Schools reform will be reality
Over the past few weeks, you might have heard about the state of Hawai'i's application for federal Race to the Top stimulus funds to implement needed reforms within our public school system. The cry for reform is not a new one, and I have been asked why I think we will be able to make significant changes to the system at this time when we've been talking about reforms for such a long time.
We will succeed because the Department of Education, political leaders, parents and community members are collaborating and working with one another to provide students with a world-class education. Furlough Fridays are an unfortunate symptom of the challenges facing us, but they have also focused everyone's attention on public education like I've never seen before.
We've already started to jumpstart some of the programs described in our Race to the Top application. For example, to turn around some of our struggling schools, we are establishing "Zones of School Innovation." These zones extend the educational horizon beyond the typical school day and year, and beyond the traditional campus.
Imagine a Zone of School Innovation as a cluster of priority schools — elementary, middle and high schools — that would benefit from working together. The schools will work with educators and partner agencies to coordinate resources and to develop a seamless educational pipeline from early childhood to postsecondary education. Opportunities exist for schools to adopt extended learning opportunities to expand classroom time by 30 percent. In addition, the DOE will partner with early education childhood providers and funders to offer subsidized pre-kindergarten opportunities for children. Our investment in early childhood education will help to ensure our students are ready to learn when they enter our classrooms.
The groundwork for the first zone — along the Leeward Coast of O'ahu stretching from Kapolei to Mākaha — is already in a planning and discussion phase with the collaboration of community partners including Kamehameha Schools. There is a high population of Native Hawaiian students in the area, and Kamehameha operates a Public Education Support Division that invests approximately $25 million annually to support the educational outcomes of Native Hawaiian students in our public schools.
We are thinking out of the box. For example, a student in a zone along the Leeward Coast who attends Nānākuli High and Intermediate's New Tech academy not only benefits from the educational opportunities afforded there, but also is able to leverage opportunities at Kapolei High School's Malama Learning Center. Students could also take some of their classes at Searider Productions, which is also implementing the New Tech model at Wai'anae High School. A zone like this will be a powerful first for Hawai'i and can only happen when everyone focuses on what's good for students.
Other discussions and plans are under way to support our teachers and principals with a full range of professional development opportunities. Our educators have welcomed Kamehameha Schools in this conversation because they've seen firsthand the difference that can be made by working together and developing new ideas and ways to teach. New teachers in the zone will reap the benefits of a new compensation structure that is based on their knowledge, skills and performance and not just on their years of experience or education degrees.
The new zones of education will also give teachers more tools so they can be great teachers. Instead of judging student success based on a standardized test or when the school year is over, we will implement a system that allows teachers to see what's working and what isn't working throughout the year so they can adjust lesson plans accordingly and provide students with support they need to succeed.
All of these schools will be given additional financial support and unprecedented flexibility to do what is best for the students.
This approach is far from just a shot in the dark. The strategies that will be employed are based on a systemic research-based review of promising practices both locally and nationally to raise student achievement.
As we see success within our first Zone of School Innovation, we will be able to roll out successful practices to other areas of the state to raise student achievement.
Education reform can and must happen, and we're off to a promising start. We have strong partners who aren't just talking about reform; they're doing something. In addition to Kamehameha Schools, the Harold K.L. Castle Foundation has spent millions of dollars on public education and has committed to spending more, concentrating on programs to strengthen the leadership pipeline of teachers and principals.
Reform will be a reality in Hawai'i. With the help of federal Race to the Top funding we have requested, we will get there a lot sooner. But with the grant or not, we are committed to making the needed changes to benefit Hawai'i's students. There are many difficult decisions ahead of us, but if we all keep our focus on what is best for our students, we will make the right decisions.