By COLIN M. STEWART
Tribune-Herald staff writer
The majority of public school students across the Big Island hoisted their bookbags, steeled their nerves, and dove back into a new academic year on Monday morning, leaving their frazzled parents to heave sighs of relief.
The start to the year came a week after the U.S. Department of Education cleared the state’s “high-risk” status from its Race to the Top grant program, allowing Hawaii to continue its education reform efforts through September 2014, when the $75 million grant runs dry.
“This is great news that validates the good work that’s been done by the teachers, educational leaders and our community partners,” Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi said in a prepared statement in response to the change in status. “The transformation of our public schools is in full swing. We are staying the course in our mission to ensure all students graduate from our public schools prepared for college and careers.”
Hawaii joins dozens of other states this year as it begins utilizing the new Common Core Standards, which, it is hoped, will help to direct educators and boost student achievement in English and mathematics courses by drawing focus on specific areas of study in much greater detail.
“It’s an exciting time. We’ve got lots of adjustments we’re phasing in this year,” said Principal Stacey Bello at Keaukaha Elementary School. “… All the schools are unified in their efforts, we’re working together. You can feel it. Our teachers are excited about the direction we’re taking as a school. We’re in our wa‘a, our voyaging canoes, and we’re going in a very significant direction.”
Bello, who took the reins at Keaukaha this year after serving as vice principal at Keaau Elementary, began the day Monday by welcoming her students and giving them a few words of advice to make their academic year a successful one.
“Please come every single day and be on time,” she said. “Be strong, be proud, be pono.”
Once the students had settled in, faculty and staff directed them in the Keaukaha back-to-school tradition of piko cutting.
When a baby is born, explained Kumu Loke Kamanu, who helped preside over the ceremony, the umbilical cord, or piko, which connects the child to the mother is cut. Through that act, the child enters the world and is ready to begin the process of learning.
In much the same way, Keaukaha’s two oldest children in sixth grade are selected each year to cut a lei fashioned from plants gathered by teachers in each of the school’s grades. The lei is hung at the entrance to the school and remains there until the next semester, when it is replaced in a new ceremony.
“When the children do this, it signifies the start of the new semester, so it is opening up the children, so knowledge can come,” Kamanu said.
Sixth-graders Christian Kapuni and Holli-Jae Macanas were selected to cut the piko in this year’s ceremony and were joined by their fellow students in hoisting the state and national flags, singing songs, and performing traditional Hawaiian chants.
The school, located in the heart of Hawaiian Homestead lands, serves a student population which is more than 90 percent of Hawaiian ancestry. As such, Hawaiian language and culture plays an important role in the lives of its students and its community.
After the welcoming ceremony, the students filed off into their respective classrooms to begin the process of building relationships with their teachers and each other, and strengthening relationships that likely already exist.
“Today, they’re working on setting the tone,” Bello explained. “Keaukaha is a tight-knit community, and everybody knows each other, so it’s like a reunion. Everyone seeing each other after the summer. It spurs excitement.”
Meanwhile, she added, teachers are working to build up trust with their students.
“Making a connection with the kids is most important. As long as they feel connected, they’re excited to come to school. If they know the teacher really cares about them, that’s the biggest piece. It takes a village to raise a child,” she said.
In Luraline Agbayani’s fourth-grade class, students set about separating supplies they had brought from home into little plastic baggies to be used throughout the year. The keiki excitedly chatted as they took in their new surroundings and set about carrying out Agbayani’s instructions.
“OK everyone! Bring your bags up here to me now,” she said, holding out a cardboard box in front of her.
Bello said she was excited to be at Keaukaha, and anticipated a successful year after observing her staff in the days leading up to the first day of class.
“They were here since 7 a.m. Sunday getting ready for the kids. They came in on their Saturday and Sunday off, and they’re not being paid for that. It makes me feel good, to know their dedication,” she said. “It’s going to be a good year.”
Email Colin M. Stewart at email@example.com.