Moana Medeiros was taken aback when she and other eager teachers went to check out the site of a new charter school in Waianae and discovered it was to be housed in a former chicken coop.
"It had a dilapidated corrugated roof with no walls, just a bare cement foundation," Medeiros recalled. "We looked at each other and said, what did we get ourselves into? Just as we were about to leave, along comes Mr. Parker, saying, ‘Don’t leave, let me tell you all about it!’"
Alvin Parker, principal of Ka Waihona o ka Naauao, proved persuasive. Today Medeiros is elementary vice principal for the school, which quickly outgrew its humble origins and is now quartered at a meticulously kept traditional public school campus in Nanakuli.
Its student body has mushroomed from 68 in 2002 when it opened to 571 in kindergarten through eighth grade. The vast majority of its students are of Hawaiian descent and so are their teachers, largely recruited from the local community.
Teacher turnover has long been an issue at public schools on the Waianae Coast, but not at Ka Waihona. All but two of its 41 teachers have been on staff for more than five years, and most have master’s degrees.
"The big reason people said the quality of education was not being met on the Waianae Coast is that novice teachers would come, put in a couple years and leave," said Parker, whose master’s degree project was on how to build a sustainable school in the area. "We’ve been able to overcome that."
The school consciously chooses teachers from the region because they are more likely to stay and the students readily relate to them. Ka Waihona also gives its teachers and students a rare level of support: every classroom has an educational assistant as well as a teacher, and class size averages just 22 students.
"A lot of those factors are essential to helping these students who come from these socioeconomic backgrounds have a fighting chance to compete," said sixth-grade teacher Richard "Kado" Nahoopii, who grew up in Waianae and says he went to college only because a devoted high school teacher put up the money for his first semester.
Ka Waihona’s staffing level is possible because of funding the charter school receives from Kamehameha Schools. The educational trust also provides a steady supply of staff. Twenty members of Ka Waihona’s faculty are Kamehameha Schools graduates, including Parker and his daughter, Keolani Alejado. A licensed teacher with a master’s in education, Alejado teaches reading to struggling students and also runs the free afterschool tutoring program, where mentors from Nanakuli High work with 175 Ka Waihona students.
The school is on firm financial footing, having recently signed a long-term lease with the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands for the oceanfront property, previously home to Nanaikapono Elementary. Parker’s wife, Renette, is the business manager and registrar, hired with approval of the local school board after private sector jobs in accounting and human resources. A recent independent financial audit found no deficiencies in internal control.
The newest member of the faculty is math resource teacher Dan Kitashima, a veteran educator recruited from Pearl Highlands Intermediate School in 2008. With his encouragement, the school adopted Singapore Math in the fall of 2009, and math proficiency jumped from 27 percent of students to 37 percent over the course of that school year, helping the school make "adequate yearly progress." Fifty-eight percent of students are proficient in reading. More than half the children are economically disadvantaged.
Singapore Math, based on the curriculum that has helped propel students in that island nation to the top of international tests, shows students the concrete and pictorial before going abstract, and teaches number "bonding" techniques that last a lifetime.
"It not only teaches how the math works but why it works," said Kitashima, who says he was ready to retire but coming to Ka Waihona has revitalized him. "And because it’s so visual, it’s great for all different kinds of students. The joy, the change in attitude that the kids have experienced, is the greatest."