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Grading the Public Schools: What It Means

How good are the schools in your neighborhood? Are they getting any better? This report card tells all.


(page 3 of 5)

The first person to speak was Lingle. (“I wasn’t invited, but when I asked to speak, they said yes,” she later told us.) Lingle reminded the audience that Hawaii’s schools ranked among the lowest in the nation. That learning disabled children, ESL students and poverty were present in the other 49 states, too, even the ones succeeding where Hawaii has not. That Hawaii’s schools have a particularly egregious history of failing Native Hawaiian children. Except for a smattering of applause when she recommended that teachers be paid more, her remarks were met with little reaction.

More to the point, they were met by the opening remarks of Breene Harimoto, chair of the Board of Education. He addressed none of Lingle’s observations, instead, dismissed them. “Let’s keep the politics out of education,” he said, overlooking the fact that as an elected official himself, his role and remarks could be nothing other than political. Then he delivered a homily on how adults should serve as role models for children. “Our character is defined by our words and actions. Respect and trust … honor and integrity,” he said.

Anthony-John Farinas and Tyler Navarro,
fifth graders at Aliiolani.

Photo: Marc Nomura

It was difficult to recognize this respectful role model as the same man who, at a community meeting, led a verbal lynching of fellow Board of Education member Laura Thielen, who had publicly supported the idea that smaller, regional school boards might better represent the people’s interest in education than the current, centralized BOE. At that March 18 meeting at Waimanalo Elementary and Intermediate School, Harimoto and other BOE members even accused Thielen of acting unethically, using BOE letterhead in her communications supporting local boards.

In case you’ve forgotten the fallout from this, our daily papers editorialized that Harimoto should realize Thielen was doing exactly what an elected official is supposed to do in a democracy—advance the philosophy and policies she thinks will best serve those who elected her, even on official BOE letterhead. Thielen challenged Harimoto to a public debate of the local school board issue, to get beyond the personal attack and argue the merits of the idea itself. Harimoto declined.

Back at the education summit, Tony Wagner from the Harvard Graduate School of Education spoke about how public schools in America are—here’s that word again—obsolete. The basic structure of high school curricula turned 100 years old this year. The profession of teaching was decades behind the kind of professionalism and continuing education seen in, for example, medicine. “The world has changed,” he said. “Our schools haven’t.”

Lest any of this disturb the peaceful reinvention of education in Hawaii, however, Wagner wrapped up by making fun of the language of reform. “Who wants to go to a reformed school?” he asked rhetorically. “The language of failure’ and reform’ is the language of shame and blame. But no one is to blame. There is no shame. The world has changed. Our schools haven’t.”

Wagner got a rousing round of applause.

Perhaps because he was from out of town, Wagner didn’t realize that Hawaii’s failing school system has been the stuff of local headlines for decades. That governor after governor has gotten into office on the promise of “an education second to none,” only to leave the job unfinished. That generations of superintendents, BOE members and DOE staff have been promising improvement, then failing to deliver results. Some of those very people were right there in the audience, clapping along.


10 most declining schools

Based on complete scores only, here are the 10 schools that fell farthest in the ranks.
Kahuku Elementary WIN -47 49 96 B C+
Kaunakakai Elementary MAUI -51 128 179 C C-
Helemano Elementary CEN -51 90 141 C+ C
Kawananakoa Middle HON -59 45 104 B C+
Keaukaha Elementary HAW -63 119 182 C D+
Waialua Elementary CEN -63 46 109 B C+
Palisades Elementary LEE -69 54 123 B C
Likelike Elementary HON -86 124 210 C D
Kailua Elementary WIN -88 113 201 C D
Kealakehe Intermediate HAW -91 105 196 C+ D+


The View from the Schools

This year, we’ve profiled four of the most improved schools in the state, because we felt it was crucial to find out what’s happening on the campuses themselves. We learn from them, for example, what a crucial difference a good principal can make. One of them, Aliiolani Elementary, actually lifted itself from a C+ to an A- on our chart. The others remain in the C range, even with the improvements.

When we compared the 256 schools’ rankings from last year to this year, we found the greatest movement—both up and down the rankings—occurred in schools that hovered around the B, and especially the C and D ranges. The schools least likely to change ranking at all were those that had been earning As or Fs.

A reminder: We graded Hawaii’s schools on a curve, rather than on the more rigorous measure where a score of 90 or more earns an A, 80 or more earns a B and so on. It was conceivably defensible to use the more stringent measure. After all, don’t we want schools where, say, 90 percent or more of teachers feel their own child would be well served by that school, or where 90 percent or more of the students at least meet state standards in reading ability? In the strictest measure, only such schools would earn an A. But by that measure, only 44 schools out 256 would earn a D or higher.

