Thursday, May 19, 2005


Board of Education member Mary Cochran visited a tiny classroom at Naalehu School on the Big Island on May 17.

Failure in Naalehu

Discipline, morale and learning
hit critical mass at a Big Isle school

Teaching at Naalehu School has become a nightmare for most of us. This is my ninth year here, and my 15th year teaching special education for the state. I've never seen teacher morale, student discipline or general school climate this bad. There are many factors driving this.

Our 1920s-era classrooms are overcrowded and don't meet Uniform Construction Code standards, having been grandfathered into the current fire code passed in 1976. A room that shouldn't have more than 17 kids now has 25-32. Our school was built for 250 students, and now has 460. Due to Rep. Bob Herkes' support there are discussions regarding a $5 million appropriation for a new six-classroom building. Even if it is funded, it will not help the current crisis, as it will not be ready for student use for another five years. This building was approved by the Legislature in our Master Plan nearly 15 years ago, but it was never funded. We also have the smallest, worst-ventilated library in the state. Where is the funding for that, also 15 years overdue?

Those numbers alone spell trouble. It brings to mind experiments where animals are placed in overcrowded cages. You observe behavior rarely seen in the animals: cannibalism, rape and so forth. What we see in Naalehu is unprecedented gangsterism and bullying. A recent survey of Naalehu students found reports of being bullied at three times the national average.

There are 30 unused portable classrooms in Hilo, yet our Complex Area Superintendent Mary Correa has nothing but excuses as to why they can't be delivered. We need at least four of them. Why can't she have them disassembled or helicoptered in, as has been suggested? We had our portable preschool building trucked in, so what's the problem?

Another solution to the space problem that faculty have requested yearly is to have our middle school (we're a K-8) move to Pahala (a K-12 where our children go for high school). We had more than 150 parent signatures supporting this when we first felt the influx of students from Hawaiian Ocean View Estates. This would open up several much-needed classrooms for us. All it takes is a little guts and political will on Correa's and state Superintendent Pat Hamamoto's part -- but apparently neither of them has it.

What makes their negligence all the more unconscionable is the recent loss of band, art, auto shop, wood working, music, home economics, agriculture and other electives due to decreasing enrollments in Pahala and the converting of electives to additional reading and math positions to comply with the high-stakes testing requirements of President Bush's No Child Left Behind legislation. All that matters now is kids' scores on reading and math, with little concern for broader intellectual, vocational and creative development.

If Naalehu and Pahala joined their middle schools, we could eliminate the duplication of science, social studies and other core subjects, saving more than $200,000 annually and freeing teaching positions for the electives that had previously been cut. One example of lost educational opportunity can be found in Pahala's band room, a $2 million state-of-the-art facility that has laid idle for the past two years, primarily on account of the financial burden NCLB places on the state.

Naalehu School is now 25 percent special education. There are a dozen children at our school who frankly don't belong there; their behavioral challenges put other children at risk. Their constant behavioral outbursts cause a downward domino effect on the behavior of regular students. This has led to the broad perception among students and faculty that discipline is out of control.

For example: Several girls caught smoking marijuana get a three-day suspension. A special needs student yells obscenities at a teacher and then shoves the vice principal when she intervenes, but cannot be suspended because it's "due to his disability." So he's back in class when he should have been suspended or moved to a more restrictive environment. Two more special education students are brawling in front of the main office. When one of them is brought into the office for protection, the other child starts hurling chairs at the door and louvers. No suspensions. Another special needs child yells obscenities at teachers and administrators and leaves campus. Police are called, but there are no referrals or suspensions.

When justice is not or cannot be meted out, other, better-behaved students perceive that they too can disrespect authority with impunity.

When I started at Naalehu School nine years ago, we had just three special education teachers. Now we have seven, yet we have had no comparable growth in facilities. The library was cut in half five years ago to make room for special education, and now even that small SPED (special ed) room has been further subdivided to make room for another teacher. One portable building now houses our Parent-Community Networking Coordinator, Title I teacher and staff, two tech positions, one SPED teacher with 14 students, and one computer/ESLL (English for Second Language Learners) teacher with 10 students all at the same time. The SPED teacher informs me that it is a difficult environment for his students, with two copy machines on most of the time just four feet away from his highly distracted children with attention deficit disorders.

We have a half-time ESLL teacher serving nearly 100 primarily Marshallese students out of a substandard 10' x 15' room.

Restructuring has been just a shell game for us, with no one pointing out the emperor's obvious nakedness. How can our school's performance be compared to neighboring schools 30 or 40 miles away with half the students in their classrooms, a third of the student population filling the same square feet of instructional space, and no comparable shortage of substitute teachers and support staff? In Naalehu's current crisis, implementing and maintaining the highest level of instructional practices and expectations is simply not feasible. Though we are proud of our accomplishments (we do actually have some), we are in crisis mode and are barely treading water much of the time.

Our counselor, school services coordinator, Title I lead teacher and other staff have double the workload of colleagues in identical positions at other schools, yet routinely are pulled away to substitute teach. Our Title I teacher, who no longer has anything to do with improving teaching at the school and has been reduced to a glorified data gatherer/accountant for No Child Left Behind, has had more than three weeks of sub assignments this past year, and we still have a month to go. Because of my own classroom's growing numbers a second teacher was hired to assist me. But she cannot assist me with my paperwork because she isn't trained in special education.

It takes me 8-10 hours to complete the testing, paperwork, meetings and electronic submission of data required for each child; the bulk of this time takes place in my personal time, and takes away from my being able to plan curriculum and develop my teaching skills. Plus, last week, for example, this second teacher was pulled off her assignment to do crisis subbing in another classroom three days in a row. And when my educational assistant is absent (she has asthma, and the vog has been bad lately), there is no one to cover for her, because the school has exhausted its sub EA list and has no one to call. When this happens, I have to make arrangements with parents to volunteer in my classroom.

Naalehu School is the only school that I've heard of where all 460 students have to use a single bathroom. We have had many problems with 4- and 14-year-olds using the bathroom at the same time. Complaints of inappropriate behavior are routine. Kindergarten teachers have requested to have their own bathroom for years, but to no avail.

The solution? We need more money and better leadership from administrators and legislators in Hilo and Honolulu. Naalehu School's administrators are doing the best they can, but their ability to improve the school is limited by broader problems over which they have no control. We need upper management who can take responsibility to face the obvious space problems and make some decisions for changing our physical plant to meet growing needs. We need more and better classrooms. We need teachers and staff who are allowed to do their jobs without being pulled to fill staffing shortages elsewhere on campus. We need time to develop our curriculum rather than wasting our faculty meetings on the mostly pointless bean-counting "data" that the NCLB monitors demand of us each week. And we don't need more unfunded federal mandates.

Though I'd like to stay and help solve our school's problems, I've opted to return to the mainland to be of assistance to my parents. There is a nationwide shortage of 64,000 special education teachers. I've already been offered a position that includes a 30 percent pay raise, with medical insurance paid for. Plus, I will receive a $3,000 stipend because I am teaching in a shortage field. The cost of living is lower, too.

The past 15 years teaching in Hawaii have been good ones for me, but the state has a long way to go before all the schools in its charge are providing optimal learning environments for their students.

Derek Bishop is a special education teacher at Naalehu School on the Big Island

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