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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, September 27, 2001

On Schools
Moloka'i teachers win Disney award

By Alice Keesing
Advertiser Education Writer

Moloka'i will meet Disney in November as a result of the outstanding work of two Kualapu'u Elementary teachers.

Vicki Newberry and Dara Lukonen have emerged from more than 110,000 national nominees to be declared two of Disney's 35 American Teacher Awards nominees for 2001.

In November the two Moloka'i teachers will travel to Disneyland in California, where they will be honored for their classroom creativity. Sometimes called the "Academy Awards for teachers," the event is a time when the teaching profession and Hollywood rub shoulders. Past nominees have received their awards from such luminaries as Harrison Ford and Oprah Winfrey.

The award also includes professional development opportunities and a sizable check for the winners and their schools. Hawai'i State Teachers Association spokeswoman Danielle Lum describes the awards as "a big deal." In 10 years, she recalls, only two other Hawai'i teachers won the award.

But what makes all this even more noteworthy is that Newberry and Lukonen teach on an island that is more likely than not to be in the news for its problems in attracting and keeping teachers. Their achievement shows the good side: Those teachers that Moloka'i does have include some exceptional ones.

Like most teachers, Newberry and Lukonen are characteristically modest about their achievements, saying they're not unusual for local teachers. Kualapu'u Principal Lydia Trinidad describes them as devoted professionals.

"They live here (at the school)," she said. "They think out of the box and are able to think beyond the boundaries of the bureaucracy."

The pair "team-teach" a class of fifth- and sixth-graders. That gives them two years to build their students' skills, knowledge and confidence.

Their creativity may be most evident in their environmental curriculum, called PRISM. It encourages students to explore their environment, focus on community issues and develop real-world solutions.

Their students have testified before the Legislature on whether there should be a deposit fee for bottles to encourage recycling and on plans to put a medical waste facility on their island; their research has been used by the Department of Transportation in plans to improve Moloka'i's airport; and they have started the island's first curbside recycling business.

The environmental curriculum sparks independent thinking and drives learning in other areas, including reading.

"In order to research fishponds you have to be able to read higher than a second-grade level or third-grade level, so our students who struggle with reading actually start reading at a much higher grade level because they're interested in it," Lukonen said.

Newberry and Lukonen already have received national recognition for PRISM, but they obviously have the thanks of their students' parents, too. It was a parent who nominated them for the Disney award — but they don't know who.

"We would love to solve that mystery and thank them," Newberry said.

Reach Alice Keesing at akeesing@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8014.