Pedro Noguera stood on the Barnum Hall stage, addressing the employees of the Santa Monica-Malibu school district before the start of the school year.

He gave an impassioned keynote speech about closing the achievement gap and coming up with strategies to prevent students’ demographic backgrounds from predicting how they’ll perform academically.

If it sounds like a familiar scene, it’s because it is.

“It feels like deja vu all over again,” he said.

Noguera, a renowned scholar and educational reformist who was hired by SMMUSD to improve equity in the district, gave a similar speech at last year’s convocation. But the focus of this year’s event, which was held Tuesday morning at Santa Monica High School, was putting into practice the recommendations that Noguera and his consultancy outlined over the last year.

Noguera’s speech was delivered at a turning point for the district, which is currently searching for Sandra Lyon’s long-term replacement. The local Board of Education recently appointed Chris King and Sylvia Rousseau to serve as interim co-superintendents through the end of the calendar year.

There’s also been a personnel shift at Samohi, where Antonio Shelton was recently hired to fill the void left by principal Eva Mayoral.

“There’s been so much change in leadership … and that often means that we start all over again,” Noguera said, noting the negative effects of turnover on implementing sustainable change. “But this board has committed itself to not allowing that to happen.”

Throughout the last school year, Noguera and his team visited district sites, sat in on classrooms and met with staff to get an understanding of the obstacles to improving outcomes for historically under-performing students.

They found a lack of consistent implementation of programs and a lack of support for teachers, particularly following changes in administrative leadership. They discovered pockets of isolation and fragmentation between and within school sites. And they saw examples of passive learning, wherein kids were well-behaved but not deeply engaged in the material.

“It’s not good enough to diagnose what’s going on,” Noguera said. “We actually have to make sure something happens.

“‘Excellence Through Equity’” runs the risk of becoming another slogan. … The data shows we have an issue. Now the question is, ‘What do we do about it? How do we respond?’”

Noguera said the best schools feature a coherent system of initiatives with a combination of targeted professional development, strong community ties, student-centered learning and “shared leadership” — a model of mutual accountability. He said teachers should have access to mentors and added that staff members must be given time to plan and collaborate.

Exactly how SMMUSD puts these findings into practice remains to be seen.

“I believe this district can be a national model for what’s possible,” he said. “I see a deep commitment to the work. I sense a willingness to take this work seriously.

“When we come back again next year, what are we going to be able to say? Will we have signs of real progress?”

jeff@smdp.com

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