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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Drafting on the wake of 1960s idealism, the charter movement took shape and culminated in a 1991 law in Minnesota. Hawai‘i’s first charters were authorized in 1994; No. 1 was Wai‘alae Elementary. Like all charters in the beginning, the school converted an existing DOE property. Today, 22 years later, Wai‘alae is stable, and it has prospered; there are no scandals. Like all charters, there’s a long waiting list to get in—a lottery is used. A legendary principal, Wendy Lagareta, retired recently, but Kapono Ciotti stepped right in.


Photo: Aaron Yoshino 

Parents say not a beat was missed. When 33-year veteran teacher-administrator Rod Todorovich and his wife, Sueli, were looking at schools, their son Vini’s teacher at the Mānoa Children’s Center “spoke quite highly of Wai‘alae,” he says. From a family of educators in Brazil, Sueli originally wanted Vini to go to Punahou or ‘Iolani. “I absolutely wouldn’t consider it,” Rod says. “Kindergarten through fifth grade would cost us in the neighborhood of $120,000—and college would still be years away.”  


Despite Sueli having volunteered at Waikīkī Elementary, “We were 110th on the list. I’m not one to orchestrate favors, the kind of stuff that compromises the quality of education in this state,” Todorovich says. The couple took a close look at test scores, “especially for the schools that had notable differences between math and language arts scores.” They signed Vini up for Wai‘alae and for Voyager, a charter school with a good reputation but less impressive facilities. (In 2015, Voyager would rank No. 1 for all public middle schools.) Wai‘alae said yes first. “Once we saw the campus, it’s a city block, such a fun play space for kids, we said, ‘This is what we want.’” Today, Vini is a second grader who, if his parents show up before his after-school program is over, refuses to leave.


As educators, the Todorovichs stay involved. “I’m not really a fan of the hammer-it-in school of teaching,” says Rod, “but his first-grade teacher really helped Vini learn to read. It’s project-based teaching, and tends to be pretty traditional, which is not a bad thing. There’s a supportive group of parents. When we got to talking about the ones who might not be able to afford $150 a week for afterschool programs, we raised about $30,000.”


At the opposite end of O‘ahu, former Matson master mariner Alvin Parker created a legacy charter from scratch with Ka Waihona o ka Na‘auao. Starting out in 2002, when the state law changed to authorize new charters, Parker took over a chicken coop for his first facilities. The second year, the school moved to the old Cornet store in Mākaha. By the third year, K-8 Ka Waihona was the top-rated school on the Wai‘anae Coast. In 2014, the oceanfront Nānākuli school and Parker’s reputation were such that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visited and helped pound poi while hearing from parents and residents about the difficulties in getting federal aid and recognition for Native Hawaiian studies in the public schools.


Centered on Native Hawaiian culture and community, the school’s project-based curriculum involves children in hands-on learning. “I really liked that,” says Lori Wiley, a parent of sixth-grade triplet boys. “Charters, because they’re public schools, are held to the same standards, but have the latitude to be creative.”


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