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Santa Monica-Malibu Schools Get Failing Grades in Closing Achievement Gap
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Convention and Visitors Bureau Santa Monica


By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

April 20, 2016 -- After more than two decades, Santa Monica-Malibu public schools have failed every effort to help disadvantaged students, leaving more than a third of them still grasping to close the achievement gap in test scores and other measures of success, a UCLA expert has found.

The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) has launched multiple initiatives during that period to narrow the gap between its white, mostly well off student majority and Latino and black students, who have posted far lower test scores, according to the report by Pedro Noguera, an academic with UCLA and an expert on diversity.

The District has failed to bridge the gap, unable to muster the public will, leadership or the right teaching to succeed, Noguera said.

“None of these efforts have reduced disparities in student achievement or produced significant or sustainable improvements in academic outcomes for African-American and Latino students, English language learners, children with learning disabilities and low-income students generally, in the school district,” the report said.

There is also “a tendency to prioritize the demands of affluent parents, which frequently comes at the expense of attention to the needs of disadvantaged students and pursuit of district goals,” the report states.

The lengthy report, which went to the School Board earlier this month, says the “persistence and pervasive” nature of the fracture suggests “schools in SMMUSD are unclear about how to meet the educational needs of minority and socioeconomically disadvantaged (SED) students.”

A similar study of the district’s 16 schools was conducted by UCLA nine years ago, and that little progress had been made since then, Noguera said.

SMMUSD spokesperson Gail Pinsker said the district is now analyzing the findings and determining how to put its recommendations into practice.

“There will be professional development across all staff and teachers and the board in looking to implement and change the culture and address concerns reflected in the report,” Pinsker said, adding that parents will be heavily involved in the work.

“This is not an overnight flip of a switch, but we are very excited about moving in the direction of a student-centered environment and providing equity and access for all,” Pinsker said.

No specific dates for board action have been set yet. Over the summer, however, Noguera and his team are scheduled to conduct a three-day “Equity Institute” for all administrators and managers at the district and school sites, she said.

Oscar de la Torre, a school board member involved with minority youth, said he was not surprised by the findings in Noguera’s report.

“There are some things that this district does well,” said de la Torre, who heads the Pico Youth and Family Center. “One of the things it doesn’t do well is addressing the issue of marginalization” of its non-white and low-income students.

“That’s something you’ll find in the City government and all of its branches, including the school district.”

Slightly more than half of the district’s estimated 12,500 kindergarten-through-12th grade students are white and of those, nearly 80 percent meet or exceed test standards, the report said.

It noted that Asians are a tiny population by comparison -– only about 6 percent –- but also are mostly affluent and score high on tests.

Meanwhile, Latinos comprise about 30 percent of the total enrollment are generally not financially well off. Latinos also test poorly in comparison, with slightly less than half meeting or exceeding standards.

The report said black students, who represent 7 percent of the total enrollment, also are not economically advantaged and register somewhat lower test scores than Latino students.

Noguera’s report was conducted between August and February through a contract to study SMMUSD equity problems and propose solutions.

It concludes with wide ranging recommendations that include moving from “reactive planning” to a “vision-driven cycle of development and improvement with clear focus on priorities, strengths and needs.”

The study found that the diversity gap at SMMUSD is the continuation of a historic pattern also prevalent in other districts.

The report showcases two success stories – in the Brockton School District in Massachusetts, which developed “coherent strategies” on diversity and followed them through -- and in the Abington School District in Pennsylvania, which gave greater access to and help with advanced courses and added more extracurricular activities.

But the report makes clear that the SMMUSD is beset by a variety of roadblocks.

Some are “political distractions” and others are the result of poorly run initiatives that created a “high degree of cynicism” and a “culture of opposition” among staff.

A history of “racial tensions in the city and in schools has contributed to distrust and feelings of marginalization amongst communities and staff
of color,” the report adds.

The tension between Malibu and Santa Monica schools and their populations is also a “significant distraction from a clear focus on student needs.”

Other problems, the study found, are a geographical and cultural “disconnect,” between the two communities, the intense debates over equity in funding and resources and “rejection of equity as a priority for Malibu.”

Despite such divisiveness, there have been many efforts at closing the achievement gap, including the district’s “Professional Learning Communities (PLCs), Response to Intervention (RTI) and the use of literacy coaches.

But those efforts are not clearly understood or evenly implemented, and have not been a success overall, the report said.

The report also cites problems such as frequent changes in leadership, at both the district and site levels, that have disrupted follow-through and spelled doom for “promising initiatives.”

Progress must start at the top, with the school board, Noguera said.

The Board "must establish clear priorities and goals related to equity and stick to them,” his report said. “It must not allow other concerns to distract the central administration and site leaders from implementing strategies to improve learning and teaching.”

He said other districts with similar demographics have made inroads on the diversity issue, and there is no reason that SMMUSD “should not be able to make more progress than it has.”

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