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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Sueli, Vini and Rod Todorovich chose Wai‘alae Elementary over a regular school and another charter; in one class, Vini learned to wire his Star Wars storm trooper helmet for communications.
Photos: Aaron Yoshino
Originally enrolled in a school that ended after fifth grade, the Wiley boys “are a bit of a circus,” admits Dan Wiley, an engineer who is working on putting in the infrastructure for the Ho‘opili development. From Minnesota, he’s a total public school creature, while Lori, the daughter of Lāna‘i plantation doctor Richard Tesoro, went to ‘Iolani. Yet here they were, in Nānākuli, diving in feet first. Lori, who has a Ph.D. in audiology, is closing in on a second doctorate in special ed. “One of our boys has a learning disorder, ADHD, and another son needs special accommodations.”
“Plus, they’re boys,” adds Dan. “They’re not as good as girls at sitting down,” says Lori. Ka Waihona’s “kind of like a family,” Dan says. “And Alvin Parker is very interesting to sit down and talk with—like a walking historian. And a visionary.”
At their previous public school, obsession with test prep had done away with P.E., music and art. At Ka Waihona, every Tuesday is full of creative activity, including hula. “We like the cultural component,” Lori adds, “and, although it’s not a true immersion school, our kids are getting a wealth of cultural experience.”
By late 2015, the pain and anger in the charter community was overflowing. At meetings and school visits, school staff and parents confronted Tom Hutton, the commission’s executive director, in one instance throwing salt on him as a symbol of disrespect. The same Legislature that created the state Public Charter School Commission now created a special commission to investigate the commission.
Former Board of Education chairman and member Don Horner and BOE member and former HSTA president Jim Williams conducted a listening tour. “It really feels like they’re trying to shut down schools,” said one school principal, John Thatcher of Connections Public Charter School in Hilo. “If it’s going to go in the current direction,” warned Taffi Wise, executive director of Kanu o ka ‘Aina Learning ‘Ohana in Waimea (Kamuela), “then we won’t be a school for long—not a charter school.”
When Williams and Horner gave a summary to the BOE on Jan. 20, 2016, harsh criticisms of Hutton went public. “I am very upset that the Board of Education went out and got these complaints and published them without ever going to the commission,” says Catherine Payne, a respected retired educator, former principal of Farrington High and the commission’s chair. “When the schools say they’re being pushed to the brink, it’s because, up to two years ago, they didn’t have any accountability. We were charged. It had to be put into place. It has been hard for some, but not for every school.”
Hutton was philosophical. “We’ve made a lot of progress. Look, Myron B. Thompson deserves some credit. When Hālau Lōkahi closed, they were one of the schools who were very welcoming and took in students. When a student is short a course in the DOE system, they let them take that course with them online.”
Two weeks later, Hutton would resign. Unremarked in news reports was that, in the 2014–2015 annual charter report, the No. 1 middle school was Voyager PCS, with Innovations PCS close behind. The No. 1 public high school in the entire state? Myron B. Thompson Academy.
Said Daniel Caluya, director of Ka Wai Ola (Waters of Life): “We are very sad that he’s going to be leaving—I am, our school. I wish he had stayed a little bit longer so we could right our ship.”