for all of our teachers who pursue teaching excellence every day. I am grateful to MBEF for providing the funding necessary for elementary science specialists and so much more. I am grateful for astronauts who realize their power to teach and inspire. Finally, I grateful to work in MBUSD, where we are so fully committed to pursuing teaching excellence to inspire and support all of our students.


To see the entire experience, click here. The actual conversation experience begins at the 28-minute mark.

2017 Thoughts on Advanced Placement

Back in 2015, I wrote a blog entry on AP classes.  This entry is an update to that post.  In the last two years, we have ramped up our focus on student stress here in MBUSD, and we are not alone.  We have joined other districts with a similar interest through Stanford’s Challenge Success initiative.  We study the issue with 6 other high performing districts across the country in the 21st Century Superintendents’ Consortium.  So please allow me to give you some of my thoughts about AP classes and student stress.

First of all, I am a fan of well-taught AP classes. I taught AP US History for eleven years, and I loved it. I considered it to be a thinking and writing course using US History as the content. I strongly believe that any student who wants to go to a four-year college should take at least one  Advanced Placement class during their high school career. There is research behind that.  Advanced Placement is as close as you will get to college rigor and it will give students a feel for collegiate rigor. When taught well, AP classes go far beyond memorization, instead focusing on writing, analysis and problem-solving. Right now, 62% of our graduates (up from 48% in 2010) take and pass at least one AP class and exam before graduating. While that is a good number reflecting outstanding progress, I would like to see that number be more like 70%. That is the percentage of our graduates going directly to a four-year college.

On the other hand, one of the biggest concerns that our Board, our counselors, and I have is students who overdo it with Advanced Placement classes. It’s hard to define what “overdoing it” means. Students have different abilities and some are able to tolerate more than others. Using my version of common sense, taking one Advanced Placement class a year is excellent, taking two Advanced Placement classes a year is considerable, and taking three is really the equivalent of taking a full college load while also taking high school courses and all the activities that go along with that. In my mind, taking three AP courses is extreme. This year, our high school limited the number of AP classes a student can take in one year to four.  I believe that’s still too much, but I like the initiative.  Unfortunately, I believe this cap actually encouraged some students to take four AP classes instead of three this year.  We will continue to examine this very important topic.  I strongly believe that one or two AP classes in the junior and/or senior year is a great number for any student wanting to be prepared for four-year college.

I encourage students to take Advanced Placement classes in the areas that they are passionate about. If you know you are going to pursue liberal arts, take your AP classes there. If you are leaning towards the sciences, take your AP classes there. Or you can take my advice to college students on which college courses to take – find the best teachers you can and take their courses. Great teachers can make anything interesting. Students should choose wisely. They are giving up some of their own time by taking too many. And I want students to have as much time as possible that they can call their own.

I heard a telling story this year from a parent who has actually read some of these ideas that I write!  He told me that his daughter was ready to to take three AP classes, but that an admissions officer from a college told her that she should take four.  The father was upset that the admissions officer gave the advice, and the daughter reluctantly took a fourth AP class.  She did well in the class, but did miss out on a class she would rather have taken.  The reward for taking that fourth class?  She got into many excellent schools, but did not get into the school of the ill-advising admissions counselor.  Students should take interesting classes, mix in the right amount of challenge, and not focus on maxing out a transcript.  It will be OK.

I have mentioned before my appreciation for Excellent Sheep, by William Deresiewicz (2015), who states, “We want kids with resilience, self-reliance, independence of spirit, genuine curiosity and creativity, and a willingness to take risks and make mistakes.” We should all encourage students to pursue their passions as much as possible while they are in school. What kind of passions am I talking about? Music, acting, arts, athletics, thinking, problem-solving, friendships, building anything, worthy causes, and any other great use of time. Our job as parents and educators is to help our students find and pursue those passions. We cannot do it for them. All we can do is encourage. And if they have no time of their own, there is no time to pursue those passions.

Thank you,

Mike Matthews

The 21st Century Superintendents’ Consortium is comprised of Eanes (TX), Edina (MN), Highland Park (TX), Manhattan Beach (CA), Palo Alto (CA), New Trier (IL), and Westside (NE) school districts. The mission of the 21st Century Superintendent’s Consortium is to develop the whole child, preparing learners for a successful life beyond high school.

Creating a Culture of Inclusion

March 31, 2017

I have written to you several times this year about our progress towards our Board goal of creating a culture of inclusion in our school district.  I have witnessed powerful events in our schools, led by students, parents, and employees, that celebrated inclusion and discussed its importance in our community.  Some of those events include:

