KUALAPUU, Molokai » A Molokai native with a magnetic smile and a bold spirit, Principal Lydia Trinidad hasn’t been afraid to lead her alma mater, Kualapuu School, onto new terrain, with dramatic results.
"Lydia doesn’t let the unexplored scare her — she’s smart about being daring," said parent Kalae Tangonan, an orange hibiscus tucked in her hair. "She’s definitely innovative, always open to new ideas."
The first big leap for this elementary school in the heart of Molokai was to switch to charter status in the summer of 2004, an effort to marshal the resources and flexibility needed to lift the performance of its economically disadvantaged population. Since then it has managed to steadily boost test scores, lengthen the school day by an hour and enrich the curriculum with an array of electives including daily PE. It even added a preschool.
"I love this school," said Tangonan, who has three children at Kualapuu, her youngest in the preschool class. "They give us the ability to send our kids to Hawaiian immersion or English. That in itself is a gift. I like the fact that we are a conversion charter so we can chart our own course."
Tangonan made her comments as she headed toward the cafeteria for a recent after-school performance featuring hula, taiko, Chinese dance and tinikling, the Filipino national dance. Performing arts as well as Hawaiian studies are now a regular part of the school day at Kualapuu School, where 90 percent of students are part-Hawaiian and 76 percent qualify for subsidized lunch because of low incomes.
"Ho, you gotta come early for this," commented one beefy father, queuing up behind the overflow crowd peering through the cafeteria windows.
When it became a charter, Kualapuu was facing "restructuring," the toughest federal sanction for falling short of academic targets.
Heavy focus on math and reading pushed up test scores to the point where the campus managed to get back in "good standing," the top tier, three years after becoming a charter. Reading proficiency has continued to rise since then, to 58 percent proficient last year, up from 41 percent in 2007, while math proficiency nearly doubled to 60 percent. But "good standing" wasn’t good enough for Trinidad and the leadership team she has assembled, many of them strong women with local roots.
Afraid that a fixation on math and reading were pushing out other worthy subjects, she took a team to Boston in 2009 to explore the idea of "expanded learning time" with the nonprofit organization MASS 20/20. The Kualapuu community ultimately bought into it, despite some initial reluctance from teachers and even parents, who worried it might be too much for their kids.
"Even if you didn’t want to do it — work longer hours — you knew it was the right thing to do," said teacher Ryan Link, who went to Boston to check it out. "It was obvious. The data showed that it really worked."
The school day now runs from 7:45 a.m. to 2:45 p.m., an hour longer than last year. Kualapuu’s teachers are putting in 10 percent more time on the job this year and receiving 10 percent more pay. They also get more time to work together and plan.
Lunch was compressed to 30 minutes. The extra time goes toward more science and social studies, dedicated writing time and 30 minutes of PE daily, plus Hawaiian studies and performing arts. Electives are taught by certified teachers to ensure there is content along with the fun.
"PE is a core subject," said Trinidad, who has to break her stride on campus as small children reach out to hug her. "The statistics are very strong about health and wellness."
Because the kids are engaged, the extra hour at the end of the day goes by quickly. "I think it’s better with more minutes in that we can learn more things," said sixth-grader Pono Kalipi. "In performing arts I like being stage manager. PE every day lets me lose some calories. "
Staff members even make home visits to encourage parental participation. The school expects parents to follow up on homework assignments, send children to school on time and communicate with teachers. For a few parents that’s too much to ask, said counselor Geneva Castro Lichtenstein, and they pull out. But others come from all over the island to attend Kualapuu.
Trinidad, at 47 about the same age as the school itself, said she and her staff appreciate the freedom they have as a charter school to try new things. "The benefit is a change in mentality, to let’s try this, let’s stretch the system to see if we can do this," she said.
She estimates the school spends about $10,000 to educate each child each year, including bus service and utilities. Its state facility is rent free. Financial support comes from the state and federal governments, Kamehameha Schools and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, among others.
"Whatever funds we get from these large important organizations, they are the difference, they are the tipping point," Trinidad said. "We’re only set to do the extended learning time for about three years. I think it’s important that we use these three years to build expectations and to say this is the standard. This is the expectation. This is what real education is."