With a single statewide district, Hawaii’s public school system is often viewed as monolithic, but Superintendent Christina Kishimoto is aiming to sharpen the focus to individual campuses with distinct approaches to education.
“I want families to see the public school system as one that provides a lot of great choices,” she said in an interview. “You don’t want every school option to be the same — that runs contrary to what families are asking for.”
Nearly two years on the job, there are many challenges ahead but Kishimoto, 50, can point to initiatives that are beginning to bear fruit. An expedited contracting program for aging facilities, for example, has cut the wait time for common repairs from years to months. Her “school design” initiative encourages campuses to create unique centers of learning to fit their community.
SEEKING PUBLIC INPUT
Superintendent Christina Kishimoto is seeking feedback from the public in sketching out the future for Hawaii’s public schools over the next 10 years. An online toolkit allows community members to weigh in through Aug. 1 on the first draft of the 2030 Promise Plan, which is centered on five promises to students. Those promises include an education grounded in Hawaiian values, equity, thoughtfully designed schools, student empowerment and innovation. “Our students are too important for small promises,” Kishimoto said. To learn more, click here.
Kishimoto’s annual evaluation is on the agenda for the Board of Education’s general business meeting Thursday. Her bosses have already shown their support by voting in January to extend her three-year contract for another year through July 2021. She started Aug. 1, 2017.
“Personally as the board chair, I am very pleased with the work that she is doing,” said Catherine Payne, a former teacher and principal who leads the school board. “I feel like we have a superintendent who is visionary in ways that we have not experienced before.
“She means what she says about building a team to support the schools and helping principals know that it’s OK to try things that are out of the box,” Payne added. “It’s definitely not easy work and there are still people in the community that are suspicious.”
Hawaii State Teachers Association President Corey Rosenlee describes Kishimoto’s approach as “refreshing.”
“She wants teachers as part of the conversation when decisions are being made,” he said. “In the past it’s often been an adversarial relationship, which would then stall progress. I think Dr. Kishimoto has understood that in order for things to succeed, you’ve got to support our teachers and make sure that there is buy-in from teachers.”
Although the superintendent hails from New York City, her leadership team includes people who have worked as teachers, principals and complex area superintendents in Hawaii. That shared experience “makes it easier to get things done,” Rosenlee said.
“I feel like in the past DOE tried to diminish problems because they thought it would look embarrassing,” he said. “Instead of running away, they are confronting things with the aim to fix them.”
The hurdles facing the school system remain daunting. On average, Hawaii’s 256 public schools are well past their prime, with an average age of 72 years. The repair and maintenance backlog reached $868 million last December. Half of all public school students in the islands are economically disadvantaged, 12% have special needs and 8% are new to the English language.
Kishimoto has made a point of visiting schools statewide and is quick to cite examples of innovative approaches to learning, and she tweets frequently from the front lines. The department has also beefed up its communications effort with videos and articles highlighting “bright spots” in the education landscape.
The Honolulu Star-Advertiser sat down with Kishimoto last week for a status report and a look at how her team is tackling some of the school system’s challenges.
Hawaii colleges produce just a fraction of the teachers needed in local public and private schools. Of the 1,380 teachers newly hired by DOE for the 2017-18 school year, 28% had completed state-approved teacher education programs in Hawaii, 45% had completed them elsewhere and 27% lacked the credential.
Under a five-year plan adopted last year, the department is working to build local capacity, promote teaching as a profession, and improve recruitment, retention and teacher satisfaction, the superintendent said.
“We cannot rely on one approach,” Kishimoto said. “This is a big issue for us. There are multiple pathways into teaching. Certainly we are in full swing recruiting.”
The “Grow Our Own” partnership with the University of Hawaii is helping part-time teachers, substitutes and educational aides become licensed teachers. In exchange for tuition assistance, they commit to teaching in local public schools for three years. The Legislature set aside about $600,000 to continue the program next year.
The department hired a recruiter to focus solely on attracting teachers to special education, a dire shortage area. It also landed a federal “Troops to Teachers” grant that allowed it to hire a full-time recruiter to draw people with military experience to the public schools.
In hopes of reducing turnover, the department instituted guaranteed mentoring last year, she said. Fledgling teachers get regular help from an experienced teacher for their first two years on the job. Last year, 52% of teachers who resigned said they did so because they were leaving Hawaii, while 8% cited “workplace environment.”
The backlog in repair and maintenance at Hawaii’s schools ballooned to $868 million in December, much higher than previous estimates. The jump came after a thorough review and creation of a new online tracking system, updated to today’s costs. The biggest category is roofing, with 696 projects estimated to cost at $196 million.
The new online database allows legislators and school administrators to track the status of every capital improvement or repair and maintenance project, from procurement through completion. A public version of the CIP Project Tracker will be released next school year.
Earlier this year, the department adopted “job-order contracting” for common repairs, rather than the traditional design-bid-build approach. The system vastly expedites projects by lining up contractors through competitive bid to perform specific jobs at fixed prices. Roof repairs at six public schools were completed in record time this spring, an average of 34 days, from procurement to completion.
“Job-order contracting has reduced projects from as long as seven years to three months from start to finish, which is really exciting,” Kishimoto said.
Those moves helped win some confidence at the Legislature. Lawmakers appropriated $763 million for capital improvement projects in the next two fiscal years at Hawaii’s public schools, including $559 million in the first year. The previous two years, CIP appropriations had averaged about $300 million. Legislators also specified that $70 million each year go to projects handled through job-order contracting.
The number of public school students taking college-level courses and completing career pathways in high school has soared, although college enrollment remains flat. More high school students are graduating on time and with honors.
Performance in English Language Arts has trended upward, but math scores have stagnated, and proficiency rates in that subject drop as students move into higher grades.
“The math and special education achievement gaps are the two biggest areas of concern,” Kishimoto said. “We have rolled out a new training program for special education teachers.”
“I do think we have to address the comfort that our teachers have in teaching math,” she said, describing “math phobia” as widespread. “There is also a lot of work to be done around making math fun and interesting for students.”
All public schools have adopted three-year academic plans to target their efforts. And so far, about a quarter of campuses have come up with “school design” proposals to distinguish themselves in the eyes of the public.
As examples, Kishimoto cited Kohala High, a robotics award winner that is focusing on the sciences and applied learning; Hana High & Elementary’s culture and aina-based curriculum, and Waipahu High’s career academies in fields such as Industrial & Engineering Technology and Health & Sciences.
The Department of Education was hit with a class-action suit in December filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and others accusing it of discriminating against female athletes in Hawaii’s public schools. The complaint highlighted disparities in how girls and boys are treated in sports, such as the lack of girls’ locker rooms on some campuses.
The complaint has forced the department to make compliance with federal laws prohibiting gender discrimination a priority. Some schools have begun rotating the use of athletic locker rooms to ensure equal access for both sexes.
The Legislature came through with substantial funding to even the playing field. Among the projects in the biennium budget are girls’ locker rooms at Aiea, Baldwin, Kaimuki, Maui, Mililani, Radford, Waiakea, Waianae and Waipahu high schools, as well as softball fields at various schools.