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Staying on track
A Florida businessman
He quickly spreads the word on his tiny campus near Hilo Airport and at the local store.
"I blow it up and laminate it so that it can take the rain," Theroux said. "I thumbtack it up at the Keaukaha Market. Guys meet with their coffee and read it."
At a time when many public educators feel under assault, their schools regularly labeled as failing, 15 schools in the Hilo area are trying to turn things around by borrowing a few chapters from the business playbook.
The customized report that Theroux posts analyzes the performance of Keaukaha's staff and students each week, complete with a colorful graph that shows how they measured up to goals they set. It comes from Mark Hunter of Tampa, president of Target Performance Systems Inc., who makes his living helping banks improve performance at their toughest branches and has been volunteering to help Hawaii schools.
The weekly analysis is designed to recognize and reinforce winning behaviors quickly, steer help to trouble spots and build community support for the school. The tracking system represents a new approach to improving public education in an era when schools are typically judged based solely on the results of a test given once a year.
"His argument makes complete sense to us," Theroux said. "I love sharing those results weekly.
"For years, this school has been having to be apologetic in community meetings every year, saying we're inadequate, we're struggling, we're failing," he said. "For the first time this year, I'm going to be standing up and saying we have succeeded in this task."
The state announced last week that his school, which educates 240 children on Hawaiian homestead land, made "adequate yearly progress" under strict federal guidelines in the No Child Left Behind law. Theroux credits his dedicated staff and the adoption two years ago of a scripted program called Reading Mastery that assesses students weekly.
THAT CONCEPT of short-term monitoring to build long-term success is at the core of Hunter's Hawaii Educational Performance System. Rather than a one-size-fits-all test given once a year, each school starts from its own base and sets weekly goals that are attainable but a stretch.
Each school selects the data it wants to track. They range from basics like attendance to academic indicators such as homework completion or students' progress in reading or math. Other items tallied include discipline cases or, on the flip side, good behavior awards. Administrators visit classrooms to monitor teaching techniques. Parental contacts are recorded. Together, they paint a fuller picture of school life than any single test.
Data are compiled every Friday and sent to Hunter, who crunches the numbers and creates charts and graphs. The results return by Monday, with personal notes highlighting strong points and sometimes a gentle nudge. The school starts the week proud of its successes and ready to zero in on areas -- or children -- that are falling short of goals.
"In education reform nowadays, the penalty box is clear," Hunter, 45, said in a recent interview. "What's missing is a strategy.
"I don't like to hit people over the head with a club and say they're failing," he said. "I like to catch the winning behaviors, recognize it and reinforce it. The No. 1 motivation for people is recognition."
The Hilo/Laupahoehoe/Waiakea complex of schools briefly piloted the system in 2003 and began in earnest in January. This year seven of those 14 schools that are subject to the No Child Left Behind law made "adequate yearly progress," up from five last year.
Those results, issued last week, are based on an exam students took in April, so officials say it's too early to gauge the effect of the tracking system. But school staff say it has helped focus their efforts and they can already see improvement in reaching their goals.
"It helps us to not just collect data, but it helps us to analyze it and provide intervention," said Valerie Takata, complex area superintendent.
At Chiefess Kapiolani School in Hilo, Principal Lucia Stewart was initially skeptical, but has come around.
"At first I felt it was yet one more thing we have to do -- until I started to actually implement the system," she said. "I found that it really does inform teachers, it informs our community, our parents about exactly where we are. It has enhanced how we deliver instruction."
After teachers started monitoring reading scores weekly, she noted, the numbers began to inch up. Fifth-grade teacher Jacqueline Luna, who has 31 kids in her classroom at Kapiolani, said keeping track of the data is time consuming. But she said it has "most definitely" made a difference by highlighting what's working and what's not, so teachers can alter their approach if needed. Kapiolani made "adequate yearly progress" this year, after falling short for several years.
HUNTER STARTED by volunteering his services to his hometown public school system and police department in Tampa, after seeing how hard their employees worked and what little credit they got for it. He began helping schools in Hawaii after meeting state Rep. K. Mark Takai (D, Newtown-Pearl City) at an education conference.
Over the past three years, he and Takai have worked with several schools across the state to refine the Hawaii Educational Performance System. State Superintendent Patricia Hamamoto is a strong supporter, and this fall, schools in the Windward district are trying it out.
Until now, Hunter has donated all his time and covered all his expenses in flying to Hawaii. But as the program grows, it is moving beyond the scope of volunteerism, he said, and he hopes to recoup his costs in the future.
The Hilo area principals call Hunter "part of the family" and say they appreciate his upbeat approach.
"You literally, every week, can see how we've made some gains, rather than the yearly slap on the wrist, which can be disheartening," said Elaine Christian, principal of Hilo Intermediate School.
Her school improved its math and reading scores this year, well exceeding state targets. But it did not make "adequate yearly progress" under the federal definition because low-income and special education students did not score high enough. Hilo Intermediate faces "restructuring" under federal law, which means staff and governance changes, unless it improves by March.
"There are a lot of pressures for the teachers, and the students and for us as administrators," Christian said. "This program shows us those instant results, and gets people going and feeling good about themselves. That's all because of Mark. He's just absolutely an inspiration.
"We don't feel like we're failing," she added. "Things are looking up. We just need that time. Our indicators are so on track, it's going to make a heck of a difference."
Christian sends out her weekly report to her school's many business partners, who help provide incentives and awards for students and faculty. "We don't want to just ask for money, we want to be accountable, too," she said. "It's a two-way street."
Takata, who leads the school complex, said the timing is right for the new techniques.
"The way I look at it, we are in probably the most challenging time in history when you look at public education," Takata said. "I think it's not just our state or our area, it's nationally.
"We can learn from other sectors, like business, that use tracking on a weekly basis," she said. "People want to do well. Nobody wants to do a bad job. They need to see that they're doing well."
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