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Palolo Elementary a model for improvement

By Mary Vorsino

LAST UPDATED: 8:54 a.m. HST, Mar 28, 2011

On a cluttered bulletin board in her office, Palolo Elementary Principal Ruth Sil­ber­stein keeps track of the prog­ress of her school.

There are line graphs, bar charts, memos and awards.

But one piece of paper kept way up on top  tells all you really need to know: It shows the big rise in test scores of her students over the last seven years.

Palolo Elementary School was once in the bottom 10 percent of Hawaii schools for test scores. In 2003, on a state math assessment no longer used, only 3 percent of Palolo students tested as proficient.

Today Palolo is a model for campuses seeking to take a leap forward.

The school, with 270 students, is situated near the Palolo Valley Homes public housing proj­ect; many of its students live there. About 85 percent of Palolo Elementary's students are on free and reduced-cost lunch, an indicator of poverty.

Silberstein said her school's dem­o­graph­ics have created challenges.

But Palolo has been able to overcome them through teacher training and intervention programs to help struggling students.

Over the last four years, the school has seen student proficiency rise by double-digit percentage points. Last school year, 57 percent of students were proficient in reading, up from 38 percent in 2007. About 58 percent of students were proficient in math, from 41 percent in 2007.

Silberstein, who became principal of Palolo in 2001, attributes the growth to a total shift in attitude at the school: Everybody agreed something needed to be done, and everybody agreed to help do it.

Silberstein said she's changed, too. Today she's much more involved than ever in the day-to-day education of students.

She wants to know where students aren't doing well and where they're excelling. She wants her teachers always striving to improve, and she wants to continue getting better.

That attitude of constant improvement spurred the school to take on a big reinvention this year. The entire campus has adopted a science- and tech-heavy curriculum, where students learn all subjects (reading, math, social studies and, of course, science) through hands-on proj­ects.

At the school on a recent drizzly morning, fourth-graders were explaining their aquaponic garden and proudly showing off the lettuce, tomatoes and strawberries they'd grown. Third-graders were detailing how they used vermiculture that's worm composting to fertilize a school vegetable garden.

In fifth grade, students are building underwater robots with cameras. They plan to take them to the Ala Wai Canal to measure pollution in the water.

Silberstein said the science curriculum was drawn up by teachers, who saw it as an opportunity to give students hands-on proj­ects and get them more excited about learning.

Students have given the curriculum good reviews, she said, and many stay regularly after school to tend to gardens or help out with big proj­ects.

Second-grade teacher Naomi Kamau­oha has been at Palolo Elementary for 12 years, and said she's delighted with how students have responded to the new science emphasis. Her kids have been charged with taking care of a traditional compost pile.

She said her students are taking home words like sustainability and teaching them to their parents.

"It's really challenged us to look beyond the book."

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