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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, February 13, 2005

Flexibility is crucial in helping kids to succeed

By Jim Shon

It's early morning on the Big Island. As the morning haze rises we wind our way down the mountain towards a small group of tents and shelters along the coastline.

Students from the Halau Lokahi Public Charter School and members of the community gathered in the Council Chambers at Honolulu Hale.

Advertiser library photo

My driver is right out of the '60s. He's a boomer who still has plenty of zip — he surfs, he loves kids. Steve Hirakami, director of the Hawaii Academy of Arts and Sciences on the Big Island, has been involved in education most of his life, from Department of Education teacher to special education mentor to the founder of a unique school. His eyes light up when he talks about the kids in his school.

Just 20 yards from the shore, we are invited to join in the opening protocol at Kua'o Ka La. Fifty youngsters stand in rows, each row is a "grade," asking permission to enter the grounds of their school. They chant, they report, they show humility and honor and pride. They greet us with lei and hugs.

A few years ago these students were labeled failures, troublemakers, and truants. It wasn't so. They just didn't fit in. But now — now they resonate with confidence. They wake up eager to learn.

Recently a sharp-tongued analyst told me charter schools were driven by conservative ideologues who want to dismantle government and privatize education. But remembering a gathering of Hawai'i charter directors in December, looking around the room, I could only think: The liberal boomers rise again.

These are true believers in grass-roots, bottom-up democratic communities. They want government to step up to the plate and help — but not to patronize, bully or dictate. They want respect for the people and the fledgling institutions they are creating with sweat, intelligence and aloha.

It has been just more than nine years since Wai'alae Elementary School became Hawai'i's first charter school. Of our 27 charter schools, 24 were established before 2002 — the majority were granted charters just four years ago. Today there are 27 public charter schools, with 500 public employees, and over 5,000 eager learners.

In 2001, there were 3,066 students, and in the fall of 2005, planners predict more than 6,000 will enroll in these laboratories of change.

But numbers leave me numb. I prefer to visit these unique schools and look beyond their paper profiles. I see bright faces, incredible energy and dedication among the teachers, and a spirit of excitement. These people are educational pioneers and adventurers, and they love what they do.

Who are these guys, anyway? What are charter schools? First, they are small schools, often very small learning communities. Parental and community involvement is unbelievable — especially at the 17 Neighbor Island schools. This year, nine charter schools have fewer than 100 students, 18 have over 100, and eight over 200. Enrollments have doubled since 2001, and most have significant waiting lists.

They must be doing something right!

About half of our charters have a special Hawaiian cultural theme, preserving our host culture while educating our keiki. Five schools have immersion programs to preserve the Hawaiian language — an incredible challenge for teachers who translate English lessons into a different culture and language.

How are charters different from regular schools? Charters are public schools with more flexibility and responsibility than our regular DOE schools. They may have a longer "leash" but must meet all the same federal and state standards.

More important, they are created differently (through a contract between the Board of Education and the charter's local board); they are governed and managed differently. (The charter's local board hires and fires its staff, and can negotiate separate collective bargaining agreements with public-sector unions.)

Charters are exempt from many administrative laws, but are bound by those covering health, safety, discrimination, and collective bargaining. Charters are also funded differently — a special formula provides several thousand dollars for every pupil enrolled. The amount is less than the average for DOE students.

To date, there's no financing for building, renting, repair or maintenance of school facilities. Literally, some schools conduct classes in tents and converted shipping containers. It is heartbreaking to hear people talk about the need for better DOE schools, yet find it unreasonable to provide even minimal support for the physical environment of charters.

Some actually say, "They are not our kids."

How are the students doing? Not bad. This year they outperformed the DOE schools on some tests, 40 percent made a school honor roll, and two were among the top 32 public schools statewide. A new report from Kamehameha Schools showed that Hawaiian students attending charters outperform their counterparts (of the same gender, socioeconomic status, and grade) in mainstream schools.

They score better in reading and math. And, the odds of chronic absenteeism are 74 percent less than in conventional public schools. (Let's remember that 26 percent of all our DOE students are of Hawaiian ancestry — and they are generally at the lower end of the achievement scale.)

Many charter schools combine ages in grades in an emphasis on project-based, hands-on learning. One school recently published a high-quality children's book — in both English and Hawaiian. Classes also tend to be small — to the envy of many a DOE teacher.

Most integrate special-education students into regular classrooms. Many struggle to keep afloat financially, and some experience growing pains as their local boards learn the formalities of being a mature board of directors and employer.

Like adolescents lurching toward adulthood, one day they are like kids, the next day more mature. As parents we know enough to be patient as our teens test their wings. These charters are not so different.

They deserve time, patience, guidance, appropriate discipline, but above all the same commitment to make them work as we grant our regular DOE schools.

What do charters want and need? The answer is simple: fairness — in financing, facilities, and benefits for their employees. Charters are not panaceas for public education — but they are an important part of reinventing education.

Survival has been, to put it mildly, precarious. Yet it is no longer a pipe dream to imagine a stable, sound and adequate level of public financial support in the very near future. If we focus and apply our energies, powers of persuasion and collective influence, this year will free charters from exile in educational Siberia.

When a charter falters or fails to live up to the highest standards, we should ask not "What's wrong with you?" but rather, "How can we help you to do better? How can we help you succeed?"

Our charter schools are here to stay. Let's help them do great things.

Jim Shon is the executive director of the Charter School Administrative Office. He wrote this commentary for The Advertiser.