One of the obstacles to closing the Santa Monica-Malibu school district’s academic achievement gaps, Pedro Noguera says, is personnel turnover.

Changes in staff and administration, the education reformist argues, make it harder for the district to establish a culture that is conducive to helping the neediest students without sacrificing the success of their high-performing peers.

“Every time you get a new leader,” he said, “they want to start over again.”

Noguera was addressing SMMUSD stakeholders during a special meeting at Santa Monica High School last month, speaking generally about issues that can stifle the district’s well-meaning efforts.

His comments came weeks before Superintendent Sandra Lyon announced her resignation, a departure that could create new challenges for the district as it strives to improve equity across its campuses. Lyon will assume her role as Palm Springs Unified’s top executive on July 1.

Lyon said it will be hard for her to leave SMMUSD as Noguera works with teachers and administrators to implement new strategies next year.

“This decision is a difficult one for me to make as we are turning the corner on becoming a more student-centered district with equity and access clearly defined as our goal for all students,” she said.

With Lyon at the helm, the district hired Noguera to address chasms in academic success that have persisted between Hispanic and black students and their peers.

The achievement gap was underscored by varying levels of success in the district on recent state tests. Pass rates in English ranged from 45 percent for African-American students and 48 percent for Hispanic students to 78 percent for white students and 83 percent for Asians. Similar discrepancies were found in math, where pass rates stood at 30 percent and 33 percent for black and Latino students. Those figures were 69 percent and 77 percent for white and Asian students, respectively.

Lyon said equity will be among her priorities in her new job.

“This is the right time in the right community for me and I’m looking forward to working with the new board and leadership on improving parent engagement, improving outcomes for all students and working closely with the stakeholders, in the communities,” she said.

School board president Laurie Lieberman said Lyon has given the local district momentum in its attempts to close the achievement gap.

“While we still have work to do, her vision and leadership, particularly in the areas of equity, collaboration and team-building across the district, have moved us forward,” Lieberman said.

Noguera, meanwhile, said SMMUSD is better-prepared than most districts to tackle equity issues. By contrast, he recently said the future of L.A. Unified is “dire” and needs immediate attention.

“Equity and excellence are compatible goals,” Noguera said. “We [incorrectly] believe that if we do more for some group, we’re doing less for others. … You have more resources than most districts and a city willing to invest resources in the schools. You’ve got the ingredients.”

The local Committee for Racial Justice on Sunday hosted a panel at Virginia Avenue Park to dissect Noguera’s report on SMMUSD achievement gaps. The issue will likely remain in the spotlight as the Board of Education searches for a new top administrator.

As for who should replace Lyon?

“We need someone who is a key player, who can step up to the plate and demonstrates accountability for the disparities amongst our students,” community activist Isabel Aranda said.

jeff@smdp.com

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