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Principals take lead setting agenda

Christine Donnelly
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Mililani Waena Elementary principal Dale Castro, bottom right, talked with Moanalua High principal Darrel Galera, bottom left, at a meeting of principals Tuesday at Moanalua High School. Also pictured, clockwise from left: Robin Martin (Shafter Elementary), Michael Tokioka (Aiea High), Catherine Payne (Farrington High), Michael Harano (Washington Middle), Jan Iwase (Hale Kula Elementary) and Bruce Neguwa (Wahiawa Community School). Not shown is Gail Awakuni (Campbell High). Hawaii’s public school principals are asserting themselves as leaders of the effort to reform the schools, and have outlined their concerns, priorities and goals via surveys that garnered responses from more than 225 principals. The principals got together to talk about the issues with the Star-Advertiser’s Christine Donnelly.
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Moanalua High Principal Darrel Galera, left, and Shafter Elementary Principal Robin Martin listen to Farrington High Principal Catherine Payne during a meeting of DOE principals.

Hawaii’s public school principals are asserting themselves as the natural leaders of education reform, reaching out to each other and to the Department of Education’s leadership team to ensure that the campus leaders are not left out of the planning stages on programs and policies they are expected to implement.

What began as a flurry of phone calls and e-mails among a few principals alarmed by a Senate budget proposal last spring that would have converted them from 12-month to 10-month employees has coalesced into a broader grass-roots effort to define the core priorities, goals and concerns of the vast majority of Hawaii principals—and to make sure the state Board of Education and state Department of Education have and use that information.

"Certainly the budget proposal was a galvanizing factor, but even before that there was a sense that the principals’ perspective was missing from a lot of really important discussions going on about education reform," said Moanalua High School principal Darrel Galera, the MetLife/National Association of Secondary School Principals Hawaii High School Principal of the Year. "I’ll just say it straight out: We already have the means in Hawaii to improve our school system, and that’s by tapping into the expertise of the many, many excellent principals whose schools are thriving even in this challenging environment."

The effort to collect the voices of all regular public school principals on key issues was spearheaded by the Principals Planning Group, a coalition of about 20 reform-minded principals of which Galera is a member.


Based on the survey results, the Principals Planning Group listed priorities and recommendations supported by a vast majority of respondents and has vowed to continuously advocate within the Department of Education and among the general public to achieve the goals.


No. 1: Student achievement

No. 2: Visionary leadership

No. 3: Effective communication


» Provide visionary leadership in all parts of the educational system that is inclusive and incorporates the collective "voice" of school principals in new policies, plans, programs and initiatives.

» Improve communication at all levels in the DOE. Identify communication breakdowns and determine how to improve and maintain effective communication among the BOE, DOE and school principals.



Four public school principals will be on PBS’ "Insights on Hawaii" at 7:30 p.m. tonight to discuss issues raised in the recent surveys. The program will include questions from viewers, which can be e-mailed to insights@pbshawaii.org.


Using the online tool Survey Monkey, the group since mid-April has conducted four open-ended response surveys, the first of which garnered responses from 225 principals, some 86 percent of those polled; only principals from regular public schools, not charter schools, were included.

The initial survey identified student achievement as the principals’ top priority, cited an urgent need for flexibility in the hiring of teachers and named strong leadership by the state superintendent as the most important factor in improving the overall education system. Training on "best practices" was cited as the priority in the professional development arena.

A desire for better communication emerged throughout the survey, with 96.7 percent of the principals surveyed saying they did not believe effective communication existed between the Board of Education and schools; 85.5 percent saying they did not believe effective communication existed between the DOE leadership team (superintendent and assistant superintendents) and principals; and 84.8 percent believing that the implementation of policies, programs and procedures by the DOE has not been satisfactory.

The Principals Planning Group shared the survey findings with state Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi last month and, encouraged by her response, now is reaching out to a larger audience in the hope of forging solutions that students, parents, teachers and principals can all support.

Nine principals sat down with the Star-Advertiser on Tuesday to expand on some of the issues and ideas cited in the survey, stressing the need for a respectful, collaborative approach amid deep DOE budget cuts and in the wake of Furlough Fridays that cut 17 instructional days from the 2009-2010 school year.

Although student furloughs are history, the budgetary pain remains. Also pending is Hawaii’s "Race to the Top" application, which in a bid to win federal funding would place new demands on teachers and principals, including linking pay to student performance, and the push to enact performance contracts for Hawaii principals, the only ones in the U.S. who are unionized. The Senate budget proposal that would have slashed principals’ pay was in part a reaction to the failure of the DOE to enact performance contracts.

It was striking that in a two-hour roundtable discussion, the principals’ focus rarely strayed from the topic of improving student performance within the constraints of the current budget climate. The consensus was that "continuous improvement" is possible if school personnel are deployed in ways that best serve students and fit individual schools, which would require revamping the teacher-tenure system. The current system allows displaced, tenured teachers to "bump" probationary teachers, even if the nontenured teacher is succeeding at a particular school.

"I think in austere financial times it becomes even more important for us to look within our organization to capitalize on the human resources that exist to help support the department’s initiatives," said Dale Castro, principal of Mililani Waena Elementary School. "I really feel that if we can better apply the human resources, the talent is there."

By collecting and sharing the views, strategies and methods of as many school leaders as possible, the principals hope to galvanize systemwide improvement, replicating what’s worked in individual schools across the larger system.

"I think what we’re saying is that we’re in the schools every day, we know what’s happening, we know what’s working, we know what’s not working. Please hear us," said Catherine Payne, principal of Farrington High School. "We, and by that I mean the entire system, had kind of moved in a reactionary culture, always reacting to the current (budget) crisis. It’s time to get out of that mode and move ahead."


A series of online surveys conducted by the Principals Planning Group provided revealing insights into what public school principals believe are some of the key issues that need to be addressed to improve education in Hawaii:



The top responses to two open-ended survey questions: What is the most important thing that would empower you as a school principal?

No. 1: Flexibility and empowerment for hiring of teachers

No. 2: Flexibility on the budget

No. 3: Authority to run school

No. 4: Empowerment with unions and contracts

No. 5: Having clear expectations/targets from the DOE

What is most needed to improve the public education system in Hawaii?

No. 1: Strong leadership from superintendent/leadership team; clear vision and unchanging focus (tie)

No. 2: Improved communication between the DOE and schools; highly qualified and effective teachers (tie)

No. 3: More funding



The survey generated responses from 225 of about 260 regular public school principals polled. Among the key findings:

» 96.7 percent do not believe that there is effective communication between the Board of Education and schools.

» 85.5 percent do not believe that there is effective communication between the Department of Education leadership team and principals.

» 84.8 percent of principals feel that the implementation of policies, programs and procedures by the DOE has not been satisfactory.

» 86.5 percent say how the superintendent is hired is of high importance.

» 70.1 percent believe the superintendent should be appointed by the Board of Education.

» 93.5 percent believe the superintendent should be required to have experience as an educator (teacher or school administrator).

» 94.6 percent said principals should remain year-round employees.

» 80.5 percent supported implementing performance contracts as a pilot project.


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