Columnists Opinion

Following a proven path for better educating our kids

Going from good to great is one of the hardest things any school can do. Taking that leap demands careful planning, commitment and a deep understanding of what families and students need to succeed.

That’s why we are gratified that Baldwin Hills Elementary Pilot & Gifted High Ability Magnet, a predominantly black and low-income school in South L.A., became the first L.A. Unified elementary school in that neighborhood to become a California Distinguished School, one of only 39 other L.A. Unified campuses that were so recognized this year.

What Baldwin Hills has accomplished stands as a brilliant and instructive example not just for L.A. Unified but also for a generation of educators who believe in the power of education to reverse some of the most troubling and discouraging trends in schools. 

To be sure, Baldwin Hills began with a solid foundation. Students there performed at or above state standards for years, and parents have long flocked to the campus to enroll their kids. Some even moved to the area from as far as San Pedro to get their child a seat.

Five years ago, the Baldwin Hills team courageously decided they wanted to take the next step and applied to make the school a pilot. 

Pilot schools came about in L.A. Unified about a dozen years ago. The campuses have autonomy over their budget, curriculum and staff hiring that traditional schools don’t. In addition, pilot schools are governed by a committee of administrators, teachers, parents and students. 

This leadership model allows for deep involvement in all important school decisions that can lead to greater community participation. This gives all stakeholders a sense of purpose and drive towards furthering academic achievement for every student.

At Baldwin Hills, staff focused on improving students’ critical-thinking skills and rigorous instructional practices to promote academic achievement across subjects. As important, educators realized that they had to embrace building positive relationships with students, families and the local community.

This commitment manifests itself in ways big and small. Artwork on campus features African-American and Latino images and affirmations. Nearly 80% of the staff is a minority, and social justice issues are addressed with fidelity in all classrooms. 

Once these changes took effect, improvement was almost immediate. From 2016 to 2018, the percentage of Baldwin Hills students who met state standards in math climbed from 34% to 43%. By comparison, about 35% of district students in 2018 met standards. 

From 2016 to 2018, the percentage of Baldwin Hills students who met state standards in English jumped from 49% to about 57%. About 42% of district students met English standards in 2018. 

Baldwin Hills’ results are especially promising since educators have been wrestling with how to give African-American students access to higher levels of learning, especially since African-American students persistently rank at the bottom of achievement comparisons. In fact, L.A. Unified board members George J. McKenna III and Kelly Gonez wrote a resolution to deal with the gap. Their measure calls for a five-year plan with academic and social emotional supports, new strategies and consistent funding.

As the district implements this resolution through concrete action, it can learn plenty from the successes of the Baldwin Hills team. Educators statewide should take notice, too, amid California’s devastating and insidious divides in reading and math proficiency, Baldwin Hills continues to reverse negative trends for African-American and Latino students.

Progress doesn’t mean that every campus must embrace the practices that have worked for Baldwin Hills. But educators should follow the example of honest self-assessment as a key. With that as a first step, they’ll be following a proven path to a better education for all kids in Los Angeles.

Montgomery is the executive director of the Center for Powerful Public Schools. Ponce is the executive director of Great Public Schools Now.