In their first public remarks in Hawaii on Thursday, the two candidates vying to be the next superintendent of public schools emphasized a commitment to ensuring equitable access to a high-quality education.
“This is a unique place in this country in terms of every child having access to free, public education. And a commitment is not only access; it’s about access to quality,” Christina Kishimoto, superintendent and chief executive officer of Gilbert Public Schools in Arizona since 2014, told reporters.
In Hawaii, she added, quality is “defined by a set of core values … and those core values are wrapped around community, they’re wrapped around family, they’re wrapped around the students.”
Kishimoto, 48, said what attracted her to the Hawaii position was “the fact that this is a place where there is a shared vision about what we want to accomplish for all students,” referencing the Department of Education’s updated strategic plan and Gov. David Ige’s “blueprint” to improve public schools.
Finalist Linda Chen, formerly chief academic officer for Baltimore City Public Schools, also underscored the importance of equity.
“Every student deserves access to strong teaching and learning experiences that
prepare them for college, career, community and life,” Chen, 46, said. “I bring a love of listening and learning, a determination and commitment to equity and access for all of our students.”
Chen, who started a Baltimore-based educational consulting firm last year, said she was attracted to Hawaii’s strong sense of community.
“I believe Hawaii, especially at this moment in our nation’s history, is poised to be the leading example of what can truly happen in public education when a committed community comes together around shared values, culture and history … to make a difference for kids,” she said.
Both finalists said they come from immigrant families that value education. Kishimoto, who grew up in the South Bronx in New York, said her mother migrated from Puerto Rico. Chen, who grew up in Seattle, said her parents were Chinese immigrants.
The pair is in Hawaii to meet with stakeholder groups ahead of a Board of Education meeting set for Thursday, when the full board will privately interview the candidates. BOE Chairman Lance Mizumoto said he hopes the board will be able to reach a decision to make a job offer at that meeting, where public testimony will be accepted.
Mizumoto arranged for the finalists to meet with local media Thursday. He said he has asked them not to grant further interviews during the selection process.
Following opening statements, the finalists answered questions on a range of topics, including how they might address Hawaii’s persistent teacher shortage.
“What I’m very interested in doing is working with the community to really grow our teachers here,” said Chen, who previously worked as a teacher in Seattle and New York City public schools.
She suggested exposing high school students to early-college pathways in teaching, and said a key to retaining good teachers is creating an environment that allows them to “thrive professionally.”
Kishimoto said teachers need to be paid competitive salaries and have the flexibility to implement curricula they choose.
“We’re going to need to look at our financial structure around how do we provide competitive pay and a good pay structure that allows teachers to be able to have a living wage. … Nationally, that’s been a challenge,” she said.
Before relocating to Arizona, Kishimoto had been superintendent of Hartford Public Schools in Connecticut, where her request for a contract extension was rejected in 2013 by the schools board, which cited concerns about a lack of communication and the pace of school improvements being too slow.
Kishimoto defended her performance in Hartford, saying her record speaks for itself. She is credited with helping narrow the achievement gap and raise graduation rates in the district of approximately 25,000 students.
“I am a bold leader,” she said. “There was change that was needed. That is a high-poverty district with lots of challenges that went through a state takeover. You cannot go into a position like that and lead without having bold leadership and being able to say there are things that you are going to be attacked for. But those things are not at the core of my ethics or at the core of my commitment to public education.”
Kishimoto holds a doctorate in education administration from Columbia University’s Teachers College as well as a master’s degree in public affairs from the University of Connecticut. She started her career in higher education, including four years as assistant dean of student services at Wesleyan University.
Chen resigned last year from her position with Baltimore City Public Schools, a district with 84,000 students. She had been brought in to lead Baltimore’s academic office by the district’s controversial former CEO, Gregory Thornton, who ultimately stepped down less than two years into a four-year contract over criticism that he lacked vision and direction.
She said she decided to move into private consulting to focus on select projects.
Chen previously worked for Boston Public Schools as deputy chief academic officer and chief curriculum and instruction officer. She also was assistant superintendent and deputy chief of teaching and learning for the School District of Philadelphia. She holds a doctorate in education and master’s degrees in educational leadership and curriculum and teaching, all from Columbia University’s Teachers College.
Chen and Kishimoto were selected from an initial pool of 92 applicants. The list was narrowed to eight semifinalists with the help of executive search firm Ray &Associates. The selected candidate will replace schools Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi, whose term ends June 30.