Can Hawai‘i’s Latest Schools Superintendent Reform Our Public Schools?
After heading two very different school systems that each faced controversy, New York native Christina Kishimoto sees reason to believe Hawai‘i’s much-maligned public schools can adopt innovative school reform that helps students succeed.
Schools superintendent Christina Kishimoto pauses in her office.
Photos: Aaron K. Yoshino
Hawai‘i’s new schools superintendent grew up bilingual in the South Bronx, the daughter of parents who emigrated from Puerto Rico, attending schools that didn’t have enough desks, chairs or books for the students.
“I’m one of five kids, right in the middle,” Kishimoto says. “I probably act like a typical middle child, or that’s what I’m told … highly, highly independent.”
But she credits her early teachers for inspiring in her a passion for public education that brought her to Hawai‘i last year; she began to work on her three-year contract Aug. 1. Since statehood, she is the 15th person to lead the system, which now has an enrollment of nearly 180,000 students and a $1.9 billion budget—and consistently lags in many national rankings.
Kishimoto succeeds Kathryn Matayoshi, who was ousted despite earning positive evaluations from the board for progress on advanced placement classes and career/tech education, as well as improved graduation rates. In selecting her, the state Board of Education chairman Lance Mizumoto said she has “the right combination of experience, knowledge, and focus to implement the strategic vision for educational change” supported by the board and Gov. David Ige.
The new superintendent hears broad agreement from the governor, legislators, business leaders and community that the school system has to reform—embracing entrepreneurship, creativity, enhanced tech skills—and must empower schools to prepare students for successful lives.
But getting that done gets trickier after the initial agreements and people have tried for decades to improve the state’s public school system, from test scores to air-conditioning. “There’s always this fear that if you give a public school system flexibility in an empowerment structure that you’re going to lose control,” Kishimoto says.
On Oct. 3, she outlined a plan focused on three strategies: school design, student voice, and teacher collaboration that cover a broad mix of college prep and career and tech pathways, along with strategies to get there. She says the biggest obstacle to progress is narrowing the student achievement gap—in a system that accepts everyone—while reforming the system to meet current and future needs of students. And that goes well beyond test scores.
“A standardized exam tells me you’ve had access to information that you can repeat back to me in some form,” Kishimoto says. “You can be ranked very high in terms of your outcome on standardized exams but not know how to do anything about anything.”
The union that represents the state’s public schoolteachers, the Hawai‘i State Teachers Association, looks to the new superintendent “to lead our public schools in Hawai‘i away from the ramifications of No Child Left Behind,” says HSTA president Corey Rosenlee. That federal act lost support with its emphasis on standards-based reforms that required states to assess students at select grade levels to receive federal funding. It was replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act, which still relies on standardized tests but shifts more control to the states.
— Jill Humpherys, Gilbert, Arizona school board member
The union says it’s looking for leadership that supports classroom teachers and addresses growing morale problems. Rosenlee says Kishimoto gets initial high marks for working with teachers on chronic critical issues such as addressing the needs of special education students (nearly 12 percent of students) and English language learners (7.2 percent) as well as the challenges of recruiting and retaining teachers. “One of the things I’m happy about the superintendent is I’ve found she’s willing to be collaborative and she’s willing to bring in groups to work on the problems,” Rosenlee says.
From her first day in August until the January start of the state Legislature, she visited 52 schools statewide; her initial goal was to visit 30 schools in six months: “I got excited and kept going,” she says with a smile. Her Bronx upbringing comes through in her voice, her authority earned through years of handling herself in tough situations.
Last May, the Hawai‘i Board of Education selected Kishimoto from 92 applicants. The board publicly identified two finalists: Kishimoto and Baltimore City schools administrator Linda Chen, neither of whom had lived in the Islands. During the selection process, some critics questioned Kishimoto’s absence of classroom-teacher experience. But Rosenlee says teachers were more concerned about the learning curve of working in Hawai‘i for the first time. “It’s a big challenge to understand the nuances and intricacies of Hawai‘i.” That worry is bolstered by numerous examples of people who moved here from someplace-that-does-it-better to take jobs at schools, universities and private businesses only to fail, often citing a lack of understanding of Island culture.
Kishimoto says Hawai‘i has much to teach others about honoring people who have contributed to the culture of the state. “That’s a model for how we bring meaning and context to education and learning in a way that I haven’t seen elsewhere,” she says. And she sees her last two jobs—three-year stints as superintendent of smaller but very different school systems—as solid preparation for her new job. “Hartford, Connecticut: concentrated poverty in an affluent state, black, Latino community and immigrant community. And then I went to Gilbert, Arizona, where you have a predominantly white community, affluent and I would say highly religious,” she says.
