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Do Teachers Make the Grade?


(page 4 of 6)

Kalani High School principal Gerald Teramae says the process of firing an ineffective teacher can take up to three years—too long. “What if that was your kid in that teacher’s class? We need to do what’s right for kids.”

Photo: Rae Huo

It’s become so difficult to shake up schools’ personnel lineups that Hamamoto has turned to legislation that would allow her to replace entire staffs at failing schools, including teachers, principals and support staff. It’s called reconstitution, and it’s the nuclear option of school reform. The freedom granted by HB172 (which stalled in the state Senate as we went to press, but will likely be revisited next session) would be limited to schools that have been in restructuring for four years or more without significant academic improvement, but Hamamoto says it’s a necessary step if anything is going to change.

“You’ve got to start fresh, a clean slate, with the vision, and the mission,” she says. “Those who choose to come on to a reconstituted school know clearly up front at the beginning of the journey what is expected of them, and that’s their commitment, to participate and engage in the school’s vision.”

The HSTA opposed the prospect of mass staff shakeups, saying it would be disruptive rather than helpful. Testimony for the bill included more than 50 pages worth of e-mails and letters from teachers across the state denouncing the idea.

Says Takabayashi: “I think the harm of having such a law is detrimental to the whole profession. Knowing there’s a hammer over your head because the child doesn’t grasp the unit is very difficult. I’ve taught 13-year-olds for my entire 40-year career, and some of them you just can’t get to. They’re not ready.”

Not everyone in the schools hates the idea of school reconstitution. Teramae sees the idea as a call to action. “The system has been such that it encourages complacency,” he says. “I think it’s a wakeup call to all of us, both administrators and teachers: Ladies and gentlemen, do your job. Your job is to educate our students to the best of your ability. Complacency will not be tolerated, expectations will be high.”

Hiring and Keeping New Teachers

Reconstitution may have a critical flaw, however. Sure, fire ’em all. But replace them with who? Without enough new talent on tap, the exercise may amount to little more than reshuffling.

Indeed, many principals have their hands full just keeping a complete staff on board. The statewide shortage of teachers forced schools to resort to 1,305 unlicensed, emergency hires just to make ends meet for the 2007/2008 school year.

Campuses outside of metro Honolulu, and in economically disadvantaged areas, are particularly hard hit. Gail Awakuni, principal of Campbell High in Ewa, says, “By the time we get a list of teacher applicants, there aren’t any people left, because they’ve been grabbed by all the other districts.”

Hawaii’s local colleges of education don’t pump out enough graduates to fill the roughly 1,500 slots that open up every year. Matthew Lorin, the Castle Foundation’s program officer for education, says the DOE could do better at recruiting on the Mainland: “What we’re discovering is that [the DOE] recruit later in the cycle,” he says. “This year we’re not going to the Mainland at all, because of budget concerns, so we’re recruiting remotely, which is almost impossible. We don’t even get to interact with graduating teachers until close to graduation, and we’re not making offers until after they’ve graduated.”

Adds D’Olier: “Our offers go out late compared to other places. And who gets jobs first? The best guys or the worst guys?”

Part of the challenge of recruiting teachers from the Mainland is inspiring them to move here. Hawaii may be paradise, but it’s an expensive, isolated one, and the districts with the need for the most teachers are distinctly less paradisiacal than what’s marketed on postcards. Hawaii has some tools. We cover relocation costs, even pay a $5,000 bonus to teachers who agree to teach in a restructured school or a school that has not made adequate yearly progress under No Child Left Behind. Still, it’s not enough.


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Honolulu Magazine November 2018
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