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Ready for the Real World?

Why Hawaii’s public education system isn’t doing enough to prepare your kids for life after high school.


(page 4 of 5)

Photo by Sergio Goes

Gail Awakuni
High School Principal
Campbell High School, Oahu

Over the past six years, Campbell High School principal Gail Awakuni has led one of the most dramatic curriculum redesigns in the state. One of the school’s most successful programs is AVID (Advanced Via Individual Determination), which helps students who fall in the academic middle get into college. In 2005, Awakuni, pictured with some of the school’s AVID students, was recognized as the National High School Principal of the Year.

Campbell High School in Ewa Beach has undergone one of the most drastic school redesigns in the state, working toward a curriculum that is both rigorous and relevant to students. During her six years as principal of the school, Gail Awakuni has expanded Campbell’s Advanced Placement program, opened its honor program to any student interested in signing up and switched the students to a new bell schedule, allowing them to earn eight credits instead of the traditional six. The school now requires all freshmen to take Algebra I, the highest math class required in most other schools. Students who can’t keep up in core classes get a double dose during the school years, thanks to the school’s flexible schedule.

Like many local high schools, Campbell has created smaller academies to help freshmen and sophomores feel less lost in a school of 2,000 students. During junior and senior years, students are divided into smaller learning communities. These groups are based on what the state calls “career pathways”—business and health services, industrial and engineering technology and arts and communications.

“Going down the traditional road, wasn’t working,” Awakuni says. “We want to make it more rigorous and relevant to the real world so we can hook them in instead of losing them.”

Schools across the country have replaced their one-size-fits-all curriculum with career pathways, not only to help students explore potential careers but also to reduce dropout rates by teaching kids things that actually interest them.

At least 13 Hawaii schools have implemented career pathways, funded by federal grants. These courses aren’t the vocational education classes that baby boomers remember as shop class; students study core subjects such as math and English by learning how to apply them in the workplace. Many public and private entities across the state help create real-world experiences—credit unions have set up branches for students on campus, businesses have provided mentors and elementary schools have allowed high school students to serve as teachers’ aides. Starting last year, Honolulu Community College, has helped schools establish construction academies. Lingle has also proposed academies focused on science, technology, engineering and math.

The DOE would like all high and middle schools to implement career pathways, but several principals and teachers have already opposed the change, saying it is too much, too soon.

Awakuni disagrees. “That’s what we call high school redesign—you can’t just tinker if you want to see big results,” she says. “We already have our results.”

In 1999, Campbell had the lowest graduation rate in the state, between 70 percent and 80 percent, Awakuni says. Today, it’s 98 percent. Over that same period, the school experienced a 220 percent increase in the number of students taking AP classes. And last year, 74 percent of its students went on to college, earning $6.5 million in scholarships, compared with $600,000 five years ago.

In 2002, Campbell High School became the first Hawaii school to implement AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination), a federally funded program that helps students who fall in the academic middle (a GPA of 2.0 to 3.4) go to college. Most students would be the first in their families to attend college. Many come from low-income backgrounds.

The program requires them to take rigorous classes, including at least one AP class; teaches them college skills, including note-taking and organization; and encourages critical thinking. During tutoring sessions, for instance, students must clearly articulate their questions and work with classmates to come up with the answers.

Last year, Campbell had proof that the AVID program was working. The first class of 18 AVID students graduated, and all went to college, earning $500,000 in scholarships. Like many educational reformers across the nation, Awakuni believes that most students can and should do well in school. That’s another way that she distinguishes herself among others in the DOE.

“Kids are like sponges,” she says. “Once you open the door, there’s no turning back. Kids are very adaptable, very amenable to change. It’s us adults who aren’t.”
Stories like Campbell’s are still the exception rather than the norm in the DOE. Because each school is left to its own devices, the most ambitious principals, like Awakuni, must work around the system, rather than within it.

What the gap Means for Hawaii       

The failure of Hawaii’s public education system to prepare kids affects more than their individual futures; it hinders the success of the state as a whole. With continued job growth and the retirement of baby boomers, Hawaii has more than 22,000 job openings annually. Local public and private colleges combined awarded only 9,850 certificates and degrees in 2003—less than half of the skilled workers needed, according to Hawaii P-20.

“The implications aren’t good,” says Carey, of the Hawaii Business Roundtable. “It means you’re going to have a large population that can’t earn the kinds of wages that it takes to live in such a nice place. It means we’re not going to attract the right kind of job mix to the Islands. Or worse, we’re going to have to import people from other places to fill those jobs.”

At Enterprise Honolulu, a nonprofit focused on economic development on Oahu, president and CEO Mike Fitzgerald worries about how Hawaii can attract more tech companies when it can’t promise the quality workers ready to staff them. He points to the company Web site of downtown Honolulu-based Oceanit, considered one of the local tech industry’s best success stories. On any given day, the Web site lists openings for more than a dozen skilled workers, including engineers, accountants and planners.

“Our economy is going to be no better than the capability of our high school graduates,” Fitzgerald says. “In the global economy we’re in now, every place has two choices: Either we educate our people by world standards or we subsidize them. Because if they can’t command living-wage jobs, they’re going to need some kind of subsidy—training, housing, medical care—and it’s ongoing.”

What happens to graduates who aren’t prepared? They get left behind.

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Honolulu Magazine June 2018
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