A decade ago, Campbell High School in Ewa Beach was a place where mediocrity was epidemic, failure was commonplace and there was more emphasis on vocational skills than college prep.
Today, following a schoolwide effort to boost post-graduation expectations and improve student performance, it is one of Hawaii’s highest-achieving high schools and a model for the state, educators say, at a time when the Department of Education is promising big reforms to turn around low-performing campuses.
HOW CAMPBELL DID IT
» Elevated expectations and offered more rigorous course work
» Total enrollment: 2,720
SCHOLARSHIPS FOR GRADUATING SENIORS
ADVANCED PLACEMENT CLASSES
2000: 25 students took 30 AP exams
At Campbell about 40 percent of the school’s 2,720 students are enrolled in college preparatory or honors courses, and more low- income students take Advanced Placement exams than any other Hawaii public school; scholarships for the graduating class have ballooned from $600,000 in 1998 to $12.9 million this year.
Test scores at Campbell, where 42 percent of students come from disadvantaged homes, are on par with schools in wealthier communities.
And students from around the state apply for geographic exceptions to attend Campbell. Because the school is at capacity, many get turned away.
So what’s Campbell’s secret?
The details of the years-long turnaround are complicated, but administrators and teachers say the core idea is simple: Everybody at the school is expected to achieve great things.
The school’s mantra is, "Whatever it takes."
"The transformation has been great," said Jamie Dela Cruz, Campbell’s acting principal, who has worked at the school since 1999. Back then "the school was quite challenged with gangs, students having low morale, the community having low morale. The culture of the school has changed … to an expectation that everyone will go to college."
Of course, not everyone does go to college. And there are still students who fall behind, drop out or get suspended. (Some 241 students were suspended in the 2008-09 school year, up from 153 students in 2001-02.)
But raising the bar — for everyone — is a big part of Campbell’s success, those at the school say.
Campbell is Hawaii’s only demonstration site for AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination), a program designed to help average kids succeed in college prep courses. Kaiser High will begin the program this fall.
It was also the first public high school in Hawaii to get accreditation for the International Baccalaureate diploma, an elite college-track program aimed at preparing global, bilingual scholars.
And in 2004 the school opened enrollment to Advanced Placement courses to everyone in hopes of boosting college readiness. Before, students had to get recommendations and test into the courses.
For struggling students, Campbell has early-intervention programs, and teachers allow students to redo work until they are proficient.
The school also has freshman and sophomore academies, designed to keep kids from getting overwhelmed in their first years of high school, and "small learning communities" for everything from arts and communications to industrial and engineering technology.
As the state embarks on a big campaign to improve struggling schools, Campbell is being eyed as a turnaround story worth studying. Teachers and administrators from around the state regularly visit the school to get ideas on how to fashion their own school improvement models.
Lisa DeLong, Nanakuli-Waianae complex-area superintendent, said Campbell did not necessarily succeed because of one model or program, but because everybody believed the school could do better.
"What’s important is there’s fidelity to the model," she said. "Everyone knows the model. They know the targets."
Another big component of the turnaround is getting lots of community support.
"If you’re talking about moving the school (forward), you need to move that community," said Annette Nishikawa, complex-area superintendent for Ewa Beach and Kapolei. "You see the great stuff that happens in the movies, and you want it to be in your school. But it’s not that easy."
It is also not something that happens overnight.
And it requires a strong leader. For Campbell that person was Principal Gail Awakuni, who stepped into the position in 2000 pledging to make big changes.
Awakuni retired from the DOE this year. Her replacement is set to be announced shortly, and there is some trepidation that without Awakuni’s leadership the school could slip.
But most are confident that the gains the school made were built on a strong enough foundation that no one person dictates its success or failure.
Kurt Fevella, a longtime Ewa Neighborhood Board member, graduated from Campbell in 1986 and has watched the school’s transformation with awe — and pride.
Back when he was at Campbell, he said, "It was either you go into the military or find yourself a job. They never really instilled higher learning."
Students who attend Campbell now, he said, are excited about going to school and learning. College is an attainable goal for them.
"Before it was just going to school because we had to. Now they’re going to school to get a better education," he said.
Fevella was also a security guard at Campbell from 1997 to 1999, and he remembers almost daily "disturbances" on campus — everything from fights to kids bringing weapons to school. "It’s so much quieter now," he said. "Oh, 100 times better."
On a recent weekday at the school, Campbell graduate Robert Ferme is talking to a packed college prep literature class. Ferme graduated from Campbell this summer with an International Baccalaureate diploma and was admitted to a host of big-name colleges. He settled on Stanford University, where he will start this month.
In the classroom Ferme stands in front of 32 students wearing a "Stanford Engineering" T-shirt.
They want to know how tough the IB program is.
"You’ll be studying your asses off," he says, eliciting laughter. "But, you know, it’s worth it."
He tells them later that the college prep track taught him how to "love to learn."
"You learn for the sake of learning," he said.
And that gets the teachers in the room smiling.
Julie Do, director for Campbell’s Academy of International Studies and its AP and International Baccalaureate coordinator, started at the school in 2000 and said turning Campbell into a high-achieving campus has been partly about battling preconceived ideas about the school — even among teachers.
She said she once attended an AP training with other teachers from around the state, where some suggested that stressing rigorous courses at Campbell was a waste of time.
That got her blood boiling — and kicked her competitive side into high gear.
She said that competitive streak is something you see a lot of at Campbell, where people are used to being underestimated.
"I think there’s still a lot of negativity out there" about Campbell, she said. "It actually makes it more fun to prove people wrong."
Demelsa Leafa, 16, also knows a school’s bad rap can be difficult to shake. When she tells people she goes to Campbell, she often hears something along these lines: "Oh, it’s a ghetto school."
But that does not bother Leafa.
"I really ignore them," she said as she sat in her AP biology class. "It’s a good school."