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High School: An Inside Story

Minutes before the bell for the day’s first class, kids lean against the gray cinder-block walls of the I Building, sit on the sidewalk next to the soda machine outside the Student Center, hang out on benches in Mene Square, named after the school’s mascot, the menehune.


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Principal Darrel Galera spends much of his day out of his office, walking the campus.

Homeroom teachers warned their students earlier this year about the upcoming Hawaii State Assessment, a standardized test that most 10th graders in all of the state’s public schools are required to take. Still, principal Galera visits all of the sophomore language-arts classes personally, to emphasize the test’s importance.

When he talks, students listen.

“A lot of you have asked me, Will this go on my transcript, the one I send to colleges?’” Galera tells one class. “The answer is yes.”

HSA scores don’t affect students’ report cards or whether they move on to the next grade, but they have a real impact on the school itself. The test determines which schools meet benchmarks the state of Hawaii has set for itself under the federal No Child Left Behind act. Schools that fail could face penalties, including lost funding and staff replacement.

Moanalua met or exceeded all but one of those benchmarks last year. The sophomore class as a whole scored much higher than the 10th graders who took the test the previous year. But the school failed to meet its target in the area of special education. All students—including those with physical, mental or emotional disabilities—are held to the same proficiency standards. Last year, 10th-grade special-education students missed those marks.

“It’s bad for an educator to say this, but it’s unrealistic to expect special-education students to meet the same standards as regular-education students,” Galera tells me later. “We have students who are mentally retarded or autistic or have learning problems. It’s like telling students in a 100-yard dash, everyone is required to finish this race in 25 seconds, even the students who have injuries.”

Galera doesn’t get into these finer points with this English class. “We want to make sure you know this is an important test, like the SAT or the ACT,” he tells them. “We believe that previous sophomore classes didn’t understand what it was all about. We don’t know if they tried their best.”

Some students in last year’s class answered multiple-choice questions arbitrarily, filling in bubbles in some very creative patterns.

If an inadequate number of sophomores meet the state’s expectations this spring, it would be the third consecutive year that Moanalua failed to meet its benchmarks. In that case, the school would be forced to provide extra tutoring for students, on its own dime, without any funding from the feds or the state.

If Moanalua fails to meet all of its benchmarks for the fourth and fifth years, it could be restructured by the state, like the 24 schools that recently made headlines.

“When it’s time to take this test, you need to be here in school—on time,” Galera continues. “If we don’t have a 95 percent participation rate, we automatically fail.”

Galera hands out sample reading and math tests to the students. “I know the math ones look hard, and some of the questions are ones you’ve never seen before, like geometry,” he says, “but you have to focus and try your best.”

I flip through the sample math test. Later, my managing editor and I would try to solve one of the algebra questions—a cryptic, three-equation problem that required us to solve for x, y and z. It took us an hour. We did eventually get it right.


I get the feeling that I’ve only been hanging around the school’s overachievers. Where were the everyday kids? Or had straight-A, trophy-winning, socially conscious kids suddenly become the norm?

I catch up with a student Galera had introduced me to, another go-getter—he’s a band member and an athlete who consistently makes honor roll. He’s heading to the weight room for training, even though his team is in the off-season.

“Are most of the students here as serious as you are about school?” I ask him.

“Nah,” he replies, “not everyone’s that serious. We get some cruisers. The surfers, the football players—most of them just cruise.”

He points to a boy walking past us. “He’s a cruiser.” He looks around, watching students heading toward the gym, and spots another boy sitting on a stone bench. “Talk to him,” he says.


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Honolulu Magazine July 2019
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