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Published in Print: October 7, 1998, as Turning the Tide

Turning the Tide

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Tough economic times have buffeted Hawaii and its education system, but new faces could signal a sea change.


Draped over the entrance to the Nawahi School is a piko, a woven, garlandlike decoration made of plants and vines. To the children who enter this school, the piko--a Hawaiian word that means navel--symbolizes a connection to past generations.

Each morning, the 77 students in this grade 7-12 program in Hilo, Hawaii, gather here and request--through traditional Hawaiian chants--an invitation to enter the public school.

It's a ceremony rich with meaning, but one that would not have taken place in the state school system before 1986. That's the year the legislature, under intense pressure from Hawaiian families, decided that children in the 50th state could once again be educated in their native language, as well as English.

Teaching children in Hawaiian had been forbidden for nearly a century, since the United States annexed Hawaii in 1898.

But since the change in the law, use of Hawaiian in classrooms has spread quickly through a language-immersion program, in an effort to preserve the once-dying language and the culture of the islands. There are now about 1,700 students in the state, including preschoolers, who speak, write, and conduct all of their daily school activities in Hawaiian.

Students at the Nawahi School raise chickens, pigs, and fish out back. They also grow taro--a root vegetable used to make poi, a traditional Hawaiian dish.

And at a private preschool in Hilo that conducts classes in Hawaiian,macadamia nuts and leaves from indigenous plants are used for hands-on activities, and children sing Hawaiian songs, accompanied by the ukulele.

The first senior class of Hawaiian-immersion students--all five of them--will graduate in the spring, and all of them plan to attend college.

To founders of the program, that's an encouraging sign that native Hawaiian children--who are more likely than others in the state to be poor, to have low test scores, and to be at risk of dropping out--can succeed.

"One of the statistics that we should be bragging about is that we haven't had a dropout yet," says Puanani Wilhelm, a specialist in charge of the immersion program at the Hawaii Department of Education.

Students in the program perform roughly on par with their peers on statewide tests.

"We're very aware of test scores because everyone has said our kids can't learn in Hawaiian," says Pila Wilson, a professor of Hawaiian language and studies at the University of Hawaii at Hilo. He's also a board member of 'Aha Punana Leo, the nonprofit organization that created and runs the immersion schools along with the state education department and the University of Hawaii.

But the growing program is still struggling to be understood by state and federal officials, who are more accustomed to handling funding and regulations for foreign-language or bilingual programs.

"Our biggest problem has been trying to work our program into the state's system. They just can't move as fast as we'd like them to," Wilson says.

The group has bought and maintained school sites--declaring them to be public schools--and even paid teacher salaries until the state was able to cover the cost. Wilson describes the group's role in the public school system as "semi-civil disobedience with tacit approval from the state."

In many ways, 'Aha Punana Leo's push for recognition is similar to the experiences that other groups have had in dealing with Hawaii's single, statewide school system--the only such K-12 structure in any of the 50 states. The education department is described by many here as being overly bureaucratic and resistant to change. Teachers and parents often feel excluded.

"That shouldn't be the case here," Paul G. LeMahieu, the state's newly appointed superintendent, says. "We are a unitary system. We could be different."

The Hawaii board of education's decision to hire LeMahieu--the first superintendent to come from outside the state school system since Hawaii became a state in 1959--is the department's signal that it's ready for change. LeMahieu, 45, who started work here Sept. 1, replaced Herman M. Aizawa, a 30-year veteran of the Hawaii schools. Aizawa resigned in June and is now the principal of one of the system's community schools.

LeMahieu "has a fresh perspective," says Karen Knudsen, the chairwoman of the state board. "That is what this system needs right now."

The question remains whether new leaders can have a significant influence on the broad range of problems that have bedeviled the state education system.

Besides LeMahieu, new people are moving in to other key positions in the state's education structure at what many say is a critical time for education in Hawaii. The University of Hawaii's new dean of education and the Hawaii State Teachers Association's new president are among those who are hopeful about the school system's future.

The state is also in the midst of a gubernatorial race that could result in the election of the state's first Republican governor. Linda Lingle, who is now serving her second term as the mayor of Maui, handily beat Frank Fasi, a former Honolulu mayor, in the Sept. 19 primary. The Republican has been leading Democratic Gov. Benjamin J. Cayetano in the polls.

The question remains whether new leaders can have a significant influence on the broad range of problems that have bedeviled the state education system: The list includes overcrowded and outdated classrooms, a consent decree governing special education services, teacher shortages, and a package of academic standards that few local schools have taken seriously.

But the most pressing issue facing Hawaii and its schools is one that is beyond the control of educators. For the past several years, while the rest of the country has enjoyed flush financial times, Hawaii's economy has been stagnant. Financial troubles in Japan have kept tourists from that country home, cutting a huge chunk out of Hawaii's tourism dollars. Likewise, once-profitable farming land has been sold off over time as major agricultural companies have moved overseas.

And a recent report from the U.S. General Accounting Office noted that among all the states, only Hawaii has not benefited from additional resources made available by the federal welfare-reform law--money that most state governments have been able to save or spend on other priorities. While welfare caseloads in most states are declining, Hawaii's has increased.

