The biggest potential public-schools win during this year’s legislative session is a proposal asking voters whether to establish a surcharge on investment real property to serve as a funding stream for Hawaii’s statewide system.
No such stream flows now for the system, which enrolls about 179,250 students in slightly more than 290 schools. Voter approval in November’s general election would amend the state Constitution and enable the 2019 Legislature to set parameters. Christina Kishimoto, now wrapping up her first year as schools superintendent, wants the end result to better compensate educators, whose salaries lag behind national averages.
“If the voters approve this measure, then let’s put these funds directly into moving our teacher, leader and staff pay into the top 20 percent of competitive education pay in the nation,” she said.
Kishimoto, who previously headed smaller school districts in Arizona and Connecticut, grew up in New York City, attending public schools in the Bronx. Her passion for improving schools springs from firsthand experiences as a student seeing lopsided distribution of resources.
“All students matter. I mattered to the teachers that worked through tough situations in New York City during the 1970s and 1980s to make sure that I was empowered to succeed beyond the limitations of generational poverty,” she said. In Hawaii, “I look at students in our classrooms and I see the passion in them for life, learning and community impact, and I want to be part of the system that provides that pathway to success.”
Further, Kishimoto said, “There is no other organization that has the principle of equity of access to excellence as a foundational core value. There are countless life-changing stories about the impact of public education. … I believe in the power of this democratic principle: Every child has a right to quality education.”
Question: You have described yourself as a “bold” leader. What’s the boldest thing you’re doing as Hawaii public schools’ leader?
Answer: I’ve taken on a strong position that school-based empowerment and accountability are needed to place decision-making, budget allocations and supports closest to students. This requires revisiting the work and decisions that belong at each of the tri-levels: school level, complex-area level and state level. This also requires a thoughtful rollout ensuring the training and readiness of each level of decision-makers (as well as) … a policy conversation at the legislative level.
Q: What do you see as your top accomplishments to date as superintendent?
A: This has been an incredible first year. My priority was to get into the community to speak directly with my various constituents from students, teachers, complex-area teams, parents, legislators, philanthropy, higher education, business and so forth. These talk stories and school visits helped me to learn about our ohana- based communities collectively and also the unique context of neighborhoods so that I can more effectively plan with community.
The next accomplishment was to quickly establish a three-strategy priority for the remaining three years of our statewide Strategic Plan focused on school design, student voice and teacher collaboration. These three strategies have provided a focus for us to look purposefully at how we provide equitable access to quality education to all of our public school students through a high-impact public school system. These strategies also serve as a call to action to broaden our engagement in innovation practices in the classroom with a focus on the instructional design of our system.
My third highlight would be the response system that I am working on strengthening around closing the achievement gap. Three areas of focus this year have been: special education services, English language services, and teacher recruitment and retention. While we will lead through innovation, we will also improve practices that are not producing expected results by being highly responsive in redesigning how we do our work in areas that are not producing student learning results.
Q: Top challenge so far?
A: Finding the time to unpack and understand the rationale for the current systems in place while responding to demands for improvement. I want to be systematic in understanding what is in place and creating or improving on delivery systems, but I also understand that there are some points of frustration for the community on long-standing issues.
Q: What sorts of strides are you seeing through implementation of the state Board of Education and Department of Education’s joint Strategic Plan?
A: I am very excited about our latest data that shows that we are graduating more students, sending more students to college, exposing more students to early college and AP (Advanced Placement) courses so that they are starting college with several course credits completed, and improving overall performance, including sustained and improved NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) scores.
To continue this work, I am focused on working … to increase allocations for Early College courses, dedicating professional development funds for high school teachers who want to be trained to teach Advanced Placement courses, focusing on the quality of our secondary school counseling program, and developing college and career pathways through our high school design process.
Q: Another piece of the Strategic Plan is improving teacher retention as the five-year rate has hovered at slightly about 50 percent. Thoughts on how to remedy?
A: During this school year I served as the lead chair for the TECC (Teacher Education Coordinating Committee) and gained agreement (among the state’s major higher education institutions) to collaborate on a multi-organization, multi-year teacher recruitment and retention plan.
Some highlights from the plan include: recruiting future teachers as early as the middle and high school grades; expanding our grow-your-own teacher preparation program; initiating a Troops-to-Teachers program; recruiting multi-language and hard-to-fill teacher positions through an exchange program with other nations; exploring differential pay scales for special education teachers; and initiating a statewide “It’s Great to be a Teacher” marketing campaign in partnership with all Hawaii-based higher education programs, including alternative route to certification programs.
Q: In regards to your focus on “school design,” “student voice” and “teacher collaboration,” what do you see as Hawaii’s strengths and weaknesses?
A: With approximately 70 school visits across the state this school year, I was able to see that we have best-kept secrets in our schools of designs that provide outstanding learning experiences for our students. The work ahead is to build upon these great whole-school or within-school models such as IB (International Baccalaureate), STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), project-based learning designs, high school academy models; robotics and coding programs; sustainability and agriculture academies, and so forth.
… It’s time to tell the correct story about the positive and influential impact of public education in Hawaii. At the same time, we have the opportunity to increase student voice proactively in the design of schools, school experiences and student work products. Students can be co-designers of curriculum.
To accomplish both quality school design and powerful student voice impacts, we must begin to think about teacher collaboration beyond just counting minutes available for teachers to meet. We need to structure a system for teachers to share the millions of lessons that they create, and build upon the valuable intellectual resource we have at hand through our amazing teachers.
Teachers need greater opportunity to develop lessons, share practices and design multidisciplinary learning projects that connect students to their world. They also need to be able to drastically change teaching practices when approaches are not yielding student achievement results.
Q: What do you enjoy most about your job?
A: The people. The HIDOE (Hawaii Department of Education) is made up of a great team. To lead such an incredible team in service to our public school mission is an incredible blessing and honor.