Lanakila Elementary School

One of Hawaii’s Most Improved Schools



Photo by Sergio Goes

In 2006, Lanakila Elementary was considered one of Hawaii’s failing schools under the standards set by the federal No Child Left Behind act. This year, 78 percent of its students have met state standards in reading, and 70 percent are considered proficient in math—catapulting the school from No. 145 to No. 16 on our “Grading the Public Schools” chart.

The phenomenal improvement at the Kalihi campus is no fluke. Under principal Gerianne Lee, faculty members view education as a constant work in progress. They attend multiple seminars annually to learn better ways to do their jobs, meet regularly to discuss how to implement changes in their classrooms and analyze their effects on their students’ learning.  

 “Everything we do is deliberate and research-based,” says counselor Alison Higa. “We always try to think of what we can do to improve our school. There’s always a way to fine tune what we’re doing.” 

In one of the school’s meeting rooms, for instance, there’s a row of white bulletin boards lined with color-coded post-its, one for each of the school’s nearly 300 students. In the esoteric language of educators, it’s called a “data wall.” Each piece of paper contains information on how well a child is meeting state standards in reading and math.

Students are separated into three reading classes based on their performance, with the children needing the most instruction in the smallest classes. According to the latest research, that’s how students best learn to read, Lee says. If a student improves or falls behind at any time during the school year, teachers can move him into a higher- or lower-level class, basically tailoring his education to his ability. 

“More than half of the kids who come here have no preschool experience,” Lee says. At least a quarter of Lanakila’s students also come from non-English-speaking households. “If they come in behind, we gotta work harder to catch them up.”

A child’s first few years in elementary school are critical, Lee says. If he doesn’t catch up to his classmates during those years, he’s likely to trail them for the rest of his educational life. That’s why Lanakila’s teachers now spend more time after school than ever to work closely with students who need the most help.

“If they come in behind, we gotta work harder to catch them up.”


“It’s called ‘catch-up growth,’” Lee explains. “We learned that the best way to achieve that is to increase instructional time with an effective teacher. All of our teachers stay after school, and they still have to prepare for the next day.”

Lanakila has seen a serious payoff from the changes they’ve implemented in recent years, but you won’t hear Lee taking credit for the dramatic improvements. She’s grateful that her teachers are willing to try new things, even if that means giving up their Saturdays or after-school hours.

“Our teachers are flexible,” Lee says. “They know change is gonna happen, and they take the opportunities presented to them. They see the big picture for the whole school.”