  • MBEF sponsored Inclusion Grants for the first time ever.  This effort was one of the positive results of the horrific fire-bombing of the Clinton house last fall.   They generously donated the unused reward fund to MBEF for this effort.  Students, parents, and employees applied and have done extremely positive things for our community.
  • Facing History, a group devoted to addressing bias and helping teachers teach about issues of race, has spoken to all of our employees,  and had an in-depth workshop our middle school and high school history teachers.
  • The Anti-Defamation League is working with some of our elementary teachers on addressing issues of inclusion and bias. 
  • EMPact, a new community organization committed to helping Manhattan Beach become a more inclusive community, has developed a leadership group across all sectors of Manhattan Beach that will be a strong force for years to come.  MBUSD is proud to be part of the EMPact leadership team.
  • We have had wonderful elementary school celebrations, where students are recognized for their acts of inclusion.
  • MBMS is working with Dr. Brandon Gamble to discuss implicit and explicit bias and how to break the cycle with adults and students.
  • The MBMS Student Multicultural Union has held several student – led events to celebrate diversity on campus. 
  • There are many student clubs at Costa who have taken actions to promote inclusion, including the Black Scholars Union, the Gay Straight Alliance Club, the Jewish Cultural Club, the Latino Students Union, Friendship Circle, TEAM COSTA, and many more.  The Mira Costa H.E.A.R.T. program also promotes inclusion in a variety of ways.

But our work is not done.  In fact, I am sad to report that over the last few months, there has actually been an increase in reporting of name-calling, taunts, and slurs.  This is particularly true at the middle school level.   I am hearing this from school administrators, parents, and religious leaders.  While we take disciplinary action, educate students on the impact and meaning of their words, and contact parents when this occurs, I want us to be more than just reactive.  This is not who we are in the MBUSD community, and I want all of us to stand up and help make MBUSD a true place of inclusion.

We need to make it clear that our schools are safe places where all are welcome, and where hateful, derogatory, divisive, and discriminatory words and actions are not tolerated.  We need to say this out loud in our conversations at schools, in the classrooms, and at home.  Students listen.  If respect for and appreciation of differences are what they hear and what they see modeled at home and at school, they will learn.

One of the national safety mantras we hear a lot is “See something.  Say something.”  We have to make it clear to all students that being inclusive requires us all to say something when we see incidents of exclusion and discrimination. We cannot be bystanders; it is critical to report hateful words and actions.  It can be to a parent, teacher, counselor, or administrator.  It can be to our anonymous WE-TIP hotline (via phone at 1.800.782.7643 or via the web), or it can be to one of our two MBPD School Resource Officers or other peace officers. This is a great conversation to have with our children.  

As a parent, I try very hard to have regular conversations with my younger son about drug and alcohol abuse, safety, and kindness and respect for all others.  When I hear about a discriminatory event on the news, I bring it up to him.  I take full advantage of talking about these issues in our trips in the car together because there is no escaping the conversation!  I am now infusing the “See something. Say something,” mantra into our conversations.  And I’m not just talking about things that happen to him.  If he witnesses injustice or intolerance to others, I want him to say something to someone.  Doing nothing cannot be an option.  One of the simple non-confrontational actions our children can take is to reach out to someone who is targeted and just say hello or that they care about them.  There are so many ways to not be a bystander.

I hope you join me in talking with your children regularly about these issues.  We will continue to have conversations with our staff about how we can be of service to our students.  Together, we can work together and every day, make MBUSD a true place of inclusion.

Mike Matthews


Shadowing a High School Student

Students in Manhattan Beach are some of the highest achieving students in the nation.  They graduate at an extraordinarily high rate and go to fantastic colleges and/or careers around the nation.  But we have seen warning signs that indicate stress levels are higher than ever before.  MBUSD is a proud member of the 21st Century Superintendents’ Consortium, comprised of similar high performing districts throughout the United States: Palo Alto, Austin, Dallas, Chicago, Minneapolis, and Omaha.  These districts share the same concern about student stress. And we are all trying to do something about it.

Several Consortium districts, including MBUSD, have joined Challenge Success, a Stanford-based research group looking to partner with schools to help students develop skills to help them lead balanced, successful lives.  We have a committed team of high school teachers, students, parents, administrators, and board members who have been working with Challenge Success to help our high school students.  Rather than look for quick solutions, we are taking time to try to make sure everyone knows what it’s like to be a student these days.  Teachers and counselors are listening closely to our students, and we are more aware than ever.  One of the ways that we are trying to better understand our students is by shadowing them for an entire day.  We picked 30 students to shadow.  Parents, teachers, counselors, and administrators are paired with these students.  Each adult meets a student before she or he enters his first class, and stays by the side of that student throughout the day.

This week, I shadowed a junior student at Mira Costa High School, and I had a spectacular day.  Here are some of my observations from the day.

