Editor's Page: Schools and Stars

How we’re covering the public schools this year.

HONOLULU Magazine Editor A. Kam Napier.

Photo: Linny Morris

Over the years, our annual reporting on Hawaii’s public school system has taken a wide range of snapshots of this critical institution. We’ve examined the efforts made by universities and employees to impart the skills with which kids aren’t graduating, but used to (May 2007). We’ve compared the top-ranked high school in our Grading the Public Schools chart with the lowest ranked high school (May 2012), to see what lessons can be applied from a school with a successful track record. We’ve taken a look at the nation’s best public school system, “The Maryland Example,” May 2010, for insight into changes Hawaii could make. We’ve offered regular installments of our Grading the Public School chart. You’ll find the latest version of the chart in this issue, in which we use Department of Education data on the reported satisfaction of teachers, parents and students and merge it with student performance on math and reading scores for an overall evaluation of each of the Islands’ 255 public schools.

I know the chart is not popular with some people in the schools. I’ve been told it’s unfair to reduce the complex and demanding work they do to a single score or letter grade. The chart, they say, doesn’t reflect the sincerity or intensity of their efforts, or factors they can’t control that stand between them and the kind of success that would rank Hawaii’s schools among the best in the nation instead of near the bottom.

This always struck me as an odd complaint coming from people who are in the business of handing letter grades to students, who themselves no doubt make the same arguments for why the grades they’re being given are unfair. But I include this objection in the interest of fairness. Readers can weigh for themselves the value of the chart against the loudest argument against it.

For our narrative pieces this year, you’ll find a look at Hawaii’s special education by associate editor Tiffany Hill. Longtime residents and readers will remember the Felix Consent Decree, which came out of a lawsuit filed 20 years ago by the parents of special-education student Jennifer Felix. The decree put the Hawaii departments of Health and Education under federal oversight until 2005, forcing compliance with a federal law mandating the type of services that should be made available to families with special-needs students. Hill recaps that history and takes a thorough look at the state of special education today.

Early in our planning, that was the only education feature we were going to pursue, along with the chart, but after the horrific killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., parents on staff asked if we would take a look at the issue of school safety. Does the DOE have a plan if something like the Sandy Hook tragedy happened here? What about bullying? How safe are our kids? Freelance writer Victoria Wiseman answers those questions.

If that all feels a bit heavy, lighten your day with senior editor David Thompson’s profile of Teddy Wells. You may know Wells without realizing it: He’s one of the Island’s most prolific extras, or background actors, as they’re called. Something about Wells’ approach to his career reminded me of an insight I once heard: “We are all the stars of our own movies.” We’re happy to give Wells a starring role in our pages this month.