Investing in teachers, time, services and technology to close achievement gaps
Bem is a ninth-grade student who lives with his parents, cousins and grandparents, migrants from the Marshall Islands, in a sparsely populated area of the island of Hawaii, 25 miles away from Kau High School. There are many obstacles Bem faces on a daily basis to receive an education. Just getting to school regularly is a challenge, as it is for many other students in this largely rural part of the State.
But, lately, Bem has been attending school more regularly and has become more engaged in his school work. He even says he wants to get involved in student government. “He’s been coming to school every day, he’s more serious about his studies and he knows that learning is going to take hard work,” said Kau High and Pahala Elementary Principal Sharon Beck.
A comprehensive set of policies and services put in place over the past few years across the sprawling Kau–Keaau–Pahoa Complex Area of schools is starting to make a difference. Unlike every other State, Hawaii has a single, statewide school system. Complex areas function like school districts in other States. In its successful application for a Federal Race to the Top grant, Hawaii said it would make two complexes—Kau–Keaau–Pahoa on the island of Hawaii and Nanakuli–Waianae on the island of Oahu—Zones of School Innovation (ZSIs) because they each had several schools that were among the lowest performing in the State.
That meant additional flexibilities and investments for ZSI schools including: more instructional time during the school year as well as in the summer; financial incentives to attract effective teachers and leaders to remote schools; a common curriculum; intensive support for early-career as well as experienced teachers; an infusion of technology to expand students’ understanding of the world; giving principals more control over hiring decisions; and arranging for medical care, mental health counseling, nutrition education and other services.
These enormous changes have led to evidence of progress. Eight of the 18 schools in the zones identified as low-performing four years ago have now met performance targets and, in more than half, student growth is outpacing State averages in both reading and mathematics. Statewide, Hawaii public schools have narrowed the achievement gap by 12 percent, and on-time graduation has increased by seven percent.