By JENNIFER SINCO KELLEHER
WAIANAE, Oahu — U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard was a long way from Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, visiting low-income, low-performing Hawaii schools that stand to suffer the most if the state loses a $75 million Race to the Top federal grant.
The congresswoman visited Keaau schools on the Big Island on Tuesday. The next day, she toured three campuses in west Oahu’s Nanakuli.
“I felt it was important for me to have a firsthand understanding of what’s working and what’s not,” she said. “There are very few schools that have the country’s eyes on them.”
The U.S. Department of Education warned the state that it hadn’t made acceptable progress on a reform plan that won Hawaii the grant. They warned Hawaii could lose the money if progress isn’t made. The pressure is especially felt by schools in Waianae and Nanakuli and in Ka‘u, Keaau and Pahoa, which make up the zones the reforms are targeting. Last year, teachers in the zones approved an agreement for extended learning time, a key element of the grant.
“It’s helpful for me to hear directly from the teachers, the principals, the coaches,” Gabbard said.
At Nanakuli High and Intermediate, she listened to Principal Darin Pilialoha explain state math and reading scores. During the 2011-12 school year, 18 percent of seventh-graders tested proficient in math. This year, that figure reached 24 percent. Tenth-graders in 2011-12 tested 43 percent proficient in reading and then reached 52 percent after three attempts this school year. But a key challenge is eighth-grade reading scores, which have dropped since 2011-12.
Efforts under way at Nanakuli Elementary could help improve scores for students when they get to the intermediate school level. Principal Wendy Takahashi explained to Gabbard that taking the test three times a year under adaptive online testing is giving children a good motivation to improve. “If it was only one time, they could care less,” she said. “The scores come in the summer and no one looks at it.”
Beyond the scores, teachers in Nanakuli have to adapt to students’ unique needs. “They’re so insular,” explained Jessica Breslin, a sixth-grade teacher. The kids who grow up in the Nanakuli valley tend to be shyer than students elsewhere along the coast, she told Gabbard as they sat in a room full of donated shoes for the children. Breslin also works as a coach for other teachers, a position made possible by the Race to the Top money.
Complex Area Superintendent Ann Mahi said the struggle for teachers on the coast is to teach students living in an isolated part of the island to be “curious about the world they’ll be moving into.”
She shared with Gabbard how one elementary school started a slipper exchange program for children to trade in broken footwear for new slippers. Something as basic as proper footwear goes a long in helping students focus on learning, she said.
Former Waianae Elementary School principal John Wataoka quietly watched Gabbard tour the Nanakuli schools, set against the mountains and overlooking the ocean. He’s now the Race to the Top manager.
“It’s very invigorating the fact that she’s here,” he said. “As principals, we’ve been tasked with the challenges of implementing the deliverables. It’s a lot of responsibility.”