  • The student I shadowed began his day at 7 AM in Advanced Placement statistics. I arrived 4 minutes early, and he was waiting for me at the door. I shadowed my student from 7 AM until 2:15 PM, when he went to a 3-hour soccer practice. In that 10-hour-plus period, there was not a single moment of downtime. He reported that after school, he had dinner with his family, did his homework, and did not get to bed until 1:30 AM.  Then it was back to a 7 AM class the next day.  5 hours of sleep is not enough.
  • The student I shadowed genuinely likes school. He has good friends, and he smiled throughout the day. He is comfortable with adults and speaks extraordinarily well and with ease.
  • For the most part, the time spent in the classes was split with a healthy balance of listening/learning/note-taking and active speaking and collaborating in the classroom. Most classes had moderate to very high levels of student engagement and talk during the lesson.
  • My student takes three AP classes. Taking three college level courses in one semester is a heavy load. Mira Costa currently limits AP classes at four. I think we should continue to examine whether three or four is the right number as a max AP load for our students.
  • He received three tests back on the day I shadowed. He took all of those tests on Tuesday (two days prior to my shadow day).  In his words, “Tuesday was a brutal day.”  Three tests in one day is not what we are looking for if we want to reduce student stress. Students really appreciate it when there are no more than two departments testing or having projects due on one day.  We are in our first year of that effort, and I encourage us to do a better job of making that happen for our students.
  • I thought the overall quality of teaching was very high. My student’s teachers know him well, and seemed to know all of the students in the class well.  Expectations are high in his classes, and there was a lot of time for wondering, questioning, creativity, collaboration, and interaction.
  • With the exception of one class, technology was not used much as a tool by students. I don’t really understand that, but it is real.
  • The student I shadowed is a choir student and a soccer athlete. Both of those activities are a great part of his day.  He is clearly passionate about both.  He spent his lunch at a choir club, then practicing with a men’s a cappella group.  The three hours of soccer practice speaks for itself.  I’ve always believed that if a student has just one part of her or his day that she/he looks forward to every day, the high school experience will be a positive one.

The next step is to work with Challenge Success to compile data from all 30 of these shadow days and report back to Mira Costa’s Social Emotional Wellness Committee.  The Committee can then discuss what we learned, and then look at actions we can take to help our students be increasingly healthy in their high school years and beyond.

Parenting – Giving Children The Tools They Need to Thrive

Twice a year, the superintendents and curriculum leaders from seven high-performing districts across the western United States meet to learn from each other and local experts.  One of our themes has been how schools can help students develop into healthy, happy, thinking, and self-reliant adults ready to contribute to our society.   We have worked with brain researchers, corporate leaders, and education researchers to help us develop policies and practices consistent with best practices and research.

On our most recent trip to Palo Alto, we heard from Stanford researchers coming at us from different angles on how to help students.  Denise Pope as well as teachers in the Stanford Design School spoke about best instructional practices, while Julie Lythcott-Haims helped us to understand best parenting practices.   I’m going to focus on parenting for this blog post.

Julie Lythcott-Haims, author of How to Raise an Adult; Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kids for Success (2015), has seen the deterioration of self-efficacy among students in one our nation’s most selective universities.  While first-generation college students and students from less affluent homes continue to have high skills in the area of self-efficacy, those from more affluent homes do not.  One of the primary reasons, says Lythcott-Haims, is that parents just do too much for their children, and they do not let their children do enough for themselves.

Julie Lythcott-Haims
Julie Lythcott-Haims

All of us in the Consortium believe this is a message worth spreading. We are talking in depth right now about the concept of self-efficacy – described by Lythcott-Haims as believing in your ability (not your parents) to complete tasks, attain goals, and manage challenging situations.

It’s a great read, and I highly encourage it.
Here are some of the main pieces of advice Lythcott-Haims gives to parents that we discussed in the Consortium.
We parents, whenever possible,
  • Should avoid refereeing our child’s conflicts
  • Should avoid chauffeuring our children.  (Walking and biking are fantastic!) (I think this is a tough one)
  • Should not bring a forgotten item to our child.
  • Should never do our child’s homework.
  • Should give our child chores that make the household better.
  • Should not chart our child’s life.  There is no such thing as “my child has to . . .”
  • Have a wide mindset about colleges.  The counseling department at New Trier HS urges, “College is a match to be made, not a prize to be won.”
  • Listen to our kids.  Really listen.
  • Encourage our kids to have free time/play time/unstructured time
  • Lets our children see us enjoying free time/play time/unstructured time
  • Don’t stress self esteem for our child; emphasize self-efficacy.
  • See if our children can experience “flow.”
  • Encourage thinking at home
  • Encourage deep and persistent thinking at home
  • Let kids speak up for themselves
  • Let our children experience mistakes, failures, and curve balls.

One of my favorite moments came while Lythcott-Haims was speaking to all of us in a very public room at Palo Alto High School.  Students passing by stopped to listen, and they stayed because her message resonated with them.  Several students asked if there was any way that Lythcott-Haims could speak with their parents, because they would love their parents to hear her advice.  It was perfect.

Since I have returned from hearing her speak and subsequently reading her book, I have already changed a few things about how I communicate and interact with my 13-year old son.   If he doesn’t like it now, he certainly will later on!  That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.  I’m happy to be continuously learning about how to be the best parent possible.

Thanks for taking the time to read,


Mike Matthews


The 21st Century Superintendents’ Consortium is comprised of Eanes (TX), Edina (MN), Highland Park (TX), Manhattan Beach (CA), Palo Alto (CA), New Trier (IL), and Westside (NE) school districts. The mission of the 21st Century Superintendent’s Consortium is to develop the whole child, preparing learners for a successful life beyond high school.