Washington Middle School

Most Improved Middle School

Photo by Sergio Goes

With its aging buildings, a location on one of Honolulu’s busiest streets and more than half of its student body living in low-income households, Washington Middle School has constantly struggled with a reputation as one of Oahu’s rougher campuses. So much so that parents like Ane Aga dreaded sending their children there. “When my kids were in elementary, I told people, ‘I don’t want to go there—it’s so wild,’” she says. “That was my perception.”

Aga wouldn’t have guessed that today, her seventh-grade son, Poasa, would love attending Washington Middle School, where he maintains a 3.8 GPA and acts in school plays. Her daughter, Anette, who also went to Washington, is now a sophomore at Kaimuki High, where she’s taking Advanced Placement classes.

“I’m really amazed,” says Aga. “The classes at Washington are challenging, and there are a lot of opportunities for every child here to bring out their creativity—that’s important, too.”

Principal Michael Harano is used to having to convince people that Washington is a good school, but it helps that he’s got lots of proof. This year, Washington is the most improved middle school on our “Grading the Public Schools” chart, rising 66 spots to No. 133. About 69 percent of its students meet state standards in reading, and 41 percent are considered proficient in math, exceeding statewide averages of 60 percent and 39 percent, respectively. 

Harano says the school’s focus is increasing rigor and relevance—a mantra adopted by many Department of Education schools—in its curriculum. Over the past few years, teachers have analyzed state standards for each grade level and rebuilt their lessons around them. Teachers also work in interdisciplinary teams, coordinating their curriculums to reinforce concepts and help students understand the practical application of what they’re learning.

"We've raised the bar, and the kids have met the expectation."

The school always aims to challenge its students, Harano says. For example, Hawaii public high schools have discussed requiring all ninth graders to take algebra. “There’s a whole hubbub—how can we do that?” he says. “Until recently, [Washington has] only had about 30 of our 300 eighth graders taking algebra. Well, we’ve created a second algebra class, so now we’re sending over 60 kids to high school who’ve already taken algebra. We’ve raised the bar, and the kids have met the expectation.” 

Despite its achievements, Washington still faces several obstacles. The state’s new weighted student formula, which redistributes state funds based on student population, is one of them. Next year, the school’s budget will be reduced by $200,000, or about 4 percent of its $5 million budget, forcing Harano to eliminate three teaching positions. 

The school is also struggling to meet all of the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind act. Although the school as a whole has surpassed state benchmarks, NCLB requires that special groups—including special education and English-as-a-second-language students—also hit those same targets, which Washington has not been able to do. 

 Some schools have scrapped elective classes or extracurricular programs to focus more on test preparation, but that won’t happen anytime soon at Washington. “Middle school is a tough time for kids, going through physical and emotional changes, and a lot of kids are trying to find their place,” he says. “Schools need to have developmentally appropriate activities for them to engage in.”