Monday, September 12, 2005

Teacher Norbert Larsen works at Waiahole Elementary School, which has had success in restructuring without using any mainland consultants.

4 schools chart own
courses for change

The Windward DOE super-
intendent opts to skip expensive
outside consultants

When the Department of Education announced plans to overhaul 24 persistently lagging schools last spring, private education firms from the mainland were contracted to lead the way in most cases.

But Lea Albert took matters into her own hands.

The Windward Oahu district superintendent and her staff elected to handle the three restructuring schools in their district on their own, trusting that local knowledge and existing personnel were at least as valuable as any imported expertise.

"I felt there was enough talent in this district that we could do great things on our own," Albert said.

The verdict is out until the next round of standardized test scores at Kahaluu, Waiahole and Hauula elementary schools are available next year.

But the Windward side's do-it-yourself approach -- Waianae's Nanaikapono Elementary is taking the same route -- represents the likely wave of the future for the department as it figures out how to fix what is expected to be a growing number of schools in the years ahead.

One of the biggest reasons is money.

The private firms offer pre-existing programs ranging from professional development for teachers, team-building exercises and systems for pacing instruction through the year.

But they are costing their already cash-strapped host schools about $400,000 per school per year.

And the price tag for the state looks likely to grow as many more schools are expected to need help in the years ahead.

The No Child Left Behind law demands schools meet annual increases in student test scores to 2014, when all students are expected to show proficiency in language arts and math, a goal viewed by many as unrealistic.

But for a price that Albert says is half that of the private firms, she and her restructuring team have put in motion a combination of home-grown changes at the schools that are at least as significant as the imported private programs.

At Kahaluu and Waiahole elementary schools, education professors from Brigham Young University-Hawaii now provide regular counseling and professional development for teachers, imparting teaching strategies aimed at boosting student achievement.

Kamehameha Schools, which has offered Hawaiian-themed educational programs at many state schools for years, has been brought in to provide literacy instruction infused with Hawaiian culture to make instruction more relevant to the largely Hawaiian students at the two schools.

The educational trust, which already had a presence at Hauula Elementary, is developing a new curriculum at Kahaluu and Waiahole that, among other approaches, uses writing lessons based on Hawaiian traditional stories and builds self-awareness by having students construct a family genealogy.

"The children receive it well because it is something new, and yet they know intrinsically that it is something related to them," said Jeanette Nielson, interim director of the trust literacy enhancement program.

"They also trust us as teachers because they know we are one of them."

Teachers from the two schools also are putting their heads together in weekly collaboration sessions to share experiences on what works in the classroom and what does not.

"That's been really important," said Yvonne Lefcourt, the only fifth-grade teacher at Waiahole. "You sometimes feel like you're operating in a vacuum here and can't consult other fifth-grade teachers about what is working and what isn't."

Lefcourt herself is one of the new arrivals at Waiahole. A pair of teaching vacancies were used to upgrade the staff with the addition of Lefcourt, who just completed a doctorate in reading from the University of Illinois, and another teacher with a new master's degree in teaching.

Lefcourt's classroom exemplifies the growing focus on boosting performance on the state tests given each spring that determine a school's standing.

On one wall, four examples of her student's work are posted, each representing one of the four proficiency levels by which students are judged. The aim is to make sure each student knows exactly what is expected of them and what to avoid.

"It's harder this year," says fifth-grader Shawntay Uta-Halemano of Lefcourt's class, "but I like it better than last year. She (Lefcourt) teaches us using games a lot. It's fun."

The tidy little school, which along with Kahaluu Elementary dramatically raised scores in last spring's testing, seems to belie the label put on the school by No Child Left Behind. In every classroom, attentive students focus on their teachers and are clearly enthusiastic about learning.

"This school has done really good things, but there is still a lot of work ahead," Albert said.

In-house reform is a more doable at such schools, which are smaller and lack the student diversity that complicates reforms at some other restructuring schools.

Nonetheless, Schools Superintendent Pat Hamamoto has said a new batch of 20 restructuring schools announced last month likely will feature less of the blanket programs brought by private firms than before, and more of a commonsense, targeted approach to each school's needs.

The Department of Education wants to take this even further by making changes before schools hit that point.

Last week, Hamamoto led district superintendents on tours of the Windward schools in what will become a monthly routine aimed at identifying strengths and weaknesses at schools across the state's 15 districts, and building the department's capacity to improve itself.

"It's about how do we provide the right interventions to help schools before they get to (restructuring). Can we catch those that have begun this slippery slope? That's what we're working on," she said.

As for Albert, her work goes on. Two of the 20 new restructuring schools -- Ben Parker and Puohala elementary schools -- are in her district, and she hints that she and her team might tackle those on their own as well.

"We don't view this as a stigma on our schools. We view it as an opportunity," she said.

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