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Octavio Gutierrez works with a group of students learning English, giving them a preview of what their fluent peers will learn later. Credit: Emmanuel Felton

HAWTHORNE, Ca. – With testing season starting up again, here’s a reminder of last year’s demoralizing news: Every California district and demographic group fared worse on the national Smarter Balanced tests, and the state’s already large test score gaps grew.

The results from those new Common Core tests – designed explicitly to look for the skills kids need in college, namely critical thinking, problem solving and analytical writing skills – have been held up as proof of the persistence of deep-seated disparities in the education provided to poor students and children of color.

But bright spots across the state could provide lessons for how California might do better in the future.

Wiseburn Unified School District in the South Bay region of Los Angeles County, for example, did a particularly good job preparing its low-income black students to compete with more affluent kids across the state. And its poor Hispanic students and students still learning English performed much better than similar kids statewide.

Wiseburn’s superintendent, Tom Johnstone, says the scores are the result of a combination of efforts, but he’s especially proud of how the district revamped the way math is taught. (Only 33 percent of California students met expectations in math last year, compared to 37 percent in Wiseburn, despite the fact that Wiseburn enrolls higher proportions of some groups that typically struggle on state tests.)

Key to that success, Johnstone says, was that the district had already started teaching math differently back in 2009. In that year, they hired two recent graduates of Loyola Marymount University’s Center for Math and Science Teaching, and began training veteran teachers.

“What we were doing was attached to the old standards, but the thinking and the logic was very Common Core, very focused on conceptual understanding,” said Johnstone.

Related: Common Core tests will widen achievement gap — at first

California, unlike most states that adopted Common Core, has sent over $3 billion to districts to help them transition to the new, tougher standards. Ryan Smith, executive director of The Education Trust-West, a nonprofit that works to improve education for minority and poor students, says a lot of that money was spent to ramp up technology, since the tests are taken on computer. But in the future, he hopes districts will invest in improving teaching.

“We want our people to experiment, knowing that it’s cool to make mistakes. The key is you hire really good people and you get out of their way”

“It made sense that with the move to the new tests, some schools would need more technology,” said Smith. “But moving forward we need to make sure we’re investing in the things we know close achievement and opportunity gaps. It’s about who’s in front of students, supporting teachers, making sure we have effective teachers in the classroom, ensuring that we have teachers that know how to teach to the new standards. It’s also about extended learning time for students that need to catch up.”

Wiseburn’s leaders might say the same thing.

Statewide, only 22 percent of low-income black students – among the lowest performing groups, along with students with disabilities and students not yet fluent in English – passed English tests, while just 13 percent passed the math exams. In contrast, 55 percent of Wiseburn’s poor black students passed the English test – 11 points above the statewide average for all students. Twenty-nine percent of Wiseburn’s economically disadvantaged black students passed the math test – the largest percentage of any district serving 100 or more low-income black children.

Related: More state tests are “getting honest” about how few kids are on track for college, but there are outliers

Visiting Wiseburn, it’s easy to see how math is done differently. In the lower grades, teachers get on the floor with their students to work with brightly colored blocks and chips to assess their mathematical thinking and problem-solving strategies. In the middle and upper grades, students spend whole class periods on a handful of math problems, rather than racing through reams of equations. An engineering curriculum called Project Lead The Way has students work together to build things. Johnstone says that program has been key to getting young students – particularly girls and minorities underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields – interested in math, science and the robotics team, which competes in world championships.

55 percent of Wiseburn’s low-income black students passed the Smarter Balanced English test – 11 points above the statewide average for all students.

In English Language Arts, Wiseburn gives English learners what amounts to 27 extra days of instruction, with previews of what they’ll learn later in the week in English together with their native English-speaking peers.

The linchpin to all of these efforts, Wiseburn’s teachers and administrators agree, is keeping educators happy and engaged.

“We want our people to experiment, knowing that it’s cool to make mistakes,” said Johnstone. “The key is you hire really good people and you get out of their way.”

Jen Williams, who after over a decade as a first grade teacher is now coaching fellow teachers at Juan Cabrillo Elementary School, says some teachers were nervous to have her oversee their classrooms. “But now they are asking me ‘can you come in and watch my social studies lesson?’”

There are caveats to how much the Wiseburn model might be replicated. It’s a small and somewhat odd district serving just over 4,000 students, the majority of whom are Hispanic. Black and white students each make up around 15 percent of the student body. Wiseburn operates three elementary schools, a middle school and loosely oversees four Da Vinci charter schools, which include three high schools and a charter for home-schooled children.

Related: English one day, Español the next: Dual-language learning expands with a South Bronx school as a model

While about 40 percent of Wiseburn students come from families with incomes low enough to qualify them for free and reduced-price lunch, in one important way, Wiseburn is a wealthy district.

“It made sense that with the move to the new tests, some schools would need more technology. But moving forward we need to make sure we’re investing in the things we know close achievement and opportunity gaps.”

Thanks to taxes paid by companies such as Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon and other aerospace companies clustered around the Los Angeles Air Force Base, home to the Air Force’s space and missile systems center, Wiseburn has been able to build some of the region’s nicest facilities, said Johnstone.

In addition to a robust tax base, 43 percent of Wiseburn’s elementary and middle school students have opted into the district through inter-district transfers, meaning they have parents proactive enough to go through the process of obtaining permission from both their home district and Wiseburn. For years now, the three-square-mile district has opened its doors to transfer students to keep its enrollment high enough to remain viable. In the process, Wiseburn has taken in hundreds of black students from nearby struggling districts like Los Angeles Unified and Compton Unified.

Johnstone concedes that the parental buy-in factor and the tax base provide some built-in advantages, but he says Wiseburn’s primary advantage is something other districts could mimic.

“Much of this was accomplished during the fiscal crisis, when we weren’t able to give out any salary increases for five years,” said Johnstone. “The way we did that was being completely transparent with our teachers and their collective bargaining unit. We do collective bargaining in just a couple hours here, and then get back to the business of educating kids.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about Common Core.

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Emmanuel Felton is a former staff writer. Prior to joining The Hechinger Report, he covered education, juvenile justice and child services for the New York World. He received a bachelor’s degree from...

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