Getting Hawaii’s best teachers and principals to work at the state’s lowest-performing schools is a key element of the Race to the Top plan to lift student achievement that won approval yesterday.
Nearly $19 million in federal funds, a quarter of the $75 million Hawaii won in the nationwide contest, will go toward turning around the lowest-achieving schools. The plan includes pay incentives to attract top educators, professional development to enhance teaching, and more learning time for students, including summer school.
"The struggling schools have the same characteristics," said Teddy Burgess, principal of Naalehu Elementary on the Big Island. "They’re rural. Our biggest struggle is getting quality teachers and young talent to want to teach at our schools. It’s hard to get a young teacher to move 65 miles from family and friends to a town that has three restaurants."
After a year of tribulation for local public schools, the news that Hawaii had succeeded in the Race to the Top thrilled many local educators, especially those whose schools most need help.
"It almost made me cry," said Kathleen Romero, who has been principal of Keonepoko Elementary on the Big Island for a decade. "I did have tears in my eyes when I heard about it."
"The state has a really solid plan," Romero said. "It’s not just for struggling schools, although we’re a priority. I just think it’s going to help the whole state move forward."
As required by the federal government, Hawaii’s Department of Education identified the six lowest-performing schools in the state, known as "priority schools." Four are on the Leeward Coast — Nanakuli High & Intermediate, Maili Elementary, Kamaile Academy Public Charter School and Waianae Elementary — and one, Naalehu Elementary, is on the Big Island. The sixth is the Hawaii School for the Deaf and Blind.
But rather than focusing just on those six campuses, the department decided to broaden its targeted efforts to include the surrounding feeder schools in each area. It proposed creating two "zones of school innovation," one encompassing the Waianae and Nanakuli school complexes on the Leeward Coast, and the other, the Kau-Keeau-Pahoa complex on the Big Island.
"We recognize these schools are not in isolation; they are part of a geographic area with very similar characteristics and challenges," said Robert Campbell, executive assistant for strategic reform for the Department of Education.
The 13 schools in the two zones are hard to staff because of geography and other reasons. More than three-quarters of the students in the zones qualify for subsidized school lunch because of low incomes, a factor that can hamper school achievement. The plans call for comprehensive reform to get past such hurdles.
The assistance could start even before students enter kindergarten. The Race to the Top proposal includes offering subsidies to help young children in the zones attend preschool so that they enter kindergarten ready to succeed.
The department intends to take swift action to begin redistributing teachers who appear to be among its best to needy areas. In the short run the department will offer a $3,000 incentive for teachers who meet the federal definition of "highly qualified" to work in the zones of innovation.
But because that definition does not measure a teacher’s impact, the department will be working to identify highly effective teachers, based in part on improvement in their students’ performance. Under the proposed plan, starting in 2011-12, teachers who are identified as highly effective will be offered a 20 percent pay raise to work in the zones and effectively become 12-month employees. Other federal grants will be used to provide another month of learning time for students and a month of data-driven professional development for teachers.
IN THE ZONE
Two "zones for school innovation — the Leeward Coast and the Kau-Pahoa area of the Big Island — will get targeted help with Race to the Top. The zones include five schools that are the state’s persistently lowest achievers, plus the Hawaii School for the Deaf and Blind.
Principals who are judged to be highly effective could get a $10,000 annual incentive for working in the zones.
A new Office of Strategic Reform, directly under the superintendent, will work directly with schools in the innovation zones to help keep them on track. As their performance improves, other campuses will be added to the focused effort.
For the Hawaii School for the Deaf and Blind, the department will hire an external consultant to do an in-depth review of the small, specialized campus and work with the community to come up with reform plans.
Along with the targeted help for struggling schools, the Race to the Top program that was approved by the federal government will offer help for all schools — specifically professional development and better ways to assess student progress and adjust instruction accordingly.
"All schools will benefit because there will be a huge amount of professional development around the new common core state standards in English and math," Campbell said. In addition, an online assessment database will allow teachers to track whether students are catching on throughout the course of the academic year.
"It gives the teacher the ability to say, ‘Give me some good test questions for these particular standards to see if my kids get it or not,’" Campbell said. "It’s digitized so that the kids take the test online, and then the teacher immediately finds out how well they did."
"Those two things in particular, along with performance contracts (for teachers) that are linked to student achievement, really will make a difference in schools across the state," he said.
At Keonepoko Elementary in Pahoa, Romero said she looks forward to the helping hand.
"I will take that hand and grasp it, and we will get up and take that big first leap," she said. "Our teachers are up to it, and our kids are up to it and the community is, too."