State faces challenge of 'failing' schools
By Jennifer Hiller
Advertiser Education Writer
Teachers at Honowai Elementary fell into a collective state of disbelief this summer when their school was labeled "failing" under the terms of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
Richard Ambo The Honolulu Advertiser
Second-graders Titus Failauga, left, and Randolph Cayetano, and the rest of their class work on a writing assignment on the first day of school at Honowai Elementary School in Waipahu.
Richard Ambo The Honolulu Advertiser
"Our teachers are saying, 'How can you label a school like this as deficient?' " said Curtis Young, Honowai's principal. "Just because you're on that list doesn't mean that things aren't happening."
But Honowai Elementary, in Waipahu, fell slightly below the state's goal of having an average of 95 percent attendance last year. That one measure was enough to label the school as failing.
Honowai's situation demonstrated the degree to which Hawai'i's high-poverty schools are under the gun with the federal No Child Left Behind Act, a new law that gives struggling schools financial help, but threatens a series of sanctions if schools fail to improve every year.
This summer, Honowai Elementary was one of 85 placed on the state's list of failing schools. That means parents can start requesting transfers to get their kids out of those campuses and into schools that better meet the state's academic standards. When the latest round of standardized test scores comes out in August, many of those schools that don't improve also will have to start paying for private tutoring for students.
Eventually, schools that don't improve will lose federal money.
Superintendent Pat Hamamoto said that, in the past, high-poverty schools that receive federal money have only been required to submit improvement plans if they failed to meet goals.
"This is the first time there's teeth to the sanctions," Hamamoto said. "We can't afford to lose our federal money."
The DOE will receive about $63 million in federal money this year, $38,639,219 of which is for high-poverty schools known as Title I. That's about $8 million more than last year to help the schools meet the new requirements in No Child Left Behind, but it will probably fall short of what the DOE will need to spend on the transportation, testing and data crunching required by the law.
With more than 50,000 Hawai'i students attending schools labeled as failing, Department of Education officials face an uphill battle in meeting the logistical requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act: setting up a system to allow student transfers, solving transportation issues, providing for private tutoring and coming up with ways to improve schools to get them off of the failing list.
"There are a lot of parts to it and I'm not going to say we've figured it all out yet," said Katherine Kawaguchi, assistant superintendent.
Even schools that have been hitting their targets for standardized test scores, daily attendance and other measures are under pressure.
No Child Left Behind requires continual improvements over the last year's scores. DOE officials say that schools may be coming off and on the list of so-called failing schools every year.
"It's a floating target," Young said. "There's a good possibility that if you do well one year, you might not do as well the next year."
While 85 schools have been targeted as failing, the DOE plans Sept. 20 to issue a revised list that officials say could include about 95 schools when the results of the latest round of standardized testing are in.
Marilyn Okumura is principal at Likelike Elementary, a high-poverty school that has hit the state's academic and attendance targets for the past four years and was named a national Title I School in 1999-2000.
"We have a ways to go," Okumura said. "In spite of the fact that we were a distinguished school, it does not mean that we have arrived at where we want to be for our children. We want them to compete in the global economy."
Okumura said the new reality for schools is that student test scores will drive the direction instruction takes in the future. Her campus depends on federal money for everything from family literacy training to keeping a smaller student-teacher ratio.
"I think it has raised the bar on all of us in terms of what we need to realistically consider in our work," she said. "We're accountable. You can't just say, 'Leave me alone, and let me do my thing.' It impacts our funding. So much of what we do comes from Title I money."
Some students from low-performing campuses can start transferring to different schools Oct. 28 on a space-available basis.
Information on applying to transfer will go out to parents Aug. 9, and a list of available spots in more successful schools will be posted Sept. 20.
The poorest children who have had the worst standardized test scores or report card grades will be allowed to transfer first.
But with many of the state's better schools already full, Hamamoto said the real challenge for the state is to improve all campuses so students don't want to move. Only a few hundred may opt to transfer or be allowed to because of space, she said.
"Overall our goal is to improve our schools," Hamamoto said. "We believe we have good schools. We're just going to have to work with them."
Neighbor Isle challenges
The state also faces challenges on the Neighbor Islands. All of the schools on Moloka'i were assessed as failing, and the distances between schools on the Big Island means that many families may not want to transfer because of the long drives.
Students can choose to go to any school on their island, but not all students will have the same quality of choices, Kawaguchi said.
"The greatest choice is going to be exercised by schools on O'ahu," she said.
Paul Ban, Title I specialist at the DOE, said that high-poverty schools have been the most aggressive in the state in trying to overhaul, despite the fact that they deal with issues ranging from hunger to children not having proper clothing for school. Poverty is a major risk factor for poor performance in school.
"There's a high turnover. The track record isn't great," Ban said. "You're dealing with a lot of other issues other than academics."
About 45 Hawai'i schools, many of them in high-poverty areas, have bought into school-reform packages, which help overhaul teacher training, curriculum and scheduling to improve student performance.
The two most popular options have been Success for All, a program developed out of Johns Hopkins University that emphasizes reading skills, and America's Choice, founded by the National Center on Education and the Economy, which focuses on enabling all students to reach internationally benchmarked academic standards.
Each have about 20 schools. A handful of schools use Core Knowledge, an approach to curriculum based on the work of E.D. Hirsch Jr. and described in his books "Cultural Literacy" and "The Schools We Need and Why We Don't Have Them."
One of the common practices is to block out 2.5 uninterrupted hours in the morning to devote to reading and writing skills for elementary school students.
Young said being in the America's Choice program costs his campus about $100,000 a year less than half of his Title I money. It provides extensive teacher training, principal training, testing for students and tutoring.
Schools within school
Kapa'a Elementary, a high-poverty campus that has met its goals the past two years, uses a variety of education models. There are seven separate schools-within-a-school at Kapa'a, ranging from Hawaiian-language immersion to a program that emphasizes hands-on learning. Two of the schools-within-a-school use Success for All, but all benefit from the smaller class sizes and tutoring provided through Title I money.
Principal Dora Hong said that even though the more complicated system has worked well at Kapa'a so far, there is constant evaluation to make sure the campus doesn't fall behind.
"I imagine in time people will feel the stress," she said. "The teachers are working very hard already, and they're providing for every child."
The implications of No Child Left Behind will only become more complex as more schools fall under the scope of the federal law and new requirements such as one in 2005 that requires a "qualified" teacher in every classroom start to come into effect.
Charter schools that receive Title I money could appear on the list of failing schools beginning next year, when their second-year of testing data comes in. Sanctions could eventually lead to state takeover of the charters something that goes against the very heart of that school reform movement.
Also starting next year, the state's non-Title I schools will start to be held to the same standards of across-the-board yearly improvement. The test scores that come back in August will make up the first year of data for those schools; if they fail for a second time next year students will be eligible to transfer out of those campuses as well.
But the non-Title I schools will have to meet the higher standards without the benefit of extra federal Title I money.
Hamamoto insists that the No Child Left Behind Act will lead to better student performance and a better class of high school graduates, but concedes that it will be difficult to shuffle children to different campuses, design a tutoring program and keep track of which schools are on or off the failing list.
"It's an operational nightmare," Hamamoto said. "This is just unbelievable."
Reach Jennifer Hiller at email@example.com or 525-8084.