Hawaii wants struggling schools to innovate their way to success
By Loren Moreno
Advertiser Education Writer
A plan to turn around Hawai'i's lowest-performing schools has the potential to deliver some of the most dramatic change ever seen in the state's public education system.
Under a concept called Zones for School Innovation, the state wants to give administrators at struggling schools extraordinary authority to change the length of the school day and year, to overhaul teaching methods and to measure the effectiveness of teachers and financially reward those who boost student achievement.
Education officials are quick to point out that much of the planning for such change is still to come.
"A lot of that stuff is yet to be developed. We have to do a lot of that work through collective bargaining for teachers and principals," said Ronn Nozoe, acting deputy superintendent with the state Department of Education.
However, the unions that represent teachers and school administrators have said they would support those kinds of changes.
And work has already begun to develop at least one Zone for School Innovation in the Nānākuli-Wai'anae complex of schools. Others could follow in the next year.
Zones for School Innovation is Hawai'i's strategy to address a key component of President Obama's mandated education reforms: turning around the lowest-achieving schools. The state DOE will work on identifying the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools and will set up innovation zones in the communities where those schools reside.
By refocusing the public school system's efforts on the schools that need the most help, education officials believe Zones for School Innovation will give students in chronically low-performing schools the opportunity to succeed.
"The concept of the innovation zone is to strategically put together all of the available resources in an area," Nozoe said.
Recruitment and retention of highly effective teachers in every classroom will be a key focus of innovation zones, Nozoe said.
"In an innovation zone, we'd identify and quantify what we consider to be an effective teacher. The whole point is, how do we start to compensate and provide incentives to highly effective teachers to staff the schools that need the most help?" Nozoe said.
Wai'anae Coast schools exhibit the demographic and student achievement characteristics of an innovation zone. More than half the students come from an economically disadvantaged home and nearly one-fourth of students are in special education. About two-thirds of the students are Native Hawaiian.
And in an era of heavy emphasis on standardized test scores, both Nānākuli High & Intermediate and Wai'anae High have consistently ranked among the state's lowest-performing schools.
For instance, last year only 14 percent of Nānākuli students were considered proficient in math, compared with the state's average of 45 percent. Similarly, about 52 percent were considered proficient in reading, compared with the state average of 65 percent.
NEW TECH MODEL
Lisa DeLong, complex area superintendent, said part of an innovation zone is about schools working together on a "complete redesign" of teaching strategies. Both Nānākuli High & Intermediate School and Wai'anae High School have been laying the foundation for that by embarking on the New Tech reform model this year.
The model is administered by the New Technology Foundation, whose mission is to develop innovative high schools across the country through school reform that radically changes teaching practices through continuous teacher development and coaching, requires students to earn college credit while attending high school and requires schools to offer a one-to-one student-to-computer ratio for hands-on, project-based learning.
The New Tech model of instruction is completely different from the learning done in traditional classroom environments and with monotonous textbook work, DeLong said.
"With New Tech, they're helping teachers change their practice," DeLong said. "Everything is changed, from the way that instruction is given, to grading, to parent interaction. Everything is being done differently," she said.
Over the next four years, Nānākuli and Wai'anae will implement the New Tech model with nearly $1 million in support from Kamehameha Schools and the Harold K.L. Castle Foundation.
The concept of an innovation zone includes more than just changing the instruction at one school; it involves bringing all the other schools in a community along, DeLong said.
"New Tech is the point where all of our kids end up," Delong said. "The challenge is how are we aligning it all the way down — making sure kids are staying on track in every grade level."
Many of the schools within an innovation zone will likely be federal Title I schools, meaning a large portion of their students come from an economically disadvantaged background. The state received about $33 million in Title I money this year to support students who come from low-income homes.
Conceptually, schools in an innovation zone will have a longer school day and longer school year, and DOE officials say those federal Title I dollars could be used to accomplish that.
A large part of innovation zones will also include the recruitment, measuring and rewarding of highly effective teachers.
Nelson Shigeta, principal of Wai'anae High School, said part of the challenge will be devising ways to address the chronic issues of teacher retention and the recruiting of highly effective teachers on the Wai'anae Coast.
The Wai'anae-Nānākuli complex lags behind the rest of the state in the number of "highly qualified teachers" as defined under the federal No Child Left Behind law.
For instance, only 55 percent of mathematics classes on the Wai'anae Coast are taught by a teacher who is highly qualified, compared with the state's total of 70 percent. For English, about 60 percent of classes on the coast are taught by a highly qualified teacher, compared with the state total of 76 percent.
"We have great teachers and teachers with big hearts," Shigeta said. "But they may not be the most experienced and just geographically we lost a lot of our experienced teachers because of maybe the distance."
Financial incentives would be used to attract Hawai'i's most effective teachers and administrators to the zones. Incentives might include signing bonuses for highly effective teachers who choose to work within a zone, and performance-based financial rewards for teachers who boost student achievement.
But Shigeta said the challenge will be administering an incentive properly.
"Incentives help. But the incentive for teachers who really want to make a difference, who take on the challenge we face out here, for those teachers the incentive is just an extra perk," Shigeta said. "We don't want to get caught up in the aspect of teachers are here for money. The incentive should be there for the teachers who do put in the extra effort and time."
Nozoe said the larger issue is, how do you measure an effective teacher?
The NCLB model of highly qualified teachers is based on the level of education and training a teacher has in his or her specific subject area. The reforms under Obama's Race to the Top competition and federal stimulus dollars focus on measuring the effectiveness of teachers, a portion of which will be based on student test scores.
"We really want to move away from measuring a school's worth based on a single test score in April to how are students progressing over time," Nozoe said. "When we start talking about growth over time, we'll start to see a different picture of where our highly effective teachers are."
Hawaii State Teachers Association president Wil Okabe said the union plans to work with the DOE to support the special work conditions that might be needed to reform schools in an innovation zone.
Okabe said in addition to incentives to get highly effective teachers to a hard-to-staff school, the DOE should also focus resources on training teachers who are already at the school.
"Accountability has a lot to do with mentoring and training teachers if they are having difficulty in the classroom. Teaching is a skill. We should help them to grow, to succeed," Okabe said.
Nozoe agrees, saying Hawai'i is in a unique situation when it comes to recruiting teachers. Unlike Mainland school districts, Nozoe said Hawai'i doesn't have the advantage of hiring and recruiting from across state lines.
"We don't have that luxury here, so we must focus on how do we raise up every single teacher's or principal's level of performance to the place we know our children deserve," Nozoe said.