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Fiscal woes hobble school reform plans

Educators remain dedicated to meeting lofty improvement goals but say they will be even harder to meet amid projected spending cuts

By Mary Vorsino

POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 08:52 a.m. HST, Mar 28, 2011


Deep state funding reductions to education projected for the next two fiscal years will likely slow ambitious plans to boost student achievement and turn around low-performing schools, educators warn.

Struggling schools

These 25 schools had the lowest combined test scores (for math and reading) in the 2009-10 school year. Of those, 11 (in bold) were also in the bottom 25 in the 2006-07 school year. The schools are listed from lowest to higher test scores. (Does not include public charter schools.)
1. Nanakuli High and Intermediate
2. Nanaikapono Elementary
3. Waianae Elementary
4. Nanakuli Elementary
5. Naalehu Elementary
6. Aiea Elementary
7. Keonepoko Elementary
8. Molokai High
9. Waipahu Elementary
10. Honowai Elementary
11. Makaha Elementary
12. Hilo Union Elementary
13. Nahienaena Elementary
14. Kaewai Elementary
15. Kalihi Elementary
16. Keaau High
17. Kau High and Pahala Elementary
18. Fern Elementary
19. Waianae High
20. Kilohana Elementary
21. Keolu Elementary
22. Maili Elementary
23. Molokai Middle
24. Mountain View Elementary
25. Honokaa High and Intermediate

After a gloomy Senate Education Committee hearing last week, in which officials predicted big declines in education spending, state schools Superintendent Kathryn Mata­yo­shi emphasized the DOE "still intends to move forward" on planned reforms.

The question, Mata­yo­shi said, is whether the targeted dates for meeting school improvement goals are realistic "given what restrictions we have."

Educators who point to disappointing reform efforts dating back decades say it's tough to overstate the immense challenge of turning around Hawaii's low-performing schools.

And continuing budget woes, which have dramatically worsened following the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, present a significant hurdle for a system digging out from the setback of teacher furloughs last school year.

As part of its Race to the Top reforms, Hawaii has pledged substantial improvements in student performance: The DOE wants to see 90 percent of Hawaii students proficient in reading by 2014, from 68 percent now; is seeking to boost the graduation rate to 90 percent by 2018, from 80 percent last year; and pledges to eliminate the gap in achievement between all students and those who are poor, native Hawaiian or English-language learners.

The state is focusing its early school turnaround efforts on 14 persistently struggling schools on Oahu and the Big Island. But DOE officials say work to improve schools elsewhere is also progressing and stress that all students and schools are going to be expected to improve.

"We are literally turning the department upside down, inside out," said Deputy Superintendent Ronn Nozoe. "This is not talk. It is a challenge but we're committed. I firmly believe we're going to get there."

Efforts vary, from more professional development for teachers to a more rigorous curriculum to better interventions to catch students before they fall too far behind.

Joyce Bellino, assistant superintendent for the department's Office of Curriculum, Instruction and Student Support, said the reforms are comprehensive and "huge."

The stakes are huge as well, she said.

"This is our future. This is the future of Hawaii that we're investing in," said Bellino, whose own office is being reorganized to better support school-level improvements.

Turning AROUND failing schools and increasing student proficiency in math and reading were key pledges in the state's application for the highly competitive federal Race to the Top grant.

In August, Hawaii was one of 10 winners nine states and the District of Columbia of a second round of grants, and the only winner west of the Mississippi. The state's payout, $75 million over four years, is meant to go largely to one-time expenses, such as training and implementing a more rigorous curriculum.

The money will do little to relieve the DOE's fiscal woes, officials said, and represents just a fraction of the department's $1.3 billion state general fund budget (a figure that does not include fringe benefits).

It's not clear just how big a hit the department will take in the coming fiscal biennium, which starts July 1, but reductions for the coming two years are expected to top $110 million.

The grim fiscal projections have prompted the DOE to consider a host of cost-cutting measures, including slashing the per-student funding for schools.

Bellino said the fiscal concerns mean the department will have to become more efficient.

She added, "To say the budget wouldn't affect (school improvement work) would be unrealistic."

Hawaii's efforts come as school districts nationwide are targeting low-performing schools, and amid a national debate about how to improve America's public education system.

Robert Balfanz, research scientist for the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, said plans to improve schools are coming up against shrinking budgets in many states.

Professional development, efforts to reward effective teachers, longer school days and state-of-the-art materials all cost money. But school districts tight on funds can still find ways to improve struggling schools, perhaps through spending money more wisely, he said.

"To get improvements you need thoughtful but big change," he said. "The heart of this is creating places where kids want to be."

Some have criticized Hawaii's ambitious goals, pointing to its lackluster academic performance compared with other states and disappointing results with past improvement efforts.

The state has spent tens of millions of dollars over the last decade to boost achievement at schools that consistently failed to meet proficiency targets under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

In the 2009-10 school year alone, the state spent $12 million for school improvement consultants working in 54 schools that were in "restructuring," the status that brings the highest sanctions under NCLB.

DOE officials point out that many Hawaii schools even those still in restructuring have seen big gains in reading and math proficiency in recent years. But others haven't.

Of the 49 schools in "restructuring" in the 2006-07 school year facing the most severe sanctions for failing to meet adequate yearly prog­ress for reading and math proficiency goals 34 remain in that status this school year.

Meanwhile, 11 of the 25 schools in the bottom 10 percent of campuses for combined reading and math scores in the 2006-07 school year were still in the bottom 10 percent last school year, according to an analysis of DOE figures.

Education officials acknowledge past school improvement efforts haven't resulted in systemwide improvements, but say the new reforms are different because they involve a department redesign and target all schools not just some of them.

They also point to schools like Palolo Elementary that have been successful in pulling up dismal test scores as proof that school turnaround is possible.

Principal Ruth Silberstein said the improvements at the campus, where more than 80 percent of students come from low-income families, required new teacher training, an emphasis on student data collection and that everyone shift their attitude and "accept change that has to come."

"It's learning to work together to see what we can improve, to admit that, yes, we did work hard before but now we realize we missed these aspects that are so important," she said. "We need to always grow."

Lisa Delong, Leeward complex-area superintendent, who is overseeing school turnaround efforts in a DOE "zone of innovation" on the Wai­anae Coast, said previous school reform efforts have faltered because they didn't involve all stakeholders teachers, parents and community leaders early on.

This time, she said, everybody is being brought into the discussion and is expected to do their part to help students.

"We're really trying to pull the strengths and the interests of the community together," Delong said. "We're doing things that are going to bring dramatic results."

Measures in the short term to improve student achievement include: Students in struggling schools on the Wai­anae Coast will have longer school days, funded by Race to the Top dollars; teachers in those schools will get more professional development; and parents will get financial help to send their kids to preschool.

The school arguably at the core of reform efforts in Leeward Oahu is Nana­kuli High and Intermediate, which has for years found itself on the bottom of just about every state scorecard for student performance.

As far back as the 1960s, the DOE was trying to boost achievement at the school. The Nana­kuli Model Schools Proj­ect, for example, went well into the 1970s and was aimed at improving academic performance and decreasing dropout rates.

Diana Agor, Nana­kuli vice principal, said one of her biggest challenges as part of the school's improvement efforts is changing the mindset at Nana­kuli  convincing kids that they can do well, and expecting them to perform.

"We're talking about changing a culture that has (lasted) generations. I want them to know there are so many opportunities for them. There really is only one way to go. That's up."






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