More than 300 people came out last night to support public education reform — and think about how they can pitch in to help schools.
Keynote speaker Maya Soetoro-Ng told attendees that improvements will start with "a step" and that everyone, even those without school-age children, should be working to improve Hawaii’s public education system.
"The saddest thing is not beginning and not beginning anew," said Soetoro-Ng, President Barack Obama’s half sister and co-founder of Our Public School, one of the event’s sponsors. "The second saddest thing is not seeing a thing through to completion."
The "New Beginnings" town hall on education attracted parents, teachers, several Board of Education members and advocates, many of whom said they were frustrated with Hawaii’s public education system and were looking to help make it better.
Attendees filled the cafeteria at Kapiolani Community College to hear from Soetoro-Ng, the governor and a panel of educators.
Gov. Neil Abercrombie said education reforms are moving forward, and that the new appointed Board of Education will help support further improvements.
"We truly do have the opportunity with this new board," he said.
He also told the crowd that teacher furloughs on instructional days (like those seen last school year) won’t happen on his watch — which drew loud applause.
Before the event, attendees were asked to browse a room featuring a host of programs and projects helping public schools and then pledge to lend support. Many did, offering to volunteer or seek donations.
Soetoro-Ng said the town hall was aimed at mobilizing people across the state.
"We surely have new beginnings," she said. "We have a new governor and a new Board of Education. We have new inspiration."
The concerns from attendees ranged from student achievement to the length of the school day to the amount of support teachers get.
Li Cobian, 48, a contractor, said something needs to be done — and soon — to improve schools in the islands.
"It seems like a lot of teachers are teaching because they couldn’t do anything else," said Cobian, a product of public and private schools on the mainland.
Win Schoneman, chairman of Kamiloiki Elementary’s School Community Council, said he’s frustrated by the pace of improvements to schools.
He also said recent decisions on education are worrisome, including a planned delay of a law to lengthen Hawaii’s school day.
"The money issues aren’t going to go away, and yet it seems like we’re willing to sacrifice a generation to maintain the status quo," he said. "I’m really tired of the direction that we’re going."
The length of Hawaii’s school day also concerns Nancy Price, whose daughter attends Waikele Elementary.
"We need more instructional time," she said, adding that there are also many good things to be found in public schools.
Attendee Mary Babcock, an art professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, said it’s time the state started supporting teachers and schools more.
"We really underfund our schools," said Babcock, whose partner is a teacher at Castle High School. "It’s really unfair to the community."
Retired teacher Shirley Parola, 77, attended the forum to float this idea: Public education would improve if fewer parents sent their children to private school. "The fact that we have so many private schools is detrimental to the public school system," she said.