By COLIN M. STEWART
Tribune-Herald staff writer
Experienced mountaineers will tell you that when tackling any climb, there are three important things to remember: It’s always further than it looks, it’s always taller than it looks, and it’s always harder than it looks.
But, as the state Department of Education works to improve standardized test scores in Hawaii’s federally funded “Race to the Top,” students here on the Big Island are finding that significant progress can come by leaps and bounds.
Eleven Hawaii Island schools succeeded this month in earning a total of more than $330,000 in federal award money for their schools after showing improvement on their Hawaii State Assessment reading and math scores, which are used to assess school progress through the nationwide No Child Left Behind requirements.
At the first “Strive HI Awards” ceremony, held last week on Oahu, Gov. Neil Abercrombie and Department of Education officials handed out $1 million in one-time grants recognizing significant academic progress for schools over two consecutive years. The money must be spent within a particular time frame, and may only be used for specific improvements, including technical infrastructure, professional development, equipment, musical instruments, or computers.
The awards are important, said Stephen Schatz, DOE assistant superintendent of the Office of Strategic Reform, because they single out schools which may not yet be performing at peak levels, but rather have shown remarkable success in improving their performance.
“People are working hard every day, and under the NCLB (No Child Left Behind) system, sometimes folks were not able to celebrate their successes,” he said in a phone interview from Honolulu on Friday afternoon. “That’s the exciting part about Strive HI. It’s not about where you are, it’s about the trajectory you’re on.”
Among the state’s top five award winners — which were recognized for showing improvement over two consecutive years and pulling their schools out of the No Child Left Behind category of “restructuring” — Hilo Intermediate School and Na Wai Ola (Waters of Life) Public Charter School each brought home $100,000 to fund improvements.
In an interview Friday morning, Waters of Life Principal Dan Caluya said that he and the rest of the school were thrilled by the recognition, which helps to showcase the once struggling charter school as a successful and vital part of the Puna community.
Just a few short years ago, Waters of Life was in dire straits — in debt to the state and in danger of losing its charter. It has taken a concerted effort by administrators, faculty and the students and their families to turn things around, he said.
“We’re in good standing with the state now, we’ve made AYP (adequate yearly progress) three years in a row. We’re standing tall,” he said.
In a single year, the school’s scores leaped from 47 percent of students showing proficiency in reading in 2011 to 74 percent in 2012, and from 31 percent showing proficiency in math to 69 percent. Drastic changes like those are only possible due to students and their families “buying in” to the challenge, Caluya said.
“You get buy-in from the parents and you get buy-in from the students when they start to see the tangible results. When they start to see academic success, they come together,” he said.
That “buy in” means that students and their parents are willing to go the extra mile to achieve success, he explained. As an example, of the school’s 160 students, between 40 and 50 participate in after-school and weekend classes and tutoring.
“The kids are willing, the parents are picking them up, everyone’s involved,” he said. “And I give full credit to the teaching staff. They’re the ones who are doing the work.”
Caluya said the school’s board had not yet made any formal decisions concerning how it would spend the award money, but would likely opt to update computer equipment.
Hilo Intermediate is also a school which has made a remarkable comeback after a long period of underachievement.
In August, when the state released the HSA scores, Hilo Intermediate Principal Esther Kanehailua said that the school had earned a reputation in East Hawaii for being labeled as restructuring the longest. She, too, credited her staff with affecting the turnaround.
“We’ve always had an outstanding staff,” she said. “The question became, how do we get everyone together?”
Kanehailua explained that the school put a lot of effort into self-assessment, so that its faculty and staff can adjust their focus depending on how students progress. That resulted in taking Hilo Intermediate’s 2011 scores in reading and math from 74 percent and 54 percent, respectively, to 81 percent and 60 percent in 2012.
Other Hawaii Island schools recognized last week included Kalanianaole Elementary & Intermediate and Keaau High School, which were among a total of four schools in the state that each earned $25,000 for scoring among the state’s top 5 percent of schools in growth on both the reading and math sections of the standardized exam.
Meanwhile, Haaheo Elementary, Kahakai Elementary, Keaau Middle, Kealakehe High, and Pahoa High & Intermediate each won $12,500 for scoring in the top 5 percent statewide on the math section, while Ke Kula O Ehuikaimalino and Kohala High won $12,500 for doing the same in the reading section.