Students leave Franklin Elementary School on the first day of classes. (Daniel Archuleta daniela@www.smdp.com)

Many parents and stakeholders are aware that gulfs in academic performance exist between student groups in the Santa Monica-Malibu school district. Perhaps less well-known, though, is what the administration is doing to eliminate them.

It’s a complex problem with no easy solutions, but it’s constantly on the minds of the members of the district’s advisory committee on intercultural equity and excellence.

“We’re dealing with issues of trying to help the district in closing the achievement gap,” committee co-chair Gary Avrech said. “A lot of us feel not enough is being done or that many things are being done but the fruits of that work are not making enough of an impact. And we’re not closing the achievement gap at a pace the community is hoping for.”

Avrech’s comments came last month during a presentation to the Board of Education, which heard brief updates from several district committees. Further discussions are expected in the coming weeks, and the school board plans to approve the various panels’ 2015-16 goals by October.

Closing the achievment gap is one of Supt. Sandra Lyon’s stated priorities for the upcoming school year.

“As we continue to work toward that goal,” she wrote in a letter to stakeholders, “this year we also dig deeper in our work to eliminate access and equity gaps across our district.”

The equity committee, helmed by Avrech and co-chair Ericka Lesley, is charged with identifying and striving to eliminate inequalities in educational outcomes in the district.

The committee’s meetings are breeding grounds for ideas about how to meet the needs of the district’s diverse student and parent populations.

The panel then makes recommendations to the board on how to improve intercultural relations in the district and “facilitate the building of bridges of understanding … so that all groups feel connected to and part of the school community,” according to the SMMUSD website.

The committee draws from a wide swath of area organizations, including the local chapter of the NAACP, the area Human Relations Council, the Committee for Racial Justice, Santa Monica Bahai Center and Church in Ocean Park. Lesley, for one, has been working on a project to get students involved in community conversations with the help of the Santa Monica College Public Policy Institute.

In addition to supporting the district’s upcoming work with scholar Pedro Noguera and passing a resolution to recommend that the school board fully fund the Village Nation program at Santa Monica High School in 2015-16, Avrech’s panel this year explored solutions through subcommittees on engagement, male youth of color and global citizenship.

This spring, the engagement committee convened community conversations with parents of African-American and Latino students in the district.

The subcommittee on minority male students set out to survey students, teachers and administrators at the district’s middle and high schools to get their perspectives on issues of gender, ethnicity and education. The project is ongoing.

Meanwhile, the global citizenship committee aimed to ease tensions among students and improve cultural proficiency among teachers by working to expand Samohi’s ethnic studies program.

“The focus on where the problem is, the achievement gap, needs some dramatic attention,” Avrech said. “Incremental recommendations that we’ve seen over many years just don’t bear a lot of fruit. … In the next year, we’re hoping to work together to make more dramatic changes and help SMMUSD close the achievement gap.”

Conversations about achievement gaps in the district come amid flaring racial strife across the country following a spate of incidents, including the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman in Florida, the fatal shooting of robbery suspect Michael Brown by Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson, the death of Eric Garner in New York and the Charleston church shooting that left nine dead.

Avrech said it irks him to hear people respond to the “Black lives matter” refrain with the declaration that all lives matter.

“When there’s a house on fire, it’s not enough to say that all these houses matter,” he said. “Sometimes, you’ve gotta put out the fire.”

Contact Jeff Goodman at 310-573-8351, jeff@www.smdp.com or on Twitter.

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