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.

2012 Grading the Public Schools Chart

Inside one of Nanakuli’s New Tech Academy classrooms, 10th grader Gabe Asinsin learns about U.S. history.

photo: david croxford

"Don’t leave for recess until you think of something to protest,” hollers Dennis Tynan over the chatter of 50 tenth graders. No, Tynan isn’t trying to incite a school riot. Rather, in small groups, his students need to come up with something, anything, to protest for their next humanities class project: Occupy American Studies.

The sophomores sit grouped at tables. Every student wears a gold T-shirt, emblazoned with the school’s mascot, a hawk; it’s their school uniform. In front of them are black, 13-inch Toshiba laptops, used to research and create their projects. Next to the classroom’s whiteboard is a poster with the Batman logo; below it reads, “Be a Hero.”

This is Nanakuli High and Intermediate School’s New Tech Academy, the school’s innovative project-based learning model. They are early adopters; the academy is supposed to include all Nanakuli high-school students by school year 2013-2014.

For more than a decade, HONOLULU Magazine has scrutinized Hawaii’s public education system, and ranked the schools using DOE data. Year after year, Hawaii state assessment scores and school surveys show a wide performance gap. We wanted to spend time in two of Oahu’s high schools to explore why that might be, to see what life is like, for students, teachers and administrators. Nanakuli, for instance, has an islandwide reputation as a rough school in a rough, low-income neighborhood. Start typing “Nanakuli” in the YouTube search box and the first suggestions that appear are “Nanakuli fights” and “Nanakuli riots.” But the school is more than the on-campus fights, its students are more than they’ve been stereotyped to be and not all of its teachers give up and leave. Not that the school doesn’t face big challenges.

 We also went 23 miles east and visited Moanalua High School, another public school with a reputation, albeit a more positive one. The school is perhaps best known for its prestigious orchestra and symphony, and its high-achieving students. We wanted to know, why is Moanalua well ranked and why does Nanakuli struggle?

What’s Working: New Tech Academy

It’s 8 a.m. on a sunny Tuesday at Nanakuli. The sprawling campus, with the Waianae Mountains as its backdrop, has undergone recent, modest renovations. Inside the round, one-story E Building, most New Tech students are in their classrooms staring at their computer screens.

In 2010, Kamehameha Schools granted $1.4 million to provide teacher training and support to get New Tech—part of the national New Tech Network—off the ground, at both Nanakuli and Waianae High School. So far, among its participating students, attendance has skyrocketed to 98 percent and the ninth-grade failure rate has dropped 15 percent from the 2009-2010 school year. Right now, it’s the most concrete example of Hawaii’s Race to the Top reforms in progress at the school level. (Race to the Top is a federal education initiative: In 2010, the Hawaii DOE was awarded $75 million over four years, for several statewide initiatives.)

How does project-based learning work? It’s markedly different from traditional teaching, or “sage on the stage,” as teachers call it. Many teachers were wary of the model at first, says Tynan, including himself. Instead of students listening to a lecture, scribbling notes and taking tests to show they retained—or memorized—the content, they learn by working in groups on workshops and projects as well as individual assignments.

“For the vast majority of kids, I don’t think they retained the content anyway from my traditional teaching,” says Tynan. “Whereas, with project-based learning, what I see with kids is they really retain the content … I see it from project to project.”

These projects require extensive teacher planning. “You have to be communicating constantly,” says Kim Coleman, who teaches American Studies together with Tynan. Coleman and her colleagues mold each project around what students need to learn in their core subjects by using DOE education benchmarks. The teachers also meet every Thursday. “This is something that never happened when I was in the traditional classroom.”

Want to read more of our education coverage from May 2012? Check out the links below.

Video Q&A with Don Horner and Kathryn Matayoshi

From Iolani School to Moanalua High School: A Parents’ Tale

Q&A: How is the DOE helping poor-performing schools?

Q&A: Why don't all public schools have midterms and final exam weeks?

Q&A: Why don't student representatives get a vote?

Q&A: What do schools have in place to ensure communication with parents?

Q&A: Kamehameha Schools Focuses on Public Schools Along the Waianae Coast



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.”


