Students at the Ka Waihona o ka Na’auao Public Charter School perform the hula for U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan during his visit on March 31, 2014, in Nanakuli, Hawaii. Photo By Eugene Tanner.
Andrea, a senior at Hawaii’s Waipahu High School, came to the U.S. just four years ago after emigrating from the Philippines, but now she’s a proud Waipahu Marauder. From her first day in the classroom, she found the “opportunity to explore” and became interested in cancer research and science.
This fall, thanks to her dedication and the teachers she has at Waipahu, she’ll attend Columbia University on a full-ride scholarship.
Andrea was one of many students Secretary Duncan met during a visit to Oahu earlier this week, which also included stops at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam for a discussion with military families and a visit to Ka Waihona o ka Na’auao Public Charter School. During Duncan’s visit to Waipahu, Andrea presented her AP Biology project – “Synthesizing a STAT3 Dimerization Inhibitor Molecule via Retrosynthetic Analysis” – and explained the partnership with the University of Hawaii’s Cancer Center that helped her to pursue her research. “What I’ve learned here is if you want to do something, you can find a way to do it,” she said.
Waipahu High School, located about 20 minutes outside of Honolulu, provides a number of educational programs, with each incoming student picking a “College and Career Theme” to explore. Students at Waipahu High School learn through pathways, which are smaller learning communities that encourage students to identify their career interests and take relevant courses while in high school. They have the opportunity to take classes in programs like creative media, culinary arts, engineering, finance, law and justice administration, and teacher education. Waipahu also offers tuition-free early college courses.
Michael, also a senior at Waipahu, has seen a growth in his abilities since he started as freshman. Despite starting on the school’s business track “not knowing anything,” Michael has been able to excel. “I was able to make connections with what I was learning … and I saw a change in my grades,” he said. A recent project allowed him to combine his budding business knowledge with his passion for woodwork by designing a business where he could sell the skateboards he creates using natural wood and varnish. The school has enabled him to able to explore art in other areas, too. Michael was able to help paint words like “courage,” “ambition,” “honor” and “integrity” – which he says are “words that encompass who we are” – onto the steps of Waipahu High School.
A focus on relevant, hands-on experiences is a theme among programs at Waipahu. During a tour of the school, students led Secretary Duncan through their research and studies of fish as part of an aquaponics system in the Natural Resources Academy Pathway. Teacher Jeff Garvey, who Secretary Duncan called the “mastermind” behind the aquaponics system, used his private-sector background to build the open-air center and create the chance for students to study aquaponics, which combines fish and plants in a symbiotic, sustainable environment. The program is rapidly expanding as interest grows, including from nearby eighth graders who want enroll at Waipahu. And despite worries that the system would be hard to maintain, Garvey points to students’ leadership with the center. “Give them ownership, and they take care of it,” he said.
Waipahu serves mostly minority students, and most are from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. Despite those challenges, from 2011-2013, proficiency scores on state tests have risen, as have college-going rates. In that same time, the number of suspensions was nearly cut in half.
Waipahu’s growing success story is one of many throughout the state of Hawaii. The 2013 National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) results indicated that Hawaii was one of the top 5 fastest improving states in the country, with an 8-point increase in math for fourth and eighth grade, a 4-point increase in reading in fourth grade, and a 5-point increase in reading in eighth grade, when compared to 2009 NAEP results.
To accelerate its reform efforts and better support the state’s educators, Hawaii applied for and received a $75 million grant through Race to the Top in 2010. The grant has empowered the state’s leaders to collaborate in new ways and create plans tailored to their needs to prepare students to be ready for college and careers. Through these funds, the state has developed tools, like a classroom data dashboard and teacher-focused reports, to support teachers and school leaders to use timely and actionable data to improve instruction. Hawaii has also created tools to transition to higher standards and training to develop STEM expertise, and the state and community has supported schools that fall within the Zones of School Innovation to provide students with extended learning time, after-school and summer programs, and comprehensive wraparound services.
And the work is just beginning. State Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi credited the “catalytic nature of Race to the Top” in enabling the state to try new ideas and create new systems – “an opportunity we’ve taken with both hands” – and acknowledged this is just the start. Gov. Neil Abercrombie echoed that sentiment. “I ask anybody in the state, before you make a judgment about the public schools, see what’s been accomplished in the last three years. By any outside observation, Hawaii public schools are rising, and we’re going to keep on rising,” Abercrombie said.
Hawaii’s progress is thanks to leadership from state and administrative officials, teachers and principals, who have encouraged their students and provided new learning opportunities, even when there have been challenges and tough transitions. “These are profiles in courage,” Secretary Duncan said. “So much of what is going on here can be a model for the nation.”
Watch a short video about Waipahu High School.
Sara Gast is director of strategic communications at the U.S. Department of Education