“I thought they were dead wrong.”

That’s what Wellford “Buzz” Wilms, professor in UCLA’s Graduate School of Education & Information Studies (GSE&IS), figured when he learned about the School Management Program’s planned strategy for turning around troubled Baldwin Park High School in Southern California.

Before long, Wilms had to rethink his prognosis. “It wasn’t a failure at all. It was a remarkable success,” he says. “They made me eat a little crow.”

Housed inside GSE&IS, the School Management Program (SMP) provides K12 teachers and administrators with techniques for improving their schools. Since its creation in 1992, the nonprofit initiative has contracted with more than 800 schools, primarily in California but also in New England and New York.

“SMP promotes equity and access to excellent education for all portions of our society, so it fits squarely with GSE&IS’s mission,” says Aimée Dorr, the school’s dean. “It’s doing important work in a very important area, and in such a way that SMP is liked, valued and respected, which is the best possible scenario.”

The initiative offers its clients a wealth of real-world expertise, thanks to a staff composed mostly of former teachers and administrators. Its methods include training teachers to conduct more productive “walk-throughs” of other classrooms in their schools and coaching them on how to share best practices with each other. Might not sound revolutionary, but for 15 years SMP’s results have spoken for themselves.

Bettering Baldwin

One of the most dramatic cases was at Baldwin Park, which was plagued with classroom discipline problems and low morale among students and teachers. By the time it hired SMP in 2003, the school’s performance on the California Academic Performance Index (API) was so poor that it was in danger of sanctions by the state’s Department of Education.

Wilms thought Baldwin Park needed a top-to-bottom overhaul. “My idea was that if you wanted to change an organization, you have to get control of the core process,” he says. “What I would have done was gather the teachers together with the principal, and maybe some students, and redesign the courses from beginning to end.”

Dan Chernow Ed.D. ’97, SMP’s executive director, told Wilms that to help Baldwin Park, SMP would — as it had for hundreds of schools before — focus on showing teachers and administrators how to conduct more effective meetings. Wilms remembers thinking that the idea was “absurd,” but he accepted Chernow’s offer to follow the school’s progress.

Before working with SMP, Baldwin Park registered an API score of 485, on a 1,000-point scale. Under a mandate from the state, the school needed to improve by 16 points.

In the first year of SMP’s contract, Baldwin Park hit that goal — and then some: The school increased its API score by 66 points, and kept the momentum going by increasing the score 148 points — versus a target of 59 points — over a five-year period.

“For us,” Chernow says, “it was just further evidence that when a school’s leadership — the principal, teachers and others — identify for themselves the issues they need to work on and use their collective leadership skills to change how they do things, they can achieve those kinds of results.”

Visible Change

Other changes — more difficult to measure but no less important — began to take hold as well, says Julie Infante ’81, who was the school’s principal during the SMP contract and now is a principal-at-large for the Baldwin Park Unified School District. “Before, teachers were focusing on just getting through the day, or getting through the year. There wasn’t any professional dialoging.”

After SMP practices were implemented? “Teachers started dialoging — even across content areas,” Infante explains. “English teachers were sharing ideas with social studies teachers; social studies teachers were sharing ideas with math teachers. They had concrete action plans and goals. And we could tell they were attaining those goals, too — we didn’t have to wait until August to see the test scores.”

There were physical manifestations, too. Wilms, who observed Baldwin Park during SMP’s three-year engagement for an article he’s writing, says the grounds even began to look better over time. “The campus was cleaner,” he says. “You could see it.”

Getting teachers to speak to each other might not sound like a magic bullet for all that ails our public schools. But Wilms says it was the spark for all of the school’s other improvements. “That was the opening wedge,” he says. “From there, the trust started to build. Then, as teachers learned to do classroom walk-throughs, they started to see that one improvement connected to others. If they had engaging lessons, the discipline problems started to go away. They brought students into a mutual evaluation of where things broke down and how to fix it. Gradually, they got the sense that this was just one school and they were all responsible for it.”

What teachers learned from SMP transformed the traditional classroom environment, says Jesus Gutierrez ’01, M.E. ’06, who teaches English language development at Baldwin Park. “Instead of being boring, teacher-directed instruction, students are up, they’re interacting, they’re engaged, and they’re using their own knowledge to learn. That’s the most important thing — it’s empowering to them.”

Winning Formula

With success stories like Baldwin Park, SMP is creating a legion of converts. “They deliver great information and bring great research and great activities to the table,” says Hanan Thornton, director of curriculum and instruction for the Anaheim City School District (ACSD). “But they also help us arrive at answers ourselves.”

