Small school groups lauded
Isle educators urge the BOE to fund and expand the "learning communities" concept
State education leaders yesterday voiced strong support for a group of Hawaii high schools that are dividing up their campuses into "small learning communities" and called for expanding the movement.
Representatives of 13 schools that have a received a federal grant for the school redesign appeared at the Board of Education yesterday to explain the effort, address criticisms that have surfaced and ask for funding.
"We're changing a whole system and we need more time to do it," said Roosevelt High School Principal Dennis Hokama.
Under the "small learning communities," or SLC, grant, whole grade levels are divided into separate groups. Students in each group stay together under the same team of teachers through high school. The resulting familiarity with other students and teachers is believed to prevent students slipping through the cracks.
"Teachers know their students well, they know their aspirations and can help them achieve that," said Billy Lueder, co-coordinator of the federal grant.
Though schools are in various stages of implementation, Lueder said in the past two years nine of the 13 schools have seen increases in reading scores and decreases in students forced to repeat ninth grade.
The grant money, much of which goes into training the teachers on the front lines, lasts only three years for most of the schools. The first schools began the program in 2003.
Board of Education members called on the Department of Education to ask the Legislature for money next year to help schools continue the effort.
"This makes real sense to me. Too many kids are slipping through the cracks," said BOE member Breene Harimoto.
Superintendent Pat Hamamoto said a budgetary request for "secondary school redesign" is already being drafted. The amount is yet to be finalized.
"This would support all the schools to continue to do this and support other schools that want to do it," Hamamoto said.
Parents at some of the redesigned schools have complained that high- and low-achieving students are grouped in the same SLCs. They worry instruction will be dumbed-down for low achievers while the needs of gifted and talented students are ignored.
A small group of Kalani High School parents have complained bitterly that the school has bungled implementation of the concept, harming some students.
The school's principal, Randiann Porras-Tang, was reassigned to another job last week by Hamamoto, although other unspecified factors are believed to have played a role in her removal.
But SLC proponents said yesterday that several of them are now introducing separate honors-level curriculum to the more motivated students within a classroom. In some schools, every class now has that parallel honors option, they said.
The redesign is making such content available to many students who might not have had access to it in the past, they said.
James Schlosser, principal of Kalaheo High School, said opposition is to be expected from some quarters with such a major reform.
He urged the BOE to more forcefully back the redesign effort in its official policy to support school personnel implementing the change.
"Without that, what you need is a lot of heroes out there in the schools," he said.