Editor’s note: This is the first installment of a multi-part series about the Santa Monica-Malibu school district’s achievement gap.

Officials in the Santa Monica-Malibu school district didn’t need Pedro Noguera to tell them they have significant work to do to close the achievement gap.

But with the renowned reformist on board as a consultant, district leaders have reiterated their commitment to addressing longstanding disparities in academic success along racial and socioeconomic lines.

After a presentation by Noguera during which he pointed out district flaws and outlined a roadmap of solutions, the local Board of Education on Thursday afternoon expressed unanimous support for the creation of a plan to improve equity in the district.

During a well-attended meeting in the  Santa Monica High School cafeteria, board members directed district staff to move forward with Noguera’s recommendations and return with detailed strategies for curbing the gulfs in outcomes between minority students and their peers.

“There’s no simple solution, and everyone in this community … believes in and understands how important it is to engage in this work,” SMMUSD Superintendent Sandra Lyon said. “It’s a daunting task, and one worth doing.”

What remains to be seen is how the district will get past the buzzwords of “shared vision,” “culturally responsive teaching” and “differentiated learning” to make lasting dents in the achievement gaps that persist between black and Latino students and their white and Asian counterparts.

On recent state tests, district 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. Similarly, just 30 percent of black test-takers in SMMUSD and 33 percent of Latino students met or exceeded the math standard, while white and Asian students’ rates stood at 69 percent and 77 percent, respectively.

“This community is better-positioned than most to make progress and address this issue,” Noguera said. “But there’s a tendency to confuse talking about something with doing it. We can’t think, ‘We had a meeting, and we knocked that one out.’ It’s a step in a long journey.”

Noguera’s arrival in the district followed his appearance about a year ago at Santa Monica College, where Lyon and assistant superintendent Terry Deloria heard him speak. The education scholar’s consultancy is being paid $185,000 to assess the district’s problems and help implement long-term fixes.

“We determined it would be a great benefit to our district if we could partner with Dr. Noguera and conduct an equity review to … make sure we were doing the best for each and every one of our students,” Lyon said.

Board members and stakeholders praised the district for attempting to tackle the problems and lauded Noguera for his thorough approach. Longtime board member Jose Escarce, for one, said the current effort to close the achievement gap feels different than previous attempts in the district.

“Whether we’ve misfired or not in the past is not the point,” he said. “I sense much more commitment than I ever have before. … Today is the first day of a plan that will, over time, take us to the place where we want to go.”

Sarah Braff, president of the Santa Monica-Malibu Classroom Teachers Association, said it will take substantial effort to enact the culture changes outlined by Noguera.

“This opportunity will not succeed if we don’t all take ownership of the fact that we have not yet succeeded,” she said. It will only work if we open up our hearts and our minds to real change. We must all take this as serious as a heart attack. That’s how important it is.”

jeff@www.smdp.com