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.


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.


1. Professional development for Moanalua’s teachers and staff is one of principal Darrel Galera’s top priorities.

2. With more than 2,000 students, many of whom participate in sports and clubs, Moanalua is always bustling. “The campus is never really dead, even on a weekend,” says senior Haley Pendergast, in band, pictured on the previous page.

photos: harold julian

On the Same Page

Vice principal Julia Toyama says they call themselves the A-Team—the administration team, she explains with a smile. She’s referring to principal Darrel Galera and the school’s three vice principals. Similar to the Nanakuli team, they are never without their walkie-talkies and cells. Each year, Toyama and her co-VPs divide the school’s responsibilities, from budget, to athletics, to custodial. Galera has honed this team since becoming principal in 2000. He tells us about cultivating an environment where “the students are engaged and they want to be here.”

Naturally, teachers are the linchpins and many of the instructors spend much of their teaching careers at Moanalua. “Teachers provide you with a learning experience that’s going to help you for life,” says Galera. He takes this sentiment to heart, but it isn’t all talk. Eleven years ago, Moanalua began hosting teacher professional- development conferences, featuring Mainland keynote speakers. (The latest one was in April.) They’re not only for Moanalua teachers, some of whom are presenters, any educator can register.

English and broadcast-journalism teacher Lynne Sueoka says Galera starts off each school year with a moving speech—some teachers have dubbed it the State of the School address—making them feel valued. “One year he had us all walk outside, look out to the horizon, the horizon of where we want to move our kids,” she says. “You have to be inspired if we are to inspire the kids.”

“I’ve had amazing teachers,” says senior Haley Pendergast. “Teachers who are good at what they do and excellent at teaching, not only in their fields, but in teaching us how to be better people.”

Galera says his administration stresses teacher accountability “not by using fear, but through transparency.” He created an academic officer position and hired Richard Taylor to build on teacher development. Every school day, since 2009, Taylor observes six classes for about 15 minutes each. He then fills out a form and emails the teachers with positive feedback, and suggestions. “Overall, it’s been positive,” he says. “Most teachers want to improve.” While Nanakuli just put its own teacher observations in place, it’s too soon to tell how uniform they’ll be.

Just as useful for teachers are the conversations that take place outside of their classrooms. Two years ago, Moanalua started what they call data teams. Every week, teachers of the same subject—math, science, English, etc.—meet to talk shop: They discuss curriculum, teaching strategies and more. They keep a record, too, so they’re able to track best practices and student progress. “Data teams give structure,” says Taylor. “It looks at instruction and allows the teachers to talk and share.”

“It’s a good experience for us to hold ourselves accountable,” adds Sueoka.

At Nanakuli, teachers are having these same discussions. However, many have to do it on their own, because there aren’t schoolwide, dedicated teacher meetings, as with Moanalua’s data teams.

Program Stability

Moanalua also has a proven track record when it comes to consistency. Take, for example, its Career and Academic Planning (CAP) program, established in 1997. Every Moanalua student participates in a CAP class once a week for 35 minutes. All teachers and administrators tutor a group of about 22 students, teaching everything from how to fill out a job or college application to living on your own. Moanalua even pays for its juniors to take the ACT test; freshmen and sophomores also take aptitude tests.

“We’re meeting consistently with students to talk about their futures, and, whether or not they like it, they’re hearing it,” says CAP coordinator Vangie Casinas. “I think there’s a high correlation with the desire or intent to go to college because we talk about this through the four years.”


photos: harold julian

Pendergast says it’s helpful for students who haven’t thought about life-after-graduation, but it also benefits those who have their futures mapped out. “You need to be able to plan for whatever life throws at you.”


At a Glance

Moanalua High School

Number of students: 2,010
Number of teachers: 135
DOE funding per student: $4,859
School day: 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 or 2:40 p.m
Graduation rate: 98 percent


The DOE has taken note of the program’s success. In 2006, it mandated that all high schools have a “personal transition plan” for every student. By then, CAP was 10 years old, and is the most robust in the system. Casinas says she’s visited 20 high schools to help implement similar programs.

