Students leave an assembly in the cafeteria at Kailua Intermediate School. A decade ago the school had a bad reputation for academics and safety, but that has turned around under Lorraine Henderson, the school's principal since 1992.

School principals will
lead DOE reform

I have been a public school administrator for the past 18 years in Hawaii, and principal at Kailua Intermediate School for 11 of those 18 years. By the time I had been appointed principal at KIS, I had served in administrative positions for eight years -- as a vice principal at two intermediate schools and one high school, and summer school director at one intermediate and one high school.

Most of my experiences as a classroom teacher had been with early adolescents -- middle-school students -- an age group I've always enjoyed serving. By the time I was appointed principal in 1992, I had already learned through media coverage and word of mouth about Kailua Intermediate's poor reputation, particularly the grave concerns about the ineffective management of students' behavior and the lack of strong, effective school-community relationships.

I also learned that I was the 14th principal appointed to the school in 18 years. Throughout that summer of 1992, before the start of the school year, I met with teachers, parents, students and other members of the school community and learned that the problems were indeed exactly what people perceived about the school -- poor student discipline and the community's lack of trust.

Teachers talked about feeling ashamed to mention the name of the school where they taught. Students expressed fears about their safety; using the restrooms and being bullied during recess, lunch and between classes. Because of their concerns about public education in Hawaii, military parents feared that their children would be held back when they later moved to mainland schools.

A number of military and local parents told me that when their children entered the fifth grade, the parents got together to discuss where the children would attend school for the seventh grade, or whether they would home school or send their children to private schools. From the parents' perspective, KIS was not an option. The military community had concluded that our school was horrible.

Upon the opening of the school year, teachers, parents and I collaborated to schedule a series of "town meetings" so members of the community could "Meet the New Principal." These meetings were very well attended. I'll never forget those first couple of meetings -- the cafeteria was packed, people were standing wall-to-wall and the crowd spilled out into the hallways. Many of the questions we responded to started out with, "And what are you going to do about ...?"

That's how we began to turn around the negative image of Kailua Intermediate. At the start of that school year, with the teachers and support staff, we engaged in a series of exciting and energetic dialogues, relationships and team-building activities to identify the school's mission so we could revitalize our community's sense of trust in the school. This included data- and research-driven efforts to refine our middle-school curriculum, during which we established core teams of teachers and students relative to the needs and interests of early adolescents.

The concept of "refining students' behavior" continues to exemplify the fundamental theme of discipline at our school. There are those who still believe that our school isn't good. Old rumors die hard. But we believe that we have a good, solid, stable school that most people are happy to have their children attend.

My greatest reward during my 11-year tenure as principal at Kailua Intermediate School is that our school's negative image has been transformed to one that is a validation of our focus on learning, teaming and relationship-building accomplishments. The proof of that transformation is our selection as National Secondary Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education and a succession of three full endorsements of accreditation by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges.

Nurturing student pride

At Kailua Intermediate School, our greatest challenge is to provide such a legacy for our students that upon leaving for high school, they will have developed a sense that it "meant something" to be a student at our school. This is particularly important because we are only a two-year school -- grades seven and eight -- with a current enrollment of 932 students taught by 61 teachers and assisted by 35 support staff members.

Adding weight to this challenge is that Kailua Intermediate is included in both the Kalaheo and Kailua school complexes. We are held accountable to transition students from nine feeder elementary schools; upon completing their intermediate school requirements, our students go on to either Kalaheo or Kailua high schools.

Military support

I previously mentioned that many military parents arrive in Hawaii with negative ideas about enrolling their children at any public school in Hawaii. Our relationship with the Marine Base Headquarters Combat Services Support Group-3 (CSSG-3), which has adopted our school, has given us many opportunities over the years to build alliances and capitalize on our common interests in promoting good educational experiences for our students.

It is not uncommon for parents to give us feedback through letters, e-mail and word of mouth, paying tribute to our devoted and stellar teachers and our calm, orderly school environment; telling us what a great education their children received; and telling us that their children are doing well at their new schools on the mainland.

Our partnership with CSSG-3 has provided tutoring for our students, campus beautification activities, athletic events to raise money for technology and the dignified honor guard and color guard presentations during our assemblies and other school celebrations. We participate in discussions with the Marine Base Headquarters Military Civilian Advisory Council, and military personnel from the Joint Venture Education Forum delivered presentations to our staff informing us of the challenges military students face when they transition from school to school as their parents are reassigned to bases elsewhere.

This is of particular significance during these times of global conflict, with the added stresses placed upon our students as their parents are deployed. In that regard, as school family we embrace our students by providing them with as much emotional support as possible.

What we currently have in the Department of Education is a bringing together of principals to discuss our challenges and their resolutions. These recent gatherings have included the high school and middle school forums and advisory councils where principals can create a culture of support for one another.

A principal's wish list

I envision an expansion of this network with a support group Web site titled "Hili Mana'o Po'o Kumu" ("A Sharing Among Principals"). This home page would include responses to frequently asked questions about various aspects of school operations and a team of what I would like to call "educational trouble-shooters" or a "roving think tank" of colleagues with diverse areas of expertise, ways of thinking and leadership styles. These trouble-shooters would provide principals in crisis with confidential, high-level thinking about those challenges that often back us into a corner.

I also would like to have the "Chicken Soup" folks publish a "Chicken Soup for the Principal's Soul" so that principals can submit for publication their stories of challenge, inspiration and making a difference. I already have written to the authors to suggest this. Despite the challenges and misperceptions about the DOE, I have the belief and the faith that, in our state Superintendent Patricia Hamamoto's words, "We can chart our future by working together to debunk the myth that DOE is dysfunctional."

These are edited excerpts from a speech by Dr. Lorraine Henderson, principal of Kailua Intermediate School, given at a forum sponsored by the University Community Partnership on issues affecting public school principals in Hawaii. The partnership believes that one of the keys to improving our schools is providing better preparation and support for principals.


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