Editor's Page: A Real Education

This month we get down to business on the public schools.

Photo: guy a. sibilla

I sometimes despair about public education in Hawaii. As I write, there’s a scandal hitting the headlines: At Waianae Intermediate School, questions and answers from the state’s standardized test may have been handed out to at least some eighth graders.

The tests are an attempt by our state’s government school system to pull itself up by its own bootstraps, to get some measurable improvement in the classroom.

That someone in authority would fiddle with the tests made me think we’re never going to get anywhere. I’ve spent a lot of time on public education, both personally, with years on the board of the state’s first charter school conversion, and professionally, since this magazine has long focused on Hawaii’s public schools.

In May 2001 we published Kam Napier’s “The Death of Public School,” a carefully researched and reasoned indictment of our government school system.

There was outrage from the school establishment, and a sense of almost relief from the public that someone was finally telling the truth. Three years later, even the schools superintendent was telling the legislature the government’s school system was obsolete.

We’ve stayed on the schools issue. This May we asked ourselves: What’s it really like in an Island high school? Moanalua High School principal Darrel Galera allowed our associate editor Ronna Bolante free run of his school for a week. We thank him for his openness and courage.

Bolante’s only 25. She might have managed it, but she did not attempt to pass herself off as a student. Everyone knew she was reporter, as she went to classes, ate lunch in the cafeteria. She met kids with straight A’s, who got up and ran four miles before coming to school, and other kids who’d rather spend the day playing with their PlayStation. She talked to kids who attended special education classes and kids who didn’t think they were special at all.

Only in memory are anyone’s high-school years easy. If you’ve forgotten what they’re like, her story starts on page 82 (High School: An Inside Story).

But that’s only half of our package. We were dubious about the “education reform” bill, Act 51, the legislature passed last year. In a year, there’s been little visible progress.

Then I found myself, while working on another story, having breakfast with Mitch D’Olier, president and CEO of Kaneohe Ranch. Instead of talking about what we were supposed to be talking about, we spent most of the morning talking about education. “It’s one of those topics that just won’t let go of you,” he said.

I was amazed at D’Olier’s business-like grasp and clear articulation of the organizational issues facing the state Department of Education. I realized that DOE superintendent Pat Hamamoto had enlisted some of the town’s sharpest business leaders, not for window dressing, but for real hands-on help in changing its operations. That piqued my interest. Could these structural reforms be real?

With the help of CEO Don Horner’s staff at First Hawaiian Bank, especially Gerry Keir, executive vice president for corporate communication, we managed on short notice to get half-a-dozen of these leaders together and talk for an hour and a half. When we transcribed the interview, it was the most coherent and to-the-point transcript I’d ever read.

If my most disheartening moment on public education came when I heard about the possible test fiddling in Waianae, my most encouraging moment came when I heard David Carey, CEO of Outrigger, say about the problems at the DOE: “We’ve finally focused on some of the issues that can be fixed with experience and knowledge from the business community. It’s not rocket science. It’s not that tough.”

Let’s hope so.