This program consistency extends to the special education department. For the past 15 years, special-education and general-education teachers have worked side by side in classes such as ninth-and 10th-grade English, social studies, algebra, geometry and science. There are 17 special-education teachers who work with about 150 students per  year. Co-teaching “exposes them to the general curriculum,” says department head Lisa Goto, adding that, behavior and social skills improve for many students as a result.

New this year is Moanalua’s Read 180 class, a reading-intervention program. Jennifer Ly works with six students, five of them boys, in her Period 3 class. One day, the class watched a video about war memorials and discussed the pros and cons of war. Students then picked a book to read from the shelf or worked at the computer. “It’s geared to their reading level,” says Ly, explaining that the classes were started to provide additional support to improve reading and writing proficiencies.

Helping Students Get Back on Track

While Galera says Moanalua has “high expectations” for everyone on campus, not all students have a 4.1 GPA and are on the fast track to Stanford or Yale. Like Nanakuli, Moanalua also has a Comprehensive School Alienation Program (CSAP) to help failing students. There are 180 to 240 students in CSAP every school year. Some receive additional class time after school, or are on a modified schedule. Moanalua also has Special Motivation Classes (SMC), for those who need alternative classroom settings.

Charlene Hosokawa is a SMC English teacher. In one class, she has seven students. It’s still a lot to handle, particularly one girl. She’s playing on her phone, which is against school rules, and is ranting and cursing about a girl who bought the same prom dress she did. One student is no longer coming to class; she’s about to give birth. Still, the students manage to work on the day’s lesson.

“The biggest thing is to accept them for who they are, not who you want them to be,” says Hosokawa, who’s been at Moanalua for 20 years. In a go-getter student environment such as Moanalua, some students feel alienated and unable to relate, she explains.

Granted, Moanalua deals with far fewer students with personal or family issues than Nanakuli staff, but it still has similar support structures in place. At some point or other, many of Moanalua’s struggling students have worked with Larry Park, who’s been the outreach counselor since 1988.

“He’s basically a dad to us,” says one senior. “He’ll never let you say no.” She says she was having problems in and out of school last year and wanted to drop out, but Park persuaded her otherwise. This year, she’ll not only graduate, she’s already been accepted to two colleges.

“I try to improve their attitude about school and themselves,” says Park. “A lot of them have a lack of confidence.” He counsels kids who are in rehab for meth addictions, teenage girls with babies (he says there are about four to eight teen pregnancies every year) and kids who chronically skip school. He can relate to them: Park admits he wasn’t the best student himself.

“He’s always been here to help me,” says another student. “I was ineligible to play sports for the first three years of school because of my bad grades,” he says. He says Park worked with him, not only so he could play sports, but so he could graduate. He was able to play sports this year, and was recently accepted to a Mainland university.  He says if it weren’t for Park, “I wouldn’t be graduating, guaranteed.”

Striving for Success

Moanalua High School, a well-functioning public high school, can be a blueprint for other Hawaii schools to follow. With the Race to the Top reforms and support in the zone schools, there’s hope that the achievement gap between high-performing and low-performing schools will diminish. Taylor says Moanalua is successful for three reasons: professional development for educators, committed teachers and involved students. “You need all three,” he says. “I think we’ve got all three here, but without one of those pieces, it wouldn’t work.”

Nanakuli, too, has committed teachers and hard-working students; it’s just that its successes are overshadowed by the school’s larger management challenges. “It can be disappointing, daunting, overwhelming, especially when you work so hard and it’s not quite there,” says VP Agor. “But with the journey that we’re on, it’s going to eventually be much more fluid and much more integrated.”

Want to read more of our education coverage from May 2012? Check out the links below.

Video Q&A with Don Horner and Kathryn Matayoshi

From Iolani School to Moanalua High School: A Parents’ Tale

Q&A: How is the DOE helping poor-performing schools?

Q&A: Why don't all public schools have midterms and final exam weeks?

Q&A: Why don't student representatives get a vote?

Q&A: What do schools have in place to ensure communication with parents?

Q&A: Kamehameha Schools Focuses on Public Schools Along the Waianae Coast