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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, May 6, 2010

Taking census to another level



By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Sacred Hearts Academy fifth-graders yesterday presented the results of the school census they conducted as part of an eight-month class project. The purpose of the census was to compile information on ways to improve their school.

RICHARD AMBO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Is the U.S. Census Bureau smarter than a fifth-grader?

Perhaps it doesn't have to be.

As those who attended yesterday's "Consensus of the Census" event at Sacred Hearts Academy might argue, simply matching the effort, intelligence and creativity the school's fifth-grade class demonstrated in their yearlong census project would be an impressive feat.

In preparations for yesterday's so-called "Big Ta-Da," the academy's 42 fifth-grade students spent the past eight months interviewing students and faculty, identifying topics of interest and importance, designing questions, compiling and analyzing results, and preparing charts and graphs to represent their findings.

The result was a polished presentation that left teachers and administrator's choking back tears.

"They really took charge of the project," said language arts and social studies teacher Susan Phillips, who along with math teacher Sheila Banigan oversaw the ambitious undertaking. "To see them present their work today was so exciting and so heartwarming. I got misty-eyed. I looked across at Sheila and she was misty-eyed, too."

The project is an outgrowth of the school's involvement with the Hawai'i Association of Independent School's $5 million "Schools of the Future" program, which encourages student-focused, project-based learning.

After attending a three-week training institute this summer, Phillips and Banigan came up with the idea of designing an interdisciplinary project based on the 2010 Census.

The pair started by giving their students an in-depth lesson on the history, purpose and function of the census, with help from Pearl Imada Iboshi, chair of the 2010 Census Hawai'i Government Complete Count Committee.

Imada Iboshi visited with the students at the beginning of the school year, educating them on the various issues associated with the U.S. Census, and providing them a trove of census logo items, which the students used during their "official" census visits.

Duly briefed, the students then set out to identify key issues for their campus, a process that eventually included interviews with fellow students and faculty.

After careful evaluation students were asked to use their critical thinking skills to identify which issues were most relevant and which suggestions were most realistic and feasible the students culled their mammoth list of topics and set about carefully crafting questions that would yield meaningful results.

They settled on a list of 30 questions that would be distributed to the school's fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade students.

The questions covered a wide range of topics, from the students' home lives and their attitudes on potential campus improvements to their experiences with social situations like bullying.

"We tried to find things to make our school better," said fifth-grader Tracy Chuc.

The fifth-graders took the raw data from 156 completed forms and methodically worked to ensure the integrity of the final numbers, doggedly investigating statistical inconsistencies and other problems.

"It was very difficult because some people didn't answer all the questions, or sometimes they answered ones that they weren't supposed to," said student Chloe Camello. "We'd have to go back and find the exact (questionnaire) that had a problem and try to find out what was wrong."

That, Phillips and Banigan said, was all part of the learning process.

"We were there to help if they needed us, but this was really about them learning how to collaborate and how to think through problems on their own," Banigan said. "They couldn't just say, 'I don't know.' They had to think outside the box and come up with strategies to approach their challenges."

Phillips said even she was surprised at the degree to which she and Banigan were able to step aside and let the students work.

"It's not easy to stand back," Phillips said. "But that's what they taught us. That was their gift to us."

The data yielded a wealth of interesting and potentially useful information, such as:

• 46.1 percent of students who responded to the survey are Catholic.

• 65.5 percent say they are "always happy," compared with 34.4 who say they are "usually happy."

• 96.1 percent say they have Internet access at home.

• 89.6 percent said they would likely donate books to a recycled book station at the school.

• 78.8 percent would like to have longer study hall periods.

• 86.9 percent spend two hours or less on homework each night.

Once the data was vetted and the charts and graphs completed, students focused on refining their oratorial skills. At yesterday's presentation, the students' delivery drew as much praise as their product.

"I'm very proud of them, and I'm just as proud of their teachers," said Sacred Hearts head of school Betty White. "(Phillips and Banigan) brought the energy and enthusiasm and the girls rose to the occasion."