Why Parents Want a ‘More Voice’ in Hawaii’s Education System

The Hawaii public school system has a communication problem. In recent community meetings across the state, parents and teachers said they often don’t know who to go to with complaints. While they are trying, they run into the steep chains of the Empire, and there are few answers.

“We want to have a voice and we want to be part of the solutions, and I feel that the DOE is better for communication and inclusion,” said Andreas Dias-Machado, whose son goes to the Hawaii immersion school in Berry City.

The meetings are part of the Board of Education’s efforts to gather community input as it draws up a new strategic plan for public education in Hawaii.

Input has been sought for previous plans, but to no avail, leaders and educators say the fight is based on lukewarm and disappointing follow-through. This time around, the turnout is high and the leadership seems to be heard, said Cheri Nakamura, director of HE’E – Hui for Excellence in Education.

BOE member Makana McClellan speaks at an assembly at Ewa Makai Middle School. The BOE initiated 15 such meetings as part of the strategic planning process. Viola Gaskell / Civil Beat 2022

“I think it’s a bigger extension, and I think it’s sincere,” he said.

The Department of Education has been without a strategic plan for two years, and the new plan will lay out the vision and goals for public education in Hawaii as schools find their way back after the disruptions of the pandemic.

Stakeholders are raising concerns about the lack of inclusivity and transparency from the DOE, low pay in schools and persistent shortages — all of which ultimately affect learning and safety in schools.

At another meeting, Bradley DeCastro, whose son attends Kalakaua Middle School, said communication with parents often comes at the last minute, vague and unfamiliar acronyms.

“Parents are calling parents asking what’s going on — it’s like a game of telephone,” DeCastro said.

A plan is available

The new plan will move financial and academic blueprints for all schools in the country for the next three to five years.

Hawaii’s strategic plans are typically implemented over three years, but in 2020, when the previous plan expired, then-Superintendent Christina Kishimoto proposed a 10-year plan that was too complicated, according to BOE member Kili Namau’u.

Kishimoto’s 2030 Promise Plan was never approved by the board.

Before 2010, the BOE and DOE created their plans separately. Voters then approved a ballot measure that would have appointed BOE members rather than be elected and directed the two agencies to operate under a common policy. That is largely in the DOE creating the policy, the BOE approving it, and the DOE implementing it.

However, the National Association of State Boards of Education earlier this year pushed the board to lead the plan, and as a result the board is now authorizing the plan with input from the DOE.

DOE Deputy Superintendent Heidi Armstrong and BOE member Shanty Asher discuss community concerns at a strategic meeting at Ewa Makai Middle School. Viola Gaskell / Civil Beat 2022

Board members and department leaders sat side by side in community meetings, but ultimately the BOE will create the plan and the DOE will be responsible for implementing it, according to board member Lauren Moriarty.

About 8,000 people completed the board’s online survey a day earlier this month — far more than the board president had expected. Only 1,429 people took the 2020 survey.

About 76% of respondents were parents or guardians and 25% were teachers — respondents could identify themselves in more than one category. They also took a survey of 100 students, school staff and business leaders, along with 57 civil servants.

The BOE also held meetings across the islands to bring together community members in each of the 15 districts of the state complex. Results from the review and meetings will be released after the last November 10 meeting in Waipahu.

The board also relied on a load of data to get a more detailed understanding of Hawaii’s educational problems. One big concern that came out of the recent data releases was the achievement gap for needy and Native Hawaiian students.

Only 30% of Hawaii’s student population met language arts proficiency standards published in last year’s assessments, compared to 52% of all students and only 18% were proficient in math, compared to 38% of all students. The numbers were lower for Pacific Island students.

Chair Bruce Vossius said at the BOE meeting in Hawaii that students need to have a big impact on the board’s new strategic plan. Viola Gaskell / Civil Beat 2022

Board member McClellan said the numbers on Hawaii’s most accurate student test scores and future college acceptance rates have been consistently low.

“It is difficult because our largest organization has a poorer outcome. To me it is inexcusable. Our biggest population is the most underserved — I think it’s a big payoff,” he said.

Nakamura said it is her hope that both information and community feedback will be used to sharpen the focus of the plan.

“We need a mission, a vision and an objective. We need some direction – clear direction – because there are a zillion other things to focus on and we can prioritize everything, but the truth is we have limited resources.”

Poor Communication, Pay Challenges

Lack of wages and low wages in meetings was another primary complaint.

Test Coordinator Bea DeRego, who has worked at Kahuku High and Intermediate since 1997, says many teachers don’t have time to worry about what’s going on in the BOE because they’re working.

Although 72% of Hawaii’s teachers received a raise this year, DeRego says school support remains low for recruitment to be effective, and without adequate teaching assistants, counselors, behavioral support staff and security, schools will continue to struggle.

In multiple meetings, groups of speech therapists have voiced concerns about shortages in their departments and stagnant salaries, a cause they say has been ignored by the leadership for years, despite their complaints.

At the Ewa Beach meeting, speech therapists Jeanne Iwashita, Karen Kama, and Jo Ann Verzon said their pay has been stagnant for decades and the DOE has ignored their complaints. Viola Gaskell / Civil Beat 2022

“This is a whole other piece that needs to be fixed because we just can’t do what we have,” DeRego said.

Consistent criticism of poor communication was leveled at the DOE and BOE through participation in several community meetings.

BOE member Makana McClellan said the people who spoke at the meetings were frustrated by the pressure on the DOE and BOE and wanted to see more empathetic communication.

“Parents want to be heard the first or maybe the third time they call, not 15,” he said.

McClellan said Nanakuli-Waiana parents were upset at the meeting because they found out about the meeting at the last minute through social media rather than directly from their school or the DOE.

Even principals say they sometimes don’t get access to such information before making decisions.

“It’s kind of frustrating,” said McKinley High School Principal Ron Okamura. “Sometimes I watch Hawaii News Now I know what’s going on.”

Cynthia Reves, an English teacher at McKinley High School, said the participants’ willingness to discuss matters on the board at the McKinley meeting showed that it is not easy to talk to the board of education.

We need more accountability

Some policy experts who say their input has been ignored in the past remain skeptical of the current effort.

Earlier this year, James Shon – former director of the Hawaii Educational Center – and a group of educators and policy makers put together a document that analyzed previous strategic plans and proposed ways to make the next one more effective and measurable.

Shon said the failure of the BOE to respond to them would have inspired little hope that a broad range of opinions would be considered this time around.

“Are community meetings really asking the public to make systemic (for every school) decisions rather than nice sounding proposals?” He wrote the letter.

David Sun-Miyashiro of HawaiiKidsCAN said that in previous transitions from one strategic plan to another, he never heard a full explanation of why most students missed the achievement targets.

Shon says this is because previous strategic plans did not include built-in accountability measures.

“The BOE and DOE often articulate aspirational goals but do little to link them to action,” he said in the email.

Parents and educators also echoed the desire of nonprofit leaders to increase giving.

“Where is the follow through? Where is the quality assurance?” asked Mike Thorne, whose son is in eighth grade at Kalakaua Middle School.

Thorne and others at the Kalakaua meeting said the community will be given an opportunity to respond to the project before it is implemented.

“There should be one meeting to share a strategic plan and get feedback, another meeting along the way to say, ‘Here’s what we can do and why,'” said Ann Mahi, executive director of the Hawaii State Teachers Association.

Beata’s civic education report is supported by a grant from the Chamberlin Family Philanthropy.

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