Keith Hayashi, the pace-setting principal of Waipahu High School who is credited with raising public education to new heights, will take the reins as interim superintendent of public schools Aug. 1.
The Board of Education unanimously chose the veteran educator Thursday to replace schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto while a longer-term search for a superintendent is underway.
“I am humbled and honored to be selected to lead our public school system during this transition,” he told reporters after the meeting. “This is such a critical time for the department, and I am committed to connecting with our schools, complex areas and state office leaders to ensure that we are well prepared for the upcoming school year.”
Hayashi, 56, is eligible to apply for the permanent superintendent position and said, in response to a question, that he intends to do so. He declined to discuss actions he might take as interim chief, out of respect for Kishimoto, who will be superintendent through July.
Asked whether he thought parents should have a distance learning option in the coming school year, an issue that cropped up at the board meeting, he spoke only of his own school.
“As principal at Waipahu High, we have been very committed to returning our students fully in person,” he said. “We want to ensure that at Waipahu … we support our students not only academically, but we are also addressing the social/emotional component for those students, for them to come back and be able to interact with their peers. Our teachers and their students are very much looking forward to returning in the fall.”
Since Hayashi became principal in 2009, Waipahu High has focused on launching students toward college and careers with courses relevant to real life. Every student is a member of a nationally recognized model career academy, including students with significant disabilities. The six academies range from health to engineering to public service.
Negative stereotypes that once dogged the school have been obliterated under his leadership. Instead, Waipahu students are known for taking college courses at their high school campus as early as their freshman year and doing original research that is published in national scientific journals.
“He genuinely always thinks of students first, what is in the best interest of the students,” said Mark Silliman, who recently retired as director of Waipahu’s pioneering Early College program. “He is selfless, and everything he does is to improve, to increase the number of opportunities that we can provide our students of all sorts.”
“You have people who are struggling, you have people who have special needs, you have students who are doing really well,” Silliman said in an interview. “He’s there for every single one of them, whether it’s band, academics, sports, every facet of student life.”
The majority of students at Waipahu High come from low-income families, and while poverty can hamper student achievement, the staff works to remove obstacles and broaden students’ horizons.
One dramatic sign of Waipahu’s success is the fact that 10 of its students qualified for the 2021 U.S. Presidential Scholars program, out of a total of 64 students who qualified statewide from both private and public schools. And three Waipahu students went on to become semifinalists, out of the state’s eight semifinalists. (Ultimately, this year’s two Presidential Scholars hailed from Punahou and ‘Iolani.)
In 2012 Waipahu High launched the state’s first Early College program, which brings professors onto high school campuses to teach college courses. Since then it has taken off and spread to schools statewide. Nearly a quarter of the 2,800 students at Waipahu High now take college courses. This spring, 22 seniors had earned enough credits to obtain their college associate’s degrees at the same time as their high school diplomas.
Waipahu was also the first high school in the country to receive permission to charter its own chapter of Phi Theta Kappa, the honor society for community colleges. This year the national Phi Theta Kappa bestowed on Hayashi an honor that until then had been given only to college presidents: the Shirley B. Gordon Award of Distinction.
“I want people to know that he will be as dynamic a leader for every student in our state as he was for Waipahu and for the many other schools he worked for as he moved through his career,” said Silliman, a former community college chancellor. “He is an incredibly hard worker.”
Hayashi started his career in 1989 teaching at Lehua Elementary School and went on to became an instructional leader, principal and complex-area superintendent. He filled in briefly as interim superintendent before Kishimoto started the job in August 2017. Silliman said Hayashi has an uncanny ability to bring out the best in each member of his staff.
“He is a person who will give you the freedom and latitude to be innovative and creative and to take risks,” Silliman said. “It’s unusual to find leaders that are like that.”
A product of Hawaii’s public schools, Hayashi graduated from Kaimuki High School and earned his bachelor’s degree as well as two master’s degrees from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, one in educational administration and the other in curriculum and instruction. In 2018 he had the pleasure of handing his daughter her diploma at her Waipahu High graduation.
Hayashi was named state Principal of the Year by the Association of Secondary School Principals in 2014. The Hawaii Association of Career and Technical Education named him Administrator of the Year in 2019. Previously, he received the Masayuki Tokioka Excellence in School Leadership Award.
“The students at Waipahu High School are extremely fortunate to have Keith blaze a trail of opportunity for them that they could not get at any other public high school in the state,” Sandra Yorong, president of the Friends of Waipahu High School, wrote in a letter to the board. “As superintendent for the Department of Education, we are confident that Keith will bring that same energy to help all beneficiaries in the Hawaii public school system.”
“He will make Hawaii the best public school system in the nation, an opportunity the Department of Education and the state of Hawaii cannot afford to miss,” Yorong added.
The interim superintendent position is expected to last several months, at an annual salary of $210,000.