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

Pedro Noguera spoke of personnel turnover, passive learning environments and a lack of teacher support. He said the Santa Monica-Malibu school district needs better customized instruction and more data-driven solutions.

Most of all, though, the renowned education reformist said a change in culture is needed for SMMUSD to close the achievement gap.

Disconnects between teachers, site leaders and administrators have prevented the district from addressing gulfs in academic success that persist along racial and socioeconomic lines, Noguera said.

“Many of your schools have people who don’t work well together,” he said.

Noguera presented his findings to the local Board of Education during a special meeting Thursday in the Santa Monica High School cafeteria, where he pointed out flaws and proposed potential solutions to improve outcomes for students in demographic groups that have historically performed poorly.

Noguera was hired as a consultant last year to help SMMUSD close longstanding achievement gaps. He and his team observed hundreds of classrooms and spoke with numerous administrators, teachers and students in recent months.

“How do we make sure all kids have a chance to be successful? It doesn’t mean treating everyone the same,” he said. “Kids who are depressed, kids who are hungry, kids who are unsafe will not do as well as kids who have their needs met. We’ve got to find ways as educators to meet their needs rather than expect them to adjust to what we provide.”

Noguera said personnel changes have prevented SMMUSD from establishing continuity in programs that could help improve equity.

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

Noguera’s team concluded that personnel turnover and other issues have led to a high degree of cynicism, resulting in a lack of consistent implementation of strategies to close achievement gaps.

He said the district has laudable programs in place for professional development, intervention and literacy, but he concluded that coordinated planning among teachers often depends on their informal relationships beyond the classroom.

The district needs to make a concerted effort to promote collaboration and foster accountability, Noguera said. Executives have to spend less time in their offices and more time at campuses.

 “Vision is not something you hand down like Moses,” he said. “It’s something we build together.”

Noguera and several community members described the district as a collection of separate schools operating independently, a dynamic that has hindered the effectiveness of some initiatives.

Michelle Wittig, a community activist and former college professor, said it’s demoralizing that the achievement gaps persist despite Santa Monica’s strong financial resources.

“SMMUSD seems to be a cluster of silos,” she said. “There are major disconnects in the quality and quantity and continuity of education because of those silos. … I hope we find the courage to dismantle the silos.”

Added Maurice Maxwell, leader of the district’s support group for African-American parents, students and staff: “Right now, I have no faith in the system here.”

Betsy Hiteshew, a retired Santa Monica College instructor and advocate for early childhood education, commended the board for giving Noguera a chance to tackle the district’s problems.

“It is not an easy thing to empower a consultant to come and talk about your warts,” she said.

Gary Avrech, co-chair of the district’s advisory committee on intercultural equity, said SMMUSD should recruit more black and Hispanic teachers.

“I know people here are committed to [closing the achievement gap],” he said. “Changing the culture is not going to happen overnight.”

Noguera said there’s a general misunderstanding of equity and what it means for student success in the district.

“Too many people think, ‘This is for those kids, not mine,’” he said.

“We will get nowhere if what we do is blame each other and point fingers. We will only make progress if every constituent in this community … recognizes they have a role to play in this. There’s no one single party that can do this by themselves.”

jeff@www.smdp.com