Courtesy of Helen Wittmann Elementary
Principal Miguel Marco checks in with members of the Wittmann Elementary School's First LEGO League robotics team, who were working on coding for their "Dash and Dot" robot. They turned theirs into a cat that meows when you pet or talk to it

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Earlier this month, Miguel Marco went to Washington, D.C., to receive the annual Terrel H. Bell Award, given by the U.S. Department of Education to outstanding principals. Marco, the principal of Helen Wittmann Elementary in Cerritos, is one of nine recipients and the only one from California this year. Wittmann is one of 30 schools in ABC Unified, with 18,000 students in Los Angeles County.

Marco was selected from leaders of the 297 National Blue Ribbon Schools for 2022, of which 29, including Wittmann, are California schools honored for their overall academic performance or progress in closing achievement gaps.

“The nine school leaders receiving this year’s Terrel Bell awards have raised the bar for building positive school climates, increasing achievement, and finding creative ways to nurture, engage, and support students, families, educators, and school staff,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona in announcing the awards.

Wittmann, with 540 students in transitional kindergarten to sixth grade, fits the bill, as a high-achieving, ethnically diverse school, with 40% Asian, 25% Latino and small proportions of Filipino, Black and white students. About a third are economically disadvantaged and a third are English learners. The proportion of students who met or exceeded standards on the Smarter Balanced tests in 2022 was slightly higher in English language arts (87%) and the same in math (75%) as in pre-pandemic 2019.

What did drop during the eight years that Marco has been principal was the rate of suspensions, in part because of the school culture he helped create. It happened in little ways, like the use of Notes of Praise between students and teachers, and big changes, including the introduction of 20 enrichment programs during and after school.

Born and raised in Los Angeles, Marco graduated from the University of Southern California, where he played football, and has master’s degrees in education and public administration. He’s been an educator for 21 years. 

EdSource asked Marco to elaborate on what distinguishes his school and his leadership. The interview has been condensed for brevity and clarity.  

EdSource:  

From your biography, I can tell you are a terrific principal. What do you think stood out from other principals for you to get the award?

Miguel Marco:

When I just spoke to the different individuals that were a part of that process, a big piece of it was that we went through probably the greatest crisis (with the Covid pandemic) in modern education.  We were able to remain a successful school and to be engaged with our families. Our families love dropping their kids off here. Our kids love going to school here. That’s a main component.

I also think that my background is a little bit different. As a kid, I wasn’t madly in love with school. I was a pretty good athlete; that kind of kept me in school. As I moved on, I grew to love school.

EdSource:  

Is that because of your dyslexia?

Miguel Marco:  

That made a big difference. School at the beginning was pretty rough. I think that that gives me more of an understanding when I work with students and work with people.

I mostly still read by sight. My reading comprehension is really high. And I get concepts very easily, probably compared to others. But when I have to read a word, I don’t blend it the way a normal person does, it just doesn’t work that way. So I think when I was growing up like that, teachers weren’t sure what to do.

Today an entire curriculum at my school is built for dyslexia. I have a specialist that if we suspect it (a reading problem), we immediately go to that so we can get that kid up to speed as early as possible. I revamped what we call the student success team, the SST process, and really focused on not just identifying kids, but getting support.

We make every attempt to support the family and get their family’s input. We say, “How do you feel about this? What are your thoughts?” That leads to a supportive environment where we’re on the same team.

EdSource: 

I’m assuming you were well-engaged with your families before the pandemic and therefore were better positioned than other places.

Miguel Marco:  

I think that’s fair to say. I always tell people there’s about 540 kids at my school, but I know most if not all of them by first name. I see them when they’re in TK and K, and I get them all the way through sixth grade because, in my school, most kids can stay here the entire time and commute even if they leave the area.

But I had to adjust also during the pandemic with 500 people in a town hall meeting, which I’d never had before, answering questions that are really difficult and trying to navigate through misinformation, disinformation, then saying, “OK, well, here’s what’s really happening.” To this day, I still have all my coffees on Zoom.

EdSource:  

Oh, really?

Miguel Marco: 

And the attendance went way up, of course, because now parents can be at work and Zoom in and can ask me a question right there. That’s really allowed my community to focus on the things we really need to focus on.

EdSource:  

Is it a weekly coffee?

Miguel Marco: 

We tailored it back a little bit. It’s at least once a month, sometimes twice.

EdSource:   

How many parents usually tune in?

Miguel Marco:  

It depends on the subject. The smallest group is about 35, but I’ve gone all the way up to a hundred. Parents can literally just turn on their cellphone while they’re driving to work, log in and talk.

Enrichment is essential

EdSource:  

What are other distinct features of your school that others might consider adapting? I know enrichment is really important, but other schools will say, well, we have enrichment activities too.

Miguel Marco:  

A lot of other schools are doing great things too. We’ve made a real push not to do enrichment just here and there, but really make it a part of the school and ensure students take a yearlong, weekly rotation that includes robotics and coding. Along with that, students have a period of creative space where they can develop their own ideas, do their own projects. Part of the rotation is in the library, where they can sit and read a book or learn about web research.

I’ve definitely learned from my students and from my own experience that the enrichment experience shouldn’t be isolated to the kid who’s classified as a GATE (Gifted and Talented Education) student. There are some after-school things like math olympiad, and business class, where students can go further if they wish to, but that’s open to everyone also.