ACSD hired SMP to consult on three “high-priority” schools; the district also has sent hundreds of educators to an SMP seminar on teaching students whose first language isn’t English. “It was one of the most highly lauded trainings we’ve had in quite a while,” Thornton says. “We’ll continue next year with the intent of training all of our teachers.”

SMP competes for contracts with all manner of educational consultants, but “other consultants do a lot of superficial-level discussion of change, but never go deeply enough into the underlying beliefs that impact our work,” Thornton says. “SMP facilitated deep-level conversations — not just what we teach, but how we teach it. It’s more about strategies and how we approach teaching, and not just about the curriculum or textbooks we use.”

Another key is the SMP’s staff, says Rick Mintrop, associate professor at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Education, who taught at UCLA from 2000 through ’04. “A lot of support organizations have programs that are delivered by less sophisticated people,” Mintrop says. “SMP’s program is holistic; it requires a lot of skill and competence, and they have an amazing staff.”

Mintrop also says SMP stands apart because its leaders and consultants are mindful of the big picture. “It’s one of the few organizations that never lost sight of developing the profession. What makes SMP unique is that it does that really well.”

Community Impact

SMP’s services aren’t limited to turnarounds. One of its current clients, Our Community School, a public charter school in North Hills, Calif., hired SMP to get the school off the ground when it replaced a shuttered school in 2005. Says Principal Chris Ferris, “They’re the wise elders of education in Los Angeles.”

Ferris says Our Community teachers and administrators credit the university for making such an impact. “UCLA is doing a tremendous service to the Los Angeles community by doing this,” she says. “They’re going to wherever the need is and helping schools get better. That’s the only way education reform really happens.”

Generally, the expense of SMP is covered by a combination of government grants and corporate and private philanthropy. “The support we receive is so critical,” Chernow says. “It allows us to approach schools that might not have the money to hire us and work with them. And it allows us to explore new subject matter and replicate our learning with schools and districts.”

It was foundation support, Chernow says, that enabled SMP to build expertise in classroom walk-throughs, which in turn led to the program’s first book. Breaking Through to Effective Teaching was published in December by Rowman & Littlefield.

If Breaking Through helps spread the SMP gospel to educators around the country, that would be just fine with Jayne Van Langeveld, who retired last June after 15 years as principal at Miramonte Elementary School.

Like Baldwin Park, Miramonte was in danger of having the state impose sanctions. “SMP worked hand-in-hand with us,” Van Langeveld says. “We improved every year until we reached the score we needed to come out of program improvement.”

The progress was momentous for the school, but also important to Van Langeveld, who put off retirement to oversee Miramonte’s transformation. “Those three years were the best of my life,” she says. “I could have retired, but I wanted to see that grant through so badly that I stayed two more years than I might have otherwise. SMP gave us just what we needed.”

Not So Golden State

If you have any doubt that California public schools are facing a deep-seated crisis, look no further than the latest California Educational Opportunity Report.

Some of the sobering statistics:

• Among students from all 50 states, California fourth-graders rank 48th in reading and 46th in math; eighth-graders rank 47th in reading and 45th in math.

• More than 520,000 California students entered ninth grade in 2002, but fewer than 350,000 graduated in 2006 — the state’s smallest graduation percentage since 1997.

• California has one guidance counselor for every 556 high school students; the national average is one counselor for every 229 students.

The study — a partnership between the Graduate School of Education & Information Studies’ (GSE&IS) Institute for Democracy, Education and Access (UCLA IDEA) and the University of California’s All Campus Consortium on Research for Diversity (UC ACCORD) — rebuts the widely held notion that the problem is a disparity in the performance of students from different ethnic backgrounds.

“There’s a great deal of conversation in California about the racial achievement gap in this state,” says Jeannie Oakes Ph.D. ’80, Presidential Professor of Education Equity in GSE&IS and a co-author of the study. “But we found a very large gap between California as a whole and the rest of the country, including a gap between white students in California and white students in the rest of the country.”

The systemic lack of resources highlighted in the report, combined with California’s reported $14-billion budget deficit for 2008 — sure to negatively impact education funding — makes it easy to wonder whether schools can recover any time soon.

John Rogers, GSE&IS assistant professor and the report’s other author, admits there’s no easy fix. “It took a couple of decades for California to move from the top of the heap to the bottom, so we need to think about a long-term process through which California rises again,” he says. “The most important thing now is to begin public conversations across the state to encourage the public and elected officials to take our schools’ needs seriously.”