Is Hawai‘i’s Charter School Experiment Working?

You’ve seen the headlines that read like a police blotter. But look closely at Hawai‘i’s charters and you’ll also see innovation, community and teacher empowerment. What’s the real story?


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Dan and Lori Wiley with triplets Justin, Timothy and Andrew chose Ka Waihona in part for its art, music, hula and Phys Ed. “We like the cultural component,” says Lori, a Ph.D. in audiology.
Photos: Aaron Yoshino 


The clock began to run, with many schools scrambling to create processes for procurement and documentation and, especially for those with a Native Hawaiian cultural focus, much more worried about test scores than before. Due to delays in implementing a new performance framework and the lack of data to analyze, the picture that emerged by the end of 2013 was incomplete. By 2014, however, every charter school would be called on to balance its books and justify its academic performance. 


Now there would be consequences. Now the commission had the power to close a school. This had never happened before, but now there was one very troubled school, Hālau Lōkahi in Kalihi, Native Hawaiian-centric, which had needed an extra federal infusion of $435,000 to pay off its teachers at the end of the year. The school’s own auditor had declined to certify the 2011 numbers. The staff was a group hug, including the principal’s son, two daughters, a son-in-law and a girlfriend. “The Western notion of family comes first, favoritism—that is not the case here at all,” said a teacher (and non-family member). But the commission ordered the school’s board reshuffled, dropping relatives.


In early 2013, Tom Hutton, previously the founder of the Thurgood Marshall Academy in Washington, D.C., was appointed executive director of the commission. Clear-eyed, idealistic, soft-spoken, he sported a trilby hat and seemed to strike an ideal balance between leader and supporter. But he could be firm, too, and had the backing of the commission and its chair, Terri Fujii, who had 25 years of accounting experience, including a decade leading audits for Ernst & Young.


students create poi pounders in an after-school program. 

As 2013 drew to a close, and the results came in, the consequences, and headlines, hit the charter-school community hard. At the largest charter, Hawai‘i Technology Academy, former president Jeff Piontek, fired two years earlier, was charged on Nov. 22 with the theft of $150,000, allegedly spent on personal expenses that included first-class tickets to Australia and a $5,642 tab at a Las Vegas strip club. Dec. 13: Tonya Taylor of Lanikai Public Charter School was charged with stealing from the school’s PTA. Dec. 16: The state attorney general’s office carried out a raid on the Thompson Academy, a dramatic move compelled, it was said, by the lack of cooperation. Box after box of records as well as computers were removed.


 “It has become an attack on certain administrators which will be sensationalized in the news media,” said principal Diana Oshiro, whose sister was the flight attendant/elementary school head. “Please know we have done nothing wrong ... ” her statement continued. “Everything we do here is in the best interest of our students.” (HONOLULU made multiple attempts to reach Oshiro; four sets of parents who initially agreed to talk withdrew later.)


The 2013 academic results were not sensational either way, good or bad. But the only non-elementary school in the entire public system to achieve Recognition, the highest Strive HI ranking, was charter Na Wai Ola (Waters of Life). Even the financial side of the annual report was cautiously optimistic.  But as new accountability measures tightened in 2013–2014, cries of pain got louder. Troubled Hālau Lōkahi racked up another $417,000 in debt, most of it to teachers; the commission asked for the resignation of the board and director in June of 2014. The Thompson Academy’s investigation hung like a black cloud over the charter’s swell new staff digs—as a virtual online school, classrooms were unnecessary—in the Richards Street YWCA. As for academics: “In this first run of the Academic Performance Framework,” the annual report summarized, “36 percent of charter schools met or exceeded the overall standard, while 63 percent did not meet or fell far below the standard.” Eight schools, or nearly 25 percent, were in the “fell far below” category.


In Nov. 2014, as the report came out, the attorney general’s office raided Hālau Lōkahi, whose debt was then past the half-million mark. In Feb. 2015, the director, Laara Allbrett, her son and his girlfriend were arrested. In March, the school was closed and its remaining students, 62 of whom had continued to show up to classrooms without teachers, dispersed.


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