During enrichment time, teachers can collaborate — reflect on what’s working, what’s not, and where they need to intervene and where they need to further themselves as well. And that time is with me too to sit down and ask, “How are things going?” or “What do you need?” I try to create kind of a win-win atmosphere for kids and teachers. So everybody walks away feeling, “Hey, I accomplished a lot today.”

EdSource:   

Do you have a longer day?

Miguel Marco:  

No, it’s a normal six-hour day.

EdSource:   

Tell me about ABC Unified.  

Miguel Marco:  

We sit on the border between LA County and Orange County. The original farming community was called Artesia, Bloomfield and Carmenita. Then they built a bunch of homes and incorporated the three towns together to create a unified school district. The biggest city is Cerritos, which is middle class, Hawaiian Gardens, which is mostly low income, and Artesia, which is a mixture of both.

It’s a really interesting dynamic. This year I partnered with a Hawaiian Gardens school so they get robotics. We share our teacher. My hope is eventually we’ll share robotics and coding teams together bridging that gap between the two different communities.

Pandemic lessons

EdSource:  

What lessons from the pandemic did you take away that changed your school?

Miguel Marco: 

I have learned to be flexible and pragmatic. It’s OK to take input from people and think differently. One reason we were able to navigate that period so well is we figured out as a staff it’s not business as usual.

EdSource:  

Can you give me another example?

Miguel Marco:  

We had kids who literally just disappeared, when the pandemic hit. Kids who were logging in from Mexico to go to class, from Sri Lanka, from India. We had kids that were stuck in different states and couldn’t get back to California. My staff didn’t say, “Well, that kid’s not my class anymore.” They were like, “OK, as long as you log in, you’re still a part of this class.”

It was adapting to knowing parents had to go to work. Just being in communication with them, picking up the phone or sending a text message and saying, “Oh, hey, you know, Johnny was supposed to log back in 20 minutes ago. Is everything okay?” Not doing it from a place of authority but more of, Is everything all right? Do you need our help? Do we need to stop by and drop some stuff off or pick something up?

I wanted to set up a system by which nobody got lost at the end of the day. My humongous fear? Some kids were going to disappear for a year.

EdSource:   

Did you say you’ve been able to retain families who moved away and had to commute for some distance?

Miguel Marco: 

I’m very lucky I’ve got a good culture here. We have been able to retain both staff and families who have moved a little bit but are still in our district and applied to remain here. In Washington, I was listening to superintendents who can’t retain anyone. They’re really desperate. I’m at the opposite spectrum, where I’ve had people who’ve inquired to be here.

EdSource:   

What have you done for learning loss?

Miguel Marco: 

I have a full-time teacher on special assignment who focuses mostly on literacy, getting our kids to read by the time they are third graders. We’re also focusing on equitable access to during and after-school programs, spending money on arts programs and on equipment for sports tournaments and funding for teachers who are willing to stay after school and work with kids who have fallen behind.

The data that came back — I was very clear with our teachers about this — showed we didn’t have much, if any loss. It’s not just about tutoring kids. You can only tutor to the point where a kid is like, “I don’t want to do that anymore.” Our approach was if they need support, we’re going to give small group instruction in the classroom as well as after school.

But we’re not going to stop students from taking band or going to coding or the library. Those are the first places a lot of kids get pulled out of, but they make the kid want to show up to school, too. The desire to want to be at school is much more important than how quickly they learn their math facts.

EdSource: 

Did you have a social worker before the pandemic?

Miguel Marco:  

We did. The additional funding allowed us to get full-time people and programs they need. Our district was a bit ahead of the curve. We started incorporating mental health professionals in elementary school several years prior to the pandemic. I have a social worker who’s here every day who meets with kids and staff and parents and helps people navigate through some rocky relationships. Mental health is a component that I hope people pay a lot more attention to.

EdSource:   

If you had the funding, would you get another person in the classroom, whether credentialed or not, to help with that small-group instruction?

Miguel Marco:  

I would love to get another person on my campus. Right now, my teachers do that themselves. If you were to walk into one of my classrooms, you would not be surprised to see a teacher who would teach whole group and then differentiate to meet with students who need support at a table in the back of the room. In some cases, the teacher will say, “Yeah, let’s meet after school and, and let me help you out even more.”

We had an influx at the end of the year of Ukrainian students. Nobody here speaks Ukrainian or Russian, so we had to figure this out, and we did.  They’re doing really well, and they’ve told me they’re really happy to be at school. The extra money ended up coming in really handy just to give them additional support.

EdSource:  

So it sounds like your teachers are willing to be flexible and do whatever needs to happen without turning it into a negotiation issue.

Miguel Marco: 

That is absolutely true. The relationship is very different than other places. We are not contentious. We listen to each other. Don’t get me wrong, it has not been easy. But at the end of the day, we walked away saying, we’re all in agreement on this matter and we’re gonna move forward.

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  1. Jim 1 week ago1 week ago

    That “40% Asian” is a little misleading. Cerritos has an astonishing number of languages and in some areas “Asian” may refer to primarily Chinese or Korean or Japanese. Cerritos is much more heterogenous and it also refers to South Asian as Little India is nearby. Kudos as this is a very challenging task.