“Hartford is near and dear to my heart because it was a school district very similar to the one I grew up in, in the Bronx,” she says. Times were so tough for the New York City community that, when she was a kid in 1977, a baseball announcer commented famously during a Yankees game that he could see an abandoned building burning with no one to put it out because of budget cuts. Thus, the phrase “the Bronx is burning” became a shorthand phrase for urban decay in general.
Supporters in Hartford say she helped reform the system despite obstacles. She says, “I had the opportunity to really put in place a reform plan there that was very community-centered and community-driven.”
But in 2013, the Hartford school board unanimously rejected her request for a two-year contract extension. Critics charged that reform wasn’t moving fast enough, student achievement goals went unmet and she should have communicated better with communities, especially when recommending a local school be shut down in favor of a charter school. Others credit her for moving forward during difficult times.
In Arizona, Kishimoto worked with a board during a “chaotic time,” with members sharply divided 3-2 on many issues, says Gilbert school board member Jill Humpherys. Still, she credits Kishimoto with helping Gilbert to be one of the highest performing school districts in Arizona and also highly ranked nationally.
Humpherys says Kishimoto’s expertise helped the Gilbert schools get funding, identify core commitments as well as award teacher pay increases of up to 7 percent. “She was willing to make some tough decisions to work with the board to make those decisions,” Humpherys says. “I was sad to see her go.”
From the teachers standpoint, the HSTA’s Rosenlee says, “the problem the superintendent is going to face is it’s very difficult to be creative when you don’t have the funding to be able to try out new programs.”
Superintendent Christina Kishimoto meets with students at Central Middle School.
But Kishimoto says that giving the schools the authority to determine how some of their funds are spent will help allow creative programs that “start using some of our public funds to provide opportunities for teachers to try something new and not say that every teacher has to get the same funds at the same time doing the same thing at the same time.”
Her own education path took some turns, first in high school and then later at prestigious universities. When she was a 14-year-old sophomore she left Bronx public schools through a program called “A Better Chance,” which provides academically talented students of color access to better-performing schools. “I actually went away for high school but I went away to go to a public school in Wellesley, Massachusetts,” where she lived in a house with students and directors, far from her family.
Later, back in New York and studying at Barnard College, she wondered “why I needed to leave my community to get a good education, so I’m very passionate about kids having quality education public systems within walking distance of their homes,” she says.
After visiting her first 52 Hawai‘i schools, she cited a number of bright spots. At Waipahu High: “There’s early college access and the commitment to having all of their students take at least one college class while in high school.”
At Maui High: While she says “there’s work to be done there,” she praises a group of career/tech students who are designing a tiny house. “They were designing this for someone who was actually paying for the materials, then be the recipient of the house. But they wanted to use it as a model for applying it to the homeless situation.”
And at remote Hāna High: All students take a construction class and design and build their school buildings, she says. “They’ve learned a very concrete skill set that they can use in career or life—and how to work together in a group.”
Kishimoto acknowledges the challenges ahead but says she remains firm in her belief in public schools. “I think the breadth and scope and depth of what we do in a public school absolutely outpaces what is available in the private schools as a whole system. And yet I don’t think that’s what’s acknowledged.”
Hawai‘i Schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto
Born: New York City
Now lives: in the Ala Moana area.
Education: Earned doctorate in education administration from Columbia University Teachers College, master’s of public administration in public affairs and policy from the University of Connecticut, and bachelor of arts degree in English from Barnard College.
Family: married, one daughter, a high school senior, who stayed in Arizona to finish the school year.
Salary: $240,000 annually
Now: August 2017 to present, enrollment, 188,000 students statewide; budget $1.9 billion.
Gilbert, Arizona, 2014-17; enrollment 36,500 students; budget $305 million.
Hartford, Connecticut, 2011-2014; enrollment 38,000 students; budget $425 million.
Fun fact: “I’m an outdoors person, so I like to hike. I like to swim. I just like to be outside.”
Lessons Learned from the Jan. 13 False Missile Alert
Since the false alarm on that Saturday morning in January, the schools have been clarifying and communicating an alert plan that would call for students to shelter in their classrooms for two days in the event of an actual missile emergency.
“Will we shelter in place for two days? Absolutely,” Kishimoto says. “Will my teachers commit to stay there with kids? Absolutely. Nationally, with all the catastrophes we’ve seen in public education settings, teachers have always stayed with kids and have always done everything they can to protect kids.”
She said some of the initial confusion focused on whether such an alarm would require shelter for two weeks, but the department emphasized it’s only for two days.
2017-2018 School Year
economically disadvantaged (51.4%)
special education/needs (11.8%)
English Language Learners (7.2%)
military students (6.9%)