Inside HONOLULU: Why Do We Rate Public Schools?

I have this conversation every year on the streets of O‘ahu. Here is my answer.
Alyson Helwagen
photo: karen db photography

It started happening when my daughter was in preschool.


​Other parents, hearing that I was the publisher of HONOLULU Magazine, would approach me at our kids’ art shows, school functions or beach potlucks, usually with one question: “How do you guys do the rankings of the public schools?” Most would ask gently, with a smile, interspersed among funny kid stories and inquiries about my daughter’s swimsuit and cover-up. Often, the queries came from parents with children already enrolled in public elementary or middle schools.


What followed were always great conversations about how to measure one kid’s potential and “success” at school. Then, we would often discuss how to evaluate, collectively, the success of an entire campus and if the numbers we used were the best to determine all of this. But in the end, every parent ultimately wanted to know two things: Are those schools ranked ahead of my child’s better? How?


Every year, I speak with schoolteachers, education leaders, community members and parents about our list, how and why we rank schools and whether it’s even necessary. The short answer: Yes, it is necessary. Here’s why:


First of all, we dive into the data from the Hawai‘i Department of Education to make it simpler for people to see. All of the raw information is available through the Strive HI page. You can scroll through the more than 3,000 rows and 39 columns to find a schools’ numbers, but we know no matter how much you care about our education system, it’s likely you won’t have time to make sense of the data. We publish it in an easy-to-digest way because it is important to know the basics of how our kids are doing.


Second, the measurements gathered by the DOE and how those metrics are weighted change nearly every year. We can debate for the next decade about the right questions to ask or how the DOE should review schools—and itself. But here is what we think about every year as we assemble this list: Hawai‘i’s DOE is the only statewide school district in the nation. It’s funded through the state general fund, not property taxes. (See the breakdown of where the DOE’s operating budget comes from, and how its spent, in the April issue, on newsstands now.) This setup is supposed to eliminate the wide gaps between schools in higher- and lower-income neighborhoods. With centralized operations and funding, state leaders can send more money and specialized teachers where the need is greatest, leveling out performance outcomes and creating equality for our public-school kids.


Does it happen? Sometimes the numbers reveal success stories. For example, this year’s chart shows that eight of the top 10 ranked elementary schools are categorized as Title I, meaning at least 40 percent of the students are from low-income families. That is more than double the number from last year. But other times, the information illuminates gaps that are not closing. This year, 20 of 26 Title I high schools ranked in the bottom half. Last year, 20 of the 30 lowest-ranked high schools were Title I.


We think it’s important for you to see this. Every year. It is not about pointing fingers at individual schools. It is about the overall state of education and the issues behind the numbers. In 2018, we examined chronic absenteeism and what schools are doing to combat it. Because, yes, showing up to school is more than half the battle. In this issue, we look at how learning centers are boosting some students’ learning experience, and the evolving technical challenges Hawaiian language immersion schools are tackling.


Whether you are a CEO, small-business owner, worker or retiree, your money funds public education, and the quality of it affects the future for all of us.


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Read more about Grading The Public Schools in the April issue of HONOLULU Magazine, on newsstands now, or purchase the issue at Subscribe to the print and digital editions now.