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Education secretary visits Hawaii schools

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    U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, right, talked to Judy Cacal on Monday in the biotech lab where she and her classmates were researching how to make a virus-resistant tilapia at Waipahu High School.

The nation’s top education official is vowing to look into concerns about assessments for students attending Hawaiian-language immersion schools and how Native Hawaiian-focused charter schools are funded.

Noting that there was a time when the Hawaiian language was outlawed, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said he’s glad to see schools contributing to its revitalization.

"These are kids in the community that for far too long were extraordinarily poorly served," he said. "Again, the fact that the language was actually outlawed, I mean, that is so deep and so profound and that represents a very systemic attempt to decimate a culture."

Duncan on Monday visited the Ka Waihona o ka Naauao Public Charter School on the Waianae Coast, where he was greeted with lei and hula. At the Nanakuli oceanfront school, he even tried his hand at pounding taro root into poi, which he tasted.

During a discussion, Native Hawaiian educational leaders laid out concerns such as some parents boycotting state tests in English because they want assessments created in Hawaiian.

Namaka Rawlins, representing Aha Punana Leo, which organizes Hawaiian-language preschools, said the state and federal education departments need to support education in both English and Hawaiian.

Duncan said he needs to do some "homework" and look into the assessment issue, as well as a concern raised about Native Hawaiian-focused charter schools not being eligible for federal grants aimed at Native Hawaiian organizations.

"Whatever we can do to help, we’ll do that," he said.

Duncan is the first education secretary to visit Hawaii in about 20 years, according to the U.S. Department of Education. He’s also believed to be the first to visit Waianae, a poor community that’s home to a high concentration of Native Hawaiians.

He called the Waianae discussion "inspiring and emotional."

"This idea of recognizing the culture, recognizing the language, recognizing history, recognizing ancestors," he said, "our children need to understand that."

Kamuela Enos, a Waianae community member who is on the White House Commission on Asian American and Pacific Islanders, said the "significance of his coming here can’t be understated."

Duncan was in Hawaii, on a stop from New Zealand, to recognize the state’s public school system for making progress on ambitious reforms. His department had placed Hawaii’s $75 million "Race to the Top" grant on "high-risk" status for unsatisfactory progress, but Duncan has recently been vocal in praising the state for turning things around.

"Hawaii has been this remarkable success story," he said, noting that the "initial year or so was very, very rocky."

Hawaii has a long way to go, but has demonstrated a turnaround in ways such as implementing higher graduation requirements two years ahead of schedule, he said.

"By all these measures, Hawaii is one of the five fastest improving states in the nation," he said. "That’s remarkable."

While Hawaii has since been cleared of its risk status, losing the money was a very real possibility, he said: "We have to be good stewards of taxpayers’ scarce tax dollars."

The department has said Hawaii is the only one of the 12 grant winners to not ask for more time to accomplish reform goals. The state education department has said it won’t request an extension.

"We would happily entertain that request," Duncan said. "But I don’t think Hawaii, frankly, wants it or needs it and that’s fantastic, too."

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