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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Native Hawaiian students bloom in charter schools

 •  PDF: See a presentation of Kamehameha Schools' study on Native Hawaiian charter schools
Halau Lokahi photo gallery

By Gordon Y.K. Pang
Advertiser Staff Writer

Students from Halau Lokahi Public Charter School prepare their canoe to set sail at Waimanalo. From left are Grayson Kauwe, 16; Ku'i Ho'omalu, 15; Kalaheo Tolentino, 17; and Jonah Hakuole, 14. It is part of their schooling, learning science, physics, meteorology and sailing.

GREGORY YAMAMOTO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Among the key findings:

  • Hawaiian-focused start-up charter school students who are Hawaiian saw their reading scores on the Hawai'i State Assessment jump by an average 10.2 points from the eighth grade to 10th grade. The test scores were put on a common scale so that they could be compared.

  • Hawaiian students attending conventional public schools during that same period saw their reading averages drop 7.3 points.

  • The Hawaiian charter school students saw their math scores go up by an average 13.4 points, while those in conventional public schools saw their math scores go down by 0.9 point.

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    Native Hawaiian students tend to show greater gains in standardized tests when they attend Hawaiian-focused charter schools rather than standard public schools, according to the preliminary findings of a Kamehameha Schools study.

    A presentation on the findings will be one of the highlights of Ku'i Ka Lono, the 2006 Conference on Hawaiian Indigenous Education, Research and Well-Being, which is being held today through Friday at the Hawai'i Convention Center.

    The study tracks the Hawai'i State Assessment reading and math scores of Hawaiian students in Hawaiian-focused charter schools over two years and compares them with the scores of Hawaiian students in conventional Department of Education schools over the same period.

    The study tracked students who went from eighth grade to 10th grade, fifth grade to seventh grade and third grade to fifth grade.

    Shawn Kana'iaupuni, Kamehameha director of research and evaluation, said the study is significant because it measures gains over a period of time, something that had not been done previously with the Hawaiian charters.

    The test scores of all Hawaiian students in Department of Education schools, however, lag behind statewide averages by about 10 percentile points in both math and reading, according to the report.

    About 48,000, or 26 percent, of public school students are Hawaiian. There are about 1,900 students attending 13 Hawaiian-focused charter schools, about 93 percent of whom are Hawaiian.


    Officials in the charter school community credit the concept of "education with aloha" for much of their success.

    "The students are telling us that over and over, the parents are telling us that, and as educators ourselves, it's been pretty evident," said Ku Kahakalau, principal of Kanu 'o Ka 'Aina Hawaiian Charter School, in Waimea on Hawai'i Island.

    Kahakalau, also the co-founder of Na Lei Na'auao, the Native Hawaiian charter school alliance, said "providing a system of personal attention and care, this aloha, is hard to put into English words, but that's really been the primary factor."

    Laara Albrett, principal at Halau Lokahi in Kalihi, said that traditionally, Hawaiians have just had a gentler way of teaching.

    "If I have to correct a child, in Hawaiian, there are no mean words," Albrett said. "Lead them lovingly. Ho'omalimali make the way nice, be gentle."

    That concept makes it easier for students to be more responsible for their own learning, she said. "I just believe that if we can teach the children to be self-responsible, it puts them in an enlightened position to make choices."

    Kahakalau said the "education with aloha" concept means that teachers, parents and community members join with the students in fostering a vibrant learning environment.


    Another difference is the emphasis on connecting with the environment. At Halau Lokahi, for instance, students are out in the elements at least twice a week.

    Yesterday, for example, Junior Coleman's high school students spent the day in Waimanalo sanding a canoe as their ancestors did and then sailing in a fiberglass canoe.

    "It's hands-on," Coleman said. "The thing about us is we're not into doing this just to go through the motions. We're being active in living the culture along with learning. It's just good for the kids to have a part in it."

    The latest study on test scores comes even as existing national research on the value of charter schools is not conclusive. A recent national study showed the achievement of charter schools is subpar, but a California study reported charter school students there outperforming other public school students.

    Kana'iaupuni said the Kamehameha Schools study adds to growing evidence that Hawaiian charter schools are working. And while Kamehameha's goal is to advance the opportunities of Hawaiian students, there are applications that can be replicated that would benefit all students, she said.

    Kamehameha has a keen interest in the data. The school contributes an estimated $3.7 million to its Ho'olako Like program, which provides funding and other resources to Hawaiian charter schools and others who serve Hawaiian students, according to Sharlene Chun-Lum, the program's director.

    "The mission (Ho'olako Like) is to help the community and the schools to serve Hawaiian kids," Chun-Lum said. "We can't serve every Hawaiian kid on our campuses."

    Schools superintendent Pat Hamamoto did not return a call to her office yesterday, but other public school officials cautioned against reading too much into the findings of the study.


    Robert McClelland, director of the DOE's systems accounting office, said some of the things cited by the Hawaiian charter school officials as reasons for their success are not exclusive to Hawaiian charter schools.

    It's "apples and oranges," he said, to compare a school with 50 to 80 students with the typical public school with 900 to 1,500 students. "It's not the same thing at all," he said.

    "The results indicate that size may prove to be one of the variables in determining student achievement, but size is not unique to charter schools," McClelland said. Active family and community involvement, two other success factors, also aren't exclusive to charters.

    "That's not to dismiss what the charter schools are doing," he said. "I think we can learn a lot from what the charter schools are doing."

    DOE spokesman Greg Knudsen echoed McClelland's comments. "Sometimes these sort of comparisons tend to fall into either overstatement or just making comparisons when matters aren't really comparable," Knudsen said.

    "We don't feel that it always has to be put in a compare-and-contrast mode; that it may simply be better to look at the successes of those charter schools and to see what their applicability toward regular schools without trying to stretch the lesson into some kind of comparison," he said.

    That said, however, "we did find (the study) useful," Knudsen said.

    Kahakalau said it would be easy to incorporate some of the positives of Hawaiian charter schools onto standard public school campuses.

    "That's the super-exciting thing," she said. "Aloha costs very little amounts of money. It's not a matter of financing, but it's a matter of, to a certain extent, restructuring the informal structure of the schools and really looking at some systemic educational reform that will really frame relationships at the school level in a different way."

    The DOE is joining Kamehameha Schools, Na Lei Na'auao and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs in presenting this week's Hawaiian education, research and well-being conference.

    Reach Gordon Y.K. Pang at gpang@honoluluadvertiser.com.

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