OAKLAND — Matthew Duffy held a water bottle as he strolled the grounds of his East Oakland middle school, peeking into classrooms and checking hallways.

Three years ago, he carried a radio instead.

"People liked to do stories about me back then, because I was this young cowboy with a radio," Duffy mused, as he stood in a quiet courtyard with vivid graffiti art murals. "That made a nice story, but it wasn't great for student achievement, you know? I was more of a glorified cop than anything else."

Duffy is the principal of Elmhurst Community Prep, one of the dozens of new, small schools at the center of the Oakland school district's reform effort. The straight-talking East Coaster preaches the gospel of small-school reform with the fervor of a recent convert — which he is. Duffy wanted to tame the big urban middle school, to make it great. It's what brought him to Oakland.

The problem with the old Elmhurst Middle school, Duffy said, was that he was consumed by one crisis after another. He spent the first year quelling fights and other problems on campus, rather than revitalizing the struggling school's academics. Staff meetings were contentious and often unproductive. The faculty was so large he found it hard to innovate, change direction or even communicate well with his teachers, Duffy said.

Before long, Elmhurst was tapped to take part in Oakland's small-schools experiment. The large, predominately Latino and African-American school closed so that two new ones, Alliance Academy and Elmhurst Community Prep, could open in its place. District policy allowed Duffy to choose his own teachers during the new school's first year — which, he said, created a "snowball effect."

"We feel like we're able to attract a special kind of teacher because we've created a great learning environment," Duffy said.

Greg Holtz, who started his teaching career at the old, 800-student Elmhurst Middle School in 2005, said he wouldn't have stayed if the school hadn't split. "At the old school I felt like I was kind of alone and trying not to drown," he said. "I was there doing my best, but I was alone. With a small school I feel supported."

Elmhurst Community Prep — at its capacity of about 350 students — has made steady progress since it opened in 2006. While its test scores remain low, the school jumped from 594 to 641 on the state's 1,000-point Academic Performance Index in 2008, about 160 points shy of the statewide target. Duffy said his staff has noticed that students are entering the school with stronger reading and math skills, an improvement he attributes to a ramped-up academic focus in the district's elementary schools.

Jesse Green, who transferred to Elmhurst Community Prep from a large middle school in East Oakland, said he quickly found that skipping class was not an option in this small environment. Then he discovered something else: He actually wanted to be in class. It was no longer a source of frustration, he said. When he doesn't understand something, the teachers take the time to explain it to him.

"I never used to do my homework," he said. "I used to be one of the bad kids. Here, the teachers believe in me."