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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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The new and sometimes challenging surroundings, coupled with their inexperience, means that most TFA teachers put in their two years and go back to the Mainland, or get tenured and teach at another school. “The environment is very rough and, without the support added on, it makes it very difficult, which contributes to that high turnover,” says Wetter, who’s taught at Nanakuli for six years. Rough students don’t help. In the past, she adds, some students have even made pacts to get certain teachers to quit.

Those who have stayed have accepted the conditions and adapted, but it can be hard to establish a foundation. Keala Watson, a Nanakuli graduate, currently teaches ninth-grade digital media, and is also the JV football coach. A few doors down, Jewelynn Kirkland teaches ninth-grade test prep, the first class of its kind, to help students get ready for the state tests. Both teachers know they’ll be teaching next year, they just don’t know if their classes will be offered again and, if so, if they’ll be teaching them.

This makes it hard to plan. “We could be completely starting over next year, depending on who stays and who leaves,” says Cara Cornelison, part of the special education department. This year, in New Tech, ninth-and 10th grade core classes include special-education students, whereas before, all special-education students learned separately. “It’s easier,” says one special education student, adding she likes working in groups.

What’s Not Working: Community Support for Education

Perhaps one of Nanakuli’s most pervasive and long-standing obstacles is the community’s low expectations. Assistant principal Flora Nash has seen it all, witnessing firsthand the effects. Students who are homeless. Students with parents in jail. Students with drug problems. Teenage girls who are pregnant, themselves born to mothers who had them when they were 15.

“All these issues from the community bleed into the school,” she says. Nash, whose office is in D Building along with the CSAP program, works with the school’s behavioral specialists and agencies such as the state Department of Health and the juvenile court system to help students. CSAP department head, Chad Jicha, says he’ll even visit students at home.

“We’re known for kids doing drugs and ditching class,” says one student, shaking his head.

“It’s been like this for decades,” says CSAP social-studies teacher Katie Fisher. That’s why Fisher worked hard to create community partnerships with organizations such as Kaala Farm, Malama Learning Center, INPEACE and others, to give kids opportunities. Volunteers with nonprofit Alu Like also visit her classes each week.

Fisher is one of four teachers who work with Nanakuli’s most at-risk population, students who were held back, many on the verge of dropping out. (Only 55 percent of Nanakuli ninth graders go on to graduate.) Fisher and her colleagues break down assignments step by step and, because they only have five or so students in each class, are able to tailor each lesson according to what the student knows. For example, some students in Ryan William’s math class work with multiplication flash cards, while others are learning trigonometry.

For CSAP English teacher Christine Wilcox, it boils down to giving students hope, despite whatever they face off campus. “It’s about increasing their educational self-esteem, showing them they can do it,” she says.

photos: harold julian

Moanalua High School: A Model to Follow

“Sir, in my heart there was a kind of fighting that would not let me sleep.” A senior is reading from Hamlet, Act V, Scene II. He’s holding up a stick puppet of Ash, the main character of Pokémon. For their class reading, his group assigned the anime characters to Hamlet, Horatio and others. This is Cris Rathyen’s advanced-placement literature class at Moanalua High School.

Before even stepping onto Moanalua’s campus, we knew most Moanalua students don’t face the same socioeconomic problems as those at Nanakuli. In some respects, comparing the two schools is apples to oranges. But, after visiting both campuses, talking with administrators, faculty and students, it struck us that, while some off-campus factors remain, the telling differences come down to management. Moanalua, it seems, has sidestepped the challenges that, at Nanakuli, seem preventable.

In 2005, HONOLULU’s then-associate editor Ronna Bolante visited Moanalua. Seven years later, we wanted to check back in. The school is known for its curriculum and its nationally recognized programs, including its orchestra. In fact, 400 to 500 students currently attend Moanalua via geographic exemptions for these reasons.

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