BRENTWOOD -- Principal Larry Oshodi will be planning a celebration in the next few weeks in the wake of news that Heritage High School has scored its second statewide honor.

Oshodi received an email from State Superintendent of Schools Tom Torlakson earlier this month notifying him that the Brentwood school had been named a California Distinguished School, a distinction that Heritage High first earned in 2009.

"I'm thrilled -- it's a validation of the hard work of the staff and students and our parent community," he said.

Heritage is one of 218 schools around the state this year to receive the acknowledgment of its progress in narrowing the gap between students who are achieving and those who aren't.

Schools, which had to be invited to apply for the award, were chosen based on what they consider the two most effective ways they're helping young people have more success in the classroom. A team of three current and former educators spent a day on campus in mid-March to see these approaches for themselves as well as discuss them with students, parents and teachers, after which they recommended Heritage High for the recognition.

One of the most important ways the school has helped teens improve lackluster grades is through its so-called "small learning communities," a term describing the practice of separating students into smaller groups for a more personalized approach to education.

The approximately 550 children assigned to each of the four clusters of buildings that surround Heritage High's main quad take most of their core classes at their respective locations.

Instructors' proximity to each other makes it easier for them to compare notes on the students they have in common and that can give them insight into how best to help a youngster who's struggling, Oshodi said.

"The idea here is to collaborate," he said, a departure from the decades-old tradition of teachers doing the best they can on their own.

Because students are more apt to see the same peers every day when they're all in the same area on campus, they're more likely to develop the deeper friendships that meet their emotional needs, Oshodi added. That, in turn, makes for a happier experience at school, which ultimately translates into better grades, he said.

Although small learning communities are common, Oshodi noted that Heritage High has the distinction of having been designed around the concept.

The second practice that the school cited in its application embraces an equally simple idea: Be clear about what kids need to know, decide how to ensure that they're learning it, and find a way to help those who aren't.

"This is what we should be doing (all along), but unfortunately we have not really focused on it," said Oshodi of public schools in general.

Getting teachers to follow the state-mandated curriculum is the first -- and easiest -- step; what's trickier is figuring out how and when to test students, he said.

Heritage High teachers don't follow the traditional path of letting several weeks of lessons go by before giving a test and then forging ahead regardless of whether the entire class is ready, Oshodi said.

Rather, instructors frequently check in with students -- as often as every day in some cases -- to find out what they're not grasping, whether it's through quizzes or conducting "exit polls" at the end of class in which students submit a note describing what they don't understand, he said.

"Do I say 'tough luck' (if a student is falling behind)?' " Oshodi asked rhetorically. "It's not OK to just move on."

If a teen is having trouble, Heritage High teachers might go over the lesson again, have students who understand the material help those who don't, or offer individual coaching outside regular school hours.

And if that doesn't work, the school will ratchet up efforts by having the student's teachers, counselor, an administrator and the parents meet in an effort to identify the root problem before recommending that he or she get an hour of after-school help each day.

For the very few who are still having trouble, the school psychologist will determine if a learning disability or deeper emotional problems are the obstacle to learning.

Contact Rowena Coetsee at 925-779-7141. Follow her at Twitter.com/RowenaCoetsee.