We focus here on the most improved scores, grading on the curve, to see what it takes for a Hawaii school to improve relative to its peers. Their struggles and achievements offer insights into the challenges our government-run schools face.


Aliiolani Elementary School

Gerald Teramae hates to take credit for Aliiolani’s impressive performance on this year’s “Grading the Public Schools” chart. But the consensus among teachers, staff and parents we interviewed is that Teramae, who took over as principal in February 2003, had a lot to do with improving the Kaimuki campus.

“Ultimately, much of the responsibility for student performance lies with the administration,” says student services coordinator Naomi Iwamoto. “With the new administration, we have a new direction, the support we need and the communication between administration and faculty so we know what’s happening—an open-door policy. It’s improved morale.”

Aliiolani’s overall grade jumped from a C+ to an A- on this year’s chart. The small school, with just 283 students, is the most-improved elementary in the state.

“Our teachers really worked on the students’ test-taking skills, which is key,” says Teramae, formerly a vice principal at Waipahu Intermediate. “They constantly go over the format of how to take the test, what strategies to use, so it’s ingrained in them. That’s so they don’t have to worry about the format of the test; they can focus on the content.”

About 39.5 percent of Aliiolani ’s students met state standards in math testing, up from 25.5 percent the year prior. Reading proficiency held strong, as well, with 73 percent of students meeting state standards.

 Aliiolani has also experimented with new academic programs, including a computer-based reading program and a textbook-free, hands-on science program.

Fifth graders Michelle Shiraki, Alisha Kodama
and Abby Vinas at Aliiolani Elementary School

Photo: Marc Nomura

“Teachers here are willing to take risks,” Teramae says. “It’s so easy for teachers to say, What worked 10 years ago should work today,’ but they want to try new things. It’s a credit to them. Teachers go out on their own, take professional development classes and share what they’ve learned with the rest of the faculty.”

Smaller projects have also made big differences. Under the school’s Positive Behavior Support program, students earn tokens for good behavior. They can then redeem those tokens for supplies or toys.

The PBS program provides students with their own planners. “It comes with a calendar and a list of assignments for each day,” says Trisha Kodama, who has two daughters in second and fifth grades at the school. “It’s great, because students and parents know what’s expected. There’s a space in the planner where teachers and parents can communicate, write notes to each other. It forces parents to get more involved, because parents have to look at the planner and sign it every day.”

Aliiolani has benefited from physical changes, as well. The school recently completed campus-wide renovations. Thanks to an $80,000 private grant, the school replaced decrepit equipment in its computer lab with 28 new eMacs. Using federal funds, Aliiolani purchased 40 laptops last year, working toward its goal of providing a laptop for each student.

While grants have helped the school, money isn’t always easy to come by, Teramae says. In fact, one of the principal’s biggest concerns is that Aliiolani cannot get the resources it needs from the Department of Education, which affects faculty, parents and students alike. Teachers must often buy classroom supplies with their own money. The school is also understaffed. Teramae would like to hire a full-time technology coordinator, another special-education teacher and another administrator (right now, the Department of Education deems Aliiolani too small to have a vice principal). As enrollment increases, Teramae worries about the growing class size, as many as 28 students per teacher.

“Teachers and parents shouldn’t have to make sacrifices, and they shouldn’t have to choose between whether we get textbooks or laptop computers or classroom supplies,” says Teramae, who wishes he had more control over his school’s budget. “Sometimes I have to fight or beg for positions, to have another special-education teacher, because one of my special-ed teachers is already responsible for 32 kids. Our school should have enough funding to provide for all the kids’ needs. If education is a priority to the state, if what they’re saying about educational reform is so important, we should be funded for everything we need in this school.”

Without adequate state funding, Aliiolani has figured out other ways to get by. That’s where the school’s parent organization, Friends of Aliiolani, comes in. The group raised funds to hire a part-time technology coordinator and help teachers with their out-of-pocket classroom expenses.

“We’re lucky we have such a supportive parent organization that’s provided us with a lot of funding for programs and personnel positions that were not allocated through the state,” Teramae says. “We also have dedicated staff members who are willing to do extra things that need to be done, like applying for grants. We’ll do whatever it takes to take care of all our kids, to help them reach their potential.”

— Ronna Bolante

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Honolulu Magazine July 2019
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