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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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photos: david croxford

Darin Pilialoha, who’s been the school’s principal for four years, agrees. “[We] struggle with it,” he says, adding communication issues have become more pronounced because of the school’s new initiatives. “As a whole, there’s a sense that things are being rushed.”

Even students notice. “I think teachers need to communicate more,” says one girl.

At a Glance

Nanakuli High and Intermediate School

Number of students: 967
Number of teachers: 72
DOE funding per student: $7,485
School day: 8 a.m. to 2:15 p.m.
Graduation rate: 55 percent

There is, in fact, communication at Nanakuli, it’s just in pockets. For instance, it’s among groups of teachers, such as those in New Tech, in the special education department or those with the Comprehensive School Alienation Program (CSAP), which helps failing students. What’s missing is schoolwide communication when it comes to Nanakuli’s long-term vision and goals. Every teacher we talked to identified the limited communication. Take New Tech Academy. It’s the fourth quarter and teachers and students alike are wondering, What’s going to happen next school year?

Pilialoha says, “As long as I’m at the school,” New Tech will continue. But, given Nanakuli’s negative history with past reform attempts, his teachers aren’t confident.

“There’s a general uncertainty that works against everyone being motivated,” says Coleman. “What progress we are making as a school and what goals we are moving toward are always kind of vague.”

Measurable progress is something administrators are trying to achieve. Nanakuli teachers voted in favor of extending the school day almost an hour to 2:15 p.m. this year. The school also started a teacher observation program this year as part of Race to the Top. Principals meet with teachers, observe their classes for 30 minutes and then provide feedback in a following meeting. However, Pilialoha admits he hasn’t sat in on classes as much as he’s wanted.

It’s something that teachers told us they’d welcome, though. “I would love to have someone come in and tell me what I’m doing wrong so that I can make things better,” says Marie Wetter, a special-education specialist.

Nanakuli assistant principal Diana Agor says the administrative team strives to raise students’ expectations. “It’s not OK to fail,” she says.

photo: david croxford

What’s Not Working: Staff Stability

Another challenge hounding the school is its teacher turnover. While Agor says it’s been worse in the past, she admits it’s still a problem. Many of the new hires that come into Nanakuli each year are part of Teach for America (TFA), a nationwide nonprofit that sends new teachers into low-income communities.

Agor and Pilialoha both say they’re grateful for TFA instructors. It’s difficult to attract local ones, says Pilialoha. For starters, it’s the remote location. It’s also the school’s reputation. “I don’t sugarcoat anything,” he says. I let [potential teachers] know about the social issues we’re dealing with.”

Some new teachers say there isn’t strong support in place for them, though. “I remember sitting in my classroom the day before school started, thinking, I don’t know what I’m going to do tomorrow,” says Alex Beattie, a first-year TFA teacher from Pennsylvania. He currently teaches ninth-grade global studies, but this is his third class since starting at the school in August.

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Honolulu Magazine April 2019
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