Hawaii's Most Improved School: Kohala High School

Engineering mentor Eric DelaCruz watches the Kohala High School robotics team do their thing. The team has competed at the national level.

Photo: Joshua Fletcher

Eala, e na paniolo—Rise to the challenge, cowboys! This year, Kohala High School has lived up to its motto.

Kohala High School is located on the northern tip of the Big Island, in the historic North Kohala district. Surrounded by towering Norfolk Island pines, it has a small-town, small-school atmosphere. While Kohala’s facilities may not suffer from the same wear and tear as some of the state’s urban schools, it shares many of their academic struggles.

Over the past five years, Kohala’s ranking and student performance have slipped—placing it second to last of all Hawaii’s 257 public schools in 2010. Yet this country school is bootstrapping its way back to academic success. This year, it ranked No. 20 out of Hawai‘i’s 44 public high schools, earning its place as the most improved school on our “Grading the Public High Schools” chart.

Since our 2010 report, Kohala has seen a 12-point gain in its overall score—outpacing the other two most improved schools by nearly 6 points.

Principal Catherine Bratt acknowledges that last year’s failing grade was mostly due to poor math scores. Only 8.5 percent of its 10th graders met the Hawaii Content and Performance Standards (HCPS III) in Math, the state DOE’s baseline for determining whether schools meet academic benchmarks under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

“Like most schools, we’ve always struggled with math, but the 2010 scores were really an anomaly,” Bratt says. “We went back to the tested kids and asked them, ‘What happened?’ They explained that their difficulty in math started in sixth grade, a year when they had a mix of teachers. These kids have been playing catch-up ever since.”

In contrast, nearly 37 percent of this year’s 10th graders meet or exceed state standards in math—a 28-point improvement.

The students also showed marked improvement in other core subjects, including reading. With close to a 15-point gain over last year, 77 percent of its 10th graders now meet the state standards in reading. The statewide high-school reading average is 71 percent.

Illustration: Sol Linero

This year the school is launching Achieve 3000. This nationally recognized online reading program provides level-appropriate reading based on AP wire-service reports. Not only does the nonfiction material provide a stronger reading base for students, it prepares them for the future, as many colleges and universities offer programs online.

Bratt also credits the introduction of two other programs for the school’s success—21st Century Community Learning Centers and Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID).

21st Century is an afterschool program that includes speech, drama and tutoring in reading and math, along with enrichment classes such as ukulele, hula and even saddle making.

AVID is a structured, college-preparatory program that creates a college-going culture. It targets students in the “academic middle” who have the desire to go to college. AVID pushes writing, inquiry, collaboration, and reading and critical-thinking skills. Students also learn study skills, get help from college tutors and participate in motivational activities that make college more attainable.

“The school’s high graduation rate [98.5 percent] and projected numbers of seniors headed for college and community college is testimony of AVID’s impact,” Bratt says.

Despite its achievements, Kohala still faces everyday challenges. Bratt notes that the past three years have been tough on the area’s families. “A lot of parents here work at the hotels and business has been slow,” she says. “Fifty percent of our students receive free or reduced-cost lunch.”

Ultimately, Bratt says, it’s the close-knit community that makes each school day a success. “About two-thirds of our teachers have taught here for five years or more. Many of the faculty’s kids have attended school here, including my own. All of these kids know each other really well. We have ‘total buy in’ from the community.”