Furlough Fridays behind them, more than 171,000 public school students head back to school this week to face new challenges as No Child Left Behind proficiency goals rise, the race kicks off to keep more schools from facing federal sanctions and teachers begin major curriculum shifts to follow national standards.
WHAT’S NEW THIS FALL
» Furlough days: None for students, who lost 17 school days last year. Teachers have six or 10 furlough days, all on previously scheduled noninstructional days.
Educators say they will need all the classroom time they can get to meet the higher goals.
And they are looking forward to no longer having to teach around furlough days, which forced them last year to cram lessons into shorter periods, scale back on other activities, like art instruction or review lessons after long weekends.
Justin Mew, principal of Niu Valley Middle School, said students will be happy to get back activities that were canceled last year because of furloughs – things like intramurals, field trips and advising periods.
"Thank goodness we can do those things again," Mew said. "The teachers are saying, ‘I’m so glad furloughs are over.’ The regular schedule is what worked best for student learning."
This school year will have 178 instructional days, up from 163 last year, when students lost 17 days to the controversial teacher furloughs that drew criticism from U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, spurred anger from parents and gave the state Department of Education a black eye it is still recovering from. There would have been 180 days last year without the furloughs, and beginning next year, under a new state law, there will be a minimum of 180 school days.
"Teachers are really excited about being able to have five full days" per week of school, said Kristl Chinen, a fifth-grade teacher at Palolo Elementary School.
Chinen was preparing her classroom for students last week, shelving books in cubbyholes and decorating bulletin boards, and said without furloughs she will be able to go deeper into subjects and "spend more quality time with students."
She also said she will need more time in the classroom to help her students meet the new proficiency goals.
"It’s going to be difficult" to hit the increased standards, she said.
This year, NCLB math and reading proficiency benchmarks rise after remaining the same for three years. At least 72 percent of public school students will have to be proficient in reading (up from 58 percent), and 64 percent of students must be proficient in math (from 46 percent).
By 2014, 100 percent of students will be expected to demonstrate a high level of skill in core subjects.
Schools have their work cut out for them to reach those goals: In the most recent school year, 67 percent of public school students tested as proficient in reading, and 49 percent tested proficient in math.
Robert Dircks, principal of Hilo High School, said he does not expect students to get much "downtime" this school year, with proficiency goals increasing.
"Naturally, having all of our Fridays back," he added, "allows for a well-balanced instructional effort by all of the teachers."
The overall scores this year represented slight gains from 2009, when 65 percent tested proficient in reading and 44 percent were proficient in math.
Schools that do not achieve adequate yearly progress for two consecutive years are subject to varying sanctions that include state intervention and replacement of school staff. This year, 92 schools face the most severe sanctions under NCLB, called "restructuring."
New proficiency goals
under No Child come as Hawaii public schools are also moving to tougher curriculum standards, which will be formally adopted statewide in 2011.
The new, more rigorous standards, designed to make instruction across the nation more uniform, are being put into motion as the Hawaii Department of Education continues to face big budget cuts.
And though furloughs on instructional days are over, teachers will still be furloughed this year on days that would have been used for professional development or lesson planning: 10-month teachers have six furlough days, and 12-month teachers have 10.
Two of those furlough days were Thursday and Friday, which teachers would have normally spent prepping their lesson planners and classrooms for the start of school.
On Wednesday, Anita Silva was trying to work quickly to clean and organize her fourth-grade classroom at Palolo Elementary in time for the first day of school today. Among her tasks: mending tattered textbooks.
Silva, who has been teaching for 40 years, said she is excited about being able to work more art instruction into her classroom. Even with furloughs last school year, she said, she tried to make sure her students were getting art lessons – though at times that instruction was "squeezed."
As for the core subjects, she said this year will be about "intensifying" teaching.
Palolo Elementary Principal Ruth Silberstein said one positive aspect of the furloughs is that teachers were able to get more instruction into shorter periods of time.
"It made teaching a lot more focused and intense. It brought out the creativity," said Silberstein, adding she believes that mode of instruction will continue this year.
As teachers prepared their classrooms last week, students readied themselves to head back to school.
At Wal-Mart Keeaumoku on Thursday, the school supplies aisle was crammed as families worked their way through lists. And several parents and students said they were happy to be returning to a regular school year.
Josie Macosi of Kalihi said she did not like how the furloughs affected her two children, ages 9 and 10, who attend Likelike Elementary. "Their learning, their reading" was suffering, she said. "I was worried."
Pepe Reupena, a 17-year-old at Campbell High School, said furloughs were a nice break, but they also meant cramming more learning into less class time. After a while it got old.
"You had to make sure you got everything" before the long weekend, she said.
Achinna Yang and Dane Vang recently moved to the islands from Washington with their 13-year-old son, Detrique, who will attend Niu Valley Middle School. The couple said they heard about Hawaii’s teacher furloughs on the mainland and considered private school for their son.
"I was concerned about all the things we’ve heard about the public schools here," said Yang as her son searched for supplies.
"I’m glad they’re not doing furloughs anymore."