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A Tale of Two Schools in Hawaii

Nanakuli High and Intermediate School. Moanalua High School. Both of these public schools have big reputations, good and bad. We spent time on each campus to find out what they’re really like. It may surprise you.


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1. Nanakuli’s ninth and 10th graders all wear gold T-shirts, their New Tech uniforms, and spend the school day in E Building.

2. New Tech coordinator Maggie Desmond.

photos: david croxford

“There are more adults working together,” adds Maggie Desmond, the school’s New Tech coordinator. “It’s a dynamic experience.” Desmond is one of New Tech’s biggest proponents and not only helps teachers and students grasp the new model, but education stakeholders and the community, too.

While the projects are relevant for the students, this is still school. Sometimes working in groups is difficult, says one 10th grade girl. She and her peers say they hate getting stuck with students that don’t do the work, or worse, skip class. “You can fire them,” adds another soft-spoken girl, explaining that students can get booted from a group, “but the groups usually don’t like to,” sometimes because of the social ramifications of being a snitch.

New Tech also relies on self-motivation. For some, Internet access itself is problematic—even though it’s a necessity. Students use class time to research online … or play online games. Last year, some students even wrote essays on the subject. “Games became my everyday activity,” wrote one boy. “I failed science [and] math.” This year, more websites were blocked, and, if they’re caught goofing off, teachers can take their laptops away.

New Tech’s 10th graders have harder projects this year, and more of them. It’s learning about DNA in biology, making community-issues posters and New Tech video commercials in digital media, comparing cell phone plans in math and a mock war room in global studies. Even when they grumble, the kids are proud to be in the program. “I still love New Tech,” says one friendly student. “There are real life lessons.”

What’s Working: Empowering Programs

Not all students are part of New Tech, but even so, there are other successes at Nanakuli, such as the Nanakuli Performing Arts Center (NPAC). Last year, NPAC was one of 62 U.S. schools (out of 2,200 program applicants) invited to perform in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

On a late Monday afternoon, a dozen or so students, most in shorts and slippers, stand on the stage in the cafeteria, which doubles as their theater. They belt out “Light of the World,” as they rehearse for Godspell, a gospel musical.

For these budding performers, many of whom say they want to sing professionally, NPAC is the highlight of their day, and a way for them to sidestep the stereotypes they face as Nanakuli students. “It’s the one place where I can be myself,” says one girl.

“It’s not only the lead character that’s important,” director Robin Kitsu tells his students. He says NPAC performs at parties, community events, on Ala Moana’s Center Stage and more.

Also on the lower campus, students learn hands-on in the school’s building and construction classes, in a partnership with Honolulu Community College’s Construction Academy. In a wood-shoplike room, students, mostly boys are hunched over their projects. They learn how to build small stools and to-scale house replicas. “We’re able to teach math through construction,” says teacher Naleisha Lucrisia. “They see the reason and function for learning ... There is an impact.“

What’s Not Working: Communication

Assistant principal Diana Agor is a skilled multitasker. Often wearing a New Tech gold shirt, she attends staff meetings, checks out security issues, roams the campus sending tardy kids to the office, tutors individual students and much more.

Agor has been Nanakuli’s assistant principal for three years, after originally teaching math. She says the school’s biggest problem is a lack of communication. “I think, as a school, we all have the best interests in our hearts,” she says. “At times it doesn’t feel like we’re all on the same page.”

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Honolulu Magazine May 2019
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