State education officials have set fairly low standards for Ka‘u elementary schools, founders of the district’s newest charter school say, standards that don’t reflect students’ actual ability to succeed.
Kathryn Tydlacka taught for a few years at Naalehu Elementary School, helping 71 percent of her elementary school students earn a score of proficient on standardized math exams. At the same time, 35 percent of the school’s students were getting proficient scores. Nearly half of students — 46 percent — at one point while she was there earned the lowest of four test rates — designating they were “well below” where they should be in understanding the concepts. In Tydlacka’s classroom that year, just 13 percent of her students got that low score designation.
“In my classroom, I never looked at any child like they couldn’t do it,” Tydlacka said this week, just days after the state’s Charter School Commission authorized Ka‘u Learning Academy, to become a public charter school. The school will open its doors in the fall of 2015 for students in fourth, fifth and sixth grades. Eventually, they will expand to a kindergarten to eighth-grade campus in Discovery Harbour, with plans for an expansion school in Ocean View, Tydlacka said.
They will also help about 30 home-schooled students taking courses online.
The school has a two-year lease for the former Discovery Harbour golf course clubhouse. At the end of the lease, they hope to have built a permanent campus on 5 acres in Discovery Harbour.
Tydlacka, the academy’s executive director, said she watched as students struggled while Naalehu administrators put into place school reform efforts, as mandated by federal officials through the Race to the Top program. State Department of Education officials had identified Naalehu as one of the lowest-performing schools in the state and it became one of the first schools where reform measures were tested.
“I just looked at the kids,” Tydlacka said. “I could see how badly it was hurting the students.”
Board member Joe Iacuzzo said parents approached Tydlacka almost from the beginning of her time at Naalehu, to ask her to start a school that used her teaching techniques.
“Kathryn was personally able to make great connections with the Marshallese and Native Hawaiian children,” he added.
Tydlacka and Iacuzzo tried last year to put together a charter school. Parents were so excited and supportive that they cried when they learned that first attempt was unsuccessful, Iacuzzo said.
What will set Ka‘u Learning Academy apart from other schools, he said, is that teachers will create an individual education plan for every student.
“Every teacher will know the plan,” he added.
Those plans will help teachers “go in and fill the gaps from the past,” Tydlacka said.
Getting those plans in place is a challenge, but school officials noted on their website, kaulearningacademy.com, how they will meet that goal. Their plan includes using a system Tydlacka developed that analyzes student data and which she used to predict — with nearly 80 percent accuracy — how successful students would be on standardized state exams.
Students will be assessed for how they are reaching certain academic benchmarks monthly and quarterly and teachers will be given sufficient time to analyze data from those benchmarks, the school plan, available online, said. The school’s curriculum will align with the Common Core standards.
Having a school working with students in this way, “is going to make a world of difference” for Ka‘u, Iacuzzo said. “It’s going to change their lives.”
Tydlacka offered a story that showed such a life change. She had a girl at Naalehu with whom she worked closely to improve her test scores.
“She had never, ever thought about passing the state test,” Tydlacka said. “I told her as long as you’re working, I will never leave you behind.”
The girl came in the day test scores came back and saw she had passed. When a visitor to the school asked her about the test, the girl offered this insight: “Miss T. said she’d never leave me behind and she didn’t.”
Charter School Commission Executive Director Tom Hutton said several things stood out about Ka‘u Learning Academy’s application. It was the only application approved so far this year. The nine-member commission rejected four applications and a fifth is still pending, he said.
First, the school’s initial application, a nearly 400-page document, impressed the evaluation committee, which included commission staff and external reviewers, Hutton said. Evaluators did have a few concerns, which the academy’s team were able to easily address, he said.
“This was clearly a team effort, a group of people with diverse skills,” Hutton said, adding all of the team members were able to speak clearly on any of the topics raised by reviewers. “That really stood out.”
Secondly, the strength of charter schools is their ability to tackle a problem at one school in a way that provides information the public school districts can possibly use, Hutton said.
“They are targeting a population the state has really struggled to serve academically,” he said. “They have the potential to provide insights to the system as a whole.”