Tuesday, February 06, 2007 | Correction: In order to be a student at the Preuss School, students must not have a parent or guardian who has graduated from a four-year college or university. Voice apologizes for the error, which was edited into this column.

Seven or eight years ago, pianist and Professor Cecil Lytle, then the provost of UCSD’s Thurgood Marshall College, and I walked together for several hours in Balboa Park. We talked about the design features of a school capable of facilitating the successful learning of every student.

Today, more than two-thirds of students in the city, state and nation do not achieve proficiency in the core K-12 curriculum. In inner city schools, as many of 95 percent of students fail to achieve proficiency in any subject.

Cecil was focused on creating a UCSD-sponsored school in the inner city that reversed this spiral of under-performance and failure. It was his intent to design a neighborhood school that produces performance levels rivaling those at elite suburban schools like La Jolla High School. If this had occurred, it would’ve been the most significant achievement in the last 50 years of school improvement.

But it didn’t. Instead, yielding to other realities, Lytle, his colleague, Professor Bud Mehan, with others, brought into existence the Preuss School at UCSD. It provides an exceptional education to precocious students from low-income families. These children become the first member of their family to go to college.

The Lytle-Mehan group created an exceptional school. Preuss edges out other higher performing schools, like La Jolla High, in student performance. Yet, this accomplishment is substantially different from Cecil Lytle’s original and, as yet, unfulfilled dream.

As schools reopen for a new school year, Cecil and Bud are in the inner city. They’ve created a partnership with Gompers Middle School, one of the city’s lowest performing schools. It is a place of lost promise.

They promise to create a new school at Gompers that rivals Preuss in its achievements. UCSD is with them, informally. Gompers’ new charter school will belong to the community, not UCSD. Still, Cecil and Bud are determined to see that it has the resources, in terms of expertise, staff, curriculum, professional development and finances required to produce success for all children.

This is a monumental task of great national significance. During the last 50 years, other elite universities, hundreds of school districts, many community nonprofits and, finally, private corporations have attempted to create just such a school. Yet, unable to escape the learning constraints of the existing, 100-year-old, factory school, they failed. This makes the Gompers endeavor a high risk undertaking.

The Preuss School contains those same limitations in the form of traditional courses, large learning groups, scheduled learning intervals and conventional grading. It succeeds due to precocious students, outstanding leaders, a commitment to success, good teaching, esprit de corps, learning partnerships, tutoring and expanded resources.

Yet, these attributes are not sufficient to transform Gompers into a successful school. More successful? Yes, but not capable of producing universal proficiency.

Still, the Gompers endeavor is essential to the region, state and nation. Education achievement in the United States, as compared to other industrialized nations, is declining. If the nation is to maintain its standing and prosperity as a world economic power, it needs to radically transform its schools into success producing institutions. That is the Lytle dream for Gompers.

The challenge is awesome. Most inner city students who attend Preuss arrive with relatively well-developed academic skills. Having been successful in K-5, they are confident, persistent and aspiring. In contrast, most of the young women and men at Gompers have been unsuccessful in elementary school. They have not acquired the basic skills and emotional traits essential to school success.

For Gompers to be successful it must have a curriculum that allows its students to achieve proficiency in the academic language, concepts, vocabulary, skills, background knowledge, etc., which makes a successful learner. For example, without fluency in addition, subtraction, multiplication, division and estimating, it is impossible to excel in algebra. Gompers students need to acquire the basic skills that serve as the foundation for achieving proficiency in middle and high school studies.

To produce this, the school needs to do many things, including provide students with an instruction program matched to their beginning skill level and assure they receive whatever amount of instruction and practice required, individually, to master the full range of K-8 state performance standards. Designing and implementing this curriculum, as well as creating the effective learning environment essential to student success, is the great redesign challenge at Gompers.

Is it possible to do this? The school-community is enthused; a critical mass of teachers are committed and anxious to start; some students are already aroused by the possibility; and Cecil Lytle, a man of many accomplishments, stands ready on the threshold of a renewed dream. In the context of past national school improvement efforts, it will require a miracle.

A miracle at Gompers? Don’t let anyone fool you. To the extent that the Gompers team is successful it will be a result of leadership, commitment, creativity, perseverance, sensitivity and hard work. Gompers is stepping up to attempt something no one else has succeeded at. The challenge is nothing less than designing a new type of school.

Les Birdsall has been involved in federal, state and local (district and school) improvement initiatives for 40 years. Read his education column every Monday.

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