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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, July 11, 2004

Parents join students at evening catch-ups

By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Education Writer

WAHIAWA — Pamela Fujita passes out brown paper bags with 10 colored cubes inside. She asks the students and parents in the Wahiawa Elementary School library to reach into the bags — but not look — and pull out a cube, writing down the color.

After 20 pulls, Fujita, a resource teacher for the state Department of Education, challenges them to use the data they have gathered to guess how many of each color are in the bags.

"Whoever get it right," she teases, "get movie tickets."

The lesson for the evening was on probability — using available data to make predictions about an unknown — but it was also about something deeper.

Wahiawa Elementary is one of 25 public schools targeted for intervention by the DOE after years of disappointing performance. If test scores do not improve, the school faces increasing sanctions, including the possible replacement of school staff, under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Educators know that no amount of intervention or magic can turn around schools overnight, but they are taking small steps that may eventually make a difference.

Evening sessions

During a four week period, Fujita and other teachers led evening classes for students and parents from Wahiawa and nearby Ka'ala Elementary School, which has also fallen below the state's standards. On Tuesdays, they worked on language arts, inviting local artists to tell stories. On Thursdays, they concentrated on math, with exercises on probability and statistics.

Hawai'i's standardized tests now require students to do more writing and to show their math work, which has proven difficult for many students. In the 2002-2003 school year, 27.5 percent of Wahiawa Elementary third-graders and 31.8 percent of fifth-graders met the state's reading standards, while 15.9 percent of third-graders and 13.6 percent of fifth-graders met or exceeded the state's math standards.

At Ka'ala, 22.6 percent of third-graders and 24.1 percent of fifth-graders met the reading standards, while 15.1 percent of third-graders and just 8.9 percent of fifth-graders met the math standards.

"We tried to target the kids that were having a hard time," said Fujita, who first started the evening classes last summer. "We want to get them to enjoy writing."

The setting was informal and comfortable, with lots of food and laughter. Wahiawa principal Denise Arai and Ka'ala principal Theodore Fisher mingled with parents and gave suggestions and advice to students. Parents sat next to their children around small wooden tables and were expected to do the same work. Students and parents who attended every session and did all the homework received school supplies for the year and other treats after the final class last week.

Independent audits of troubled schools statewide found that a lack of parental involvement is a contributing factor in school performance. The library at Wahiawa Elementary was typically bustling for the classes, but just 10 families from the two schools were willing to give up their summer evenings.

Raymond Marks, a retired city worker, attended Wahiawa Elementary as a boy and has taken his grandson, Ikaika, who will be in the fourth-grade this school year, to the evening classes for the past two summers.

"This way, they don't backtrack," Marks said. "It keeps them focused. A lot of times, I make like I don't know the answers and he corrects me."

Making time for class

Marks likes to believe that more parents would show up if they knew about the classes and does not buy the excuses that parents are too busy with work or other activities. "The parents," he said, "they can make the time."

Douglas Chai, an electrician, and his wife, Ruby, have been bringing their three children and two nieces to the evening classes, both to help them at school and to spend more time together as a family.

Chai said he has noticed that his children seem more confident and are less bashful about raising their hands when they know an answer. "They're fighting to go up there," he said. "They want to be the first one to get the right answer."

Fisher, the Ka'ala principal, said he understands the pressure to improve test scores. But he said the extra efforts at schools like Wahiawa and Ka'ala may not produce immediate results. "It's like planting something," he said. "You have to sit and wait and with some hard work it will grow."

Reach Derrick DePledge at ddepledge@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8084.