So even though Hawaii's student population is growing by at least 1,000 students each year, funding from the legislature has not increased. Over the next 10 years, Hawaii's student population is projected to grow 13.2 percent, second only to California's 15 percent.

Positions have been cut in the school system's seven administrative districts, which function primarily as extensions of the central office to handle matters unique to a certain area of the state. That has left local principals and school staffs loaded with additional routine responsibilities, such as purchasing.

Paid internship and mentoring projects for students in school-to-work programs also have been hurt because of layoffs and downsizing at many businesses.

To some, however, the economy should not be an excuse.

"This is a real pass-the-buck system," says Joan Lewis, an HSTA representative who teaches 7th grade social studies at Nankuli High and Intermediate School in Waianae.

The state's elected school board tends to blame the legislature for not appropriating enough money, she says, while the legislature says its hands are tied because the board is responsible for setting policy.

Lewis' school, on the Waianae coast of Oahu where tourists rarely tread, is among those that are the neediest in the state. There is a heavy concentration of Hawaiians, and poverty is evident. Old Quonset huts purchased from the military to be used as homes are sprinkled among small houses.

Teachers in this area, often recruited from other states, tend to be the least experienced. And turnover is high because most teachers would prefer to work closer to the metropolitan Honolulu area. Others return to the mainland because their experience isn't the "working vacation" they expected it to be, Lewis says.

Facilities--not just those in the school system's Leeward district, which Lewis represents in the teachers' union, but throughout the state--are badly in need of repair and updating. Seventy-three of the district's 253 schools are more than 50 years old.

The state is in the midst of a school building program and has even used capital-improvement projects to try to jump-start the economy. But maintenance at older schools has been deferred because of the budget crisis. The legislature this year approved $704 million in education spending, $50 million shy of the department's request. For fiscal year 1999-2000, the department will ask for $796 million. There have been no major increases in funding for several years; in fact, during the current economic crisis, funding has dipped as low as $680 million.

Statewide, Hawaii students generally perform below the national norms in reading and mathematics on the Stanford Achievement Test.

In the past two years, 12 schools have been built or are now under construction. But the sight of some of those new buildings leaves teachers and parents questioning just how fair the system is.

Only six schools--five of them new--have air-conditioning, even though most qualify for it based on such criteria as temperature and outside noise levels.

At Ma'ili Elementary in Waianae, which is surrounded by a chicken farm, a pig farm, and a cattle ranch, community members were willing to buy air conditioners for the school, but electrical service was insufficient.

Cultural gaps between Hawaiian children--the largest ethnic group in the school system--and their teachers, who are predominantly Japanese-American or white, also are evident in communities like Waianae.

"It's home culture vs. school culture," says Lilette Subedi, a comprehensive-project manager at Alu Like, a nonprofit group in Honolulu serving native Hawaiians through vocational education and other training programs.

For example, in Hawaiian homes, it's considered disrespectful to look an elder directly in the eye. In the classroom, such behavior might be interpreted as rude. Hawaiian students might also be less outgoing in school because working cooperatively is valued more highly than showing off, Subedi said.

Statewide, Hawaii students generally perform below the national norms in reading and mathematics on the Stanford Achievement Test, although there were improvements at the 6th grade level last year. This year's results are due out this month.

On the most recent SAT, Hawaii's public school students posted a verbal score of 459, compared with the national average of 502, out of a possible 800.

School officials attribute the low scores, in part, to the diversity of the student population. The largest segment, at 25 percent, is made up of Hawaiian or part-Hawaiian students. Other large categories include Filipinos at 19 percent, whites at 16 percent, and Japanese-Americans at 12 percent. The "other" categoryonly a tiny percentage in most statesmakes up 11 percent of Hawaii's students.

Intermarriage is widespread in the state; the term "multicultural" often applies not just to whole classrooms but individual families as well.

"Hawaii is today where a good part of the United States is going to be in the next 20 years," observes Randy Hitz, the new dean of the college of education at the University of Hawaii in Manoa.

The task of those who try to evaluate the public schools is complicated by the fact that many of the state's highest-achieving students leave the system; about 15 percent of the state's students attend private schools, compared with 11 percent nationally.

"It makes it a little more difficult to say how the public schools are doing," says Ormond Hammond, the director of planning and evaluation at Pacific Resources for Education and Learning, or prel, a federally funded research laboratory in Honolulu responsible for Hawaii and the Pacific islands.

In fact, 'Aha Punana Leo leaders say one of their greatest challenges is to hang on to students from the Hawaiian-immersion programs once they reach high school because being fluent in the language is considered a plus by private schools.

Not surprisingly, it's the centralized structure of Hawaii's education system that is often blamed for any shortcomings, particularly low achievement. And a plan to break up the single statewide system into local school boards has become a top campaign issue for Mayor Lingle, the Republican candidate for governor.

"Decentralization is imperative if the school system in Hawaii is going to improve," Lingle said recently.

Her plan is to divide the system into county school boards. Oahu, the county that includes Honolulu and is home to roughly 80 percent of the state's residents, would have four local boards. The remaining three counties in the state--which in some cases include more than one island--would each have one board.

Vol. 18, Issue 6, Pages 28-33

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