Published Online: June 2, 2011
Published in Print: June 8, 2011, as Hybrid Hawaii Tech. School Sees Rapid Enrollment Growth

'One Size Fits One' at Hawaii Tech Academy

Reflected in a mirror, art teacher Malia Andrus helps Alyssa Hartley with a project at the Hawaii Technology Academy. The school has quadrupled its enrollment in two years to become the fastest-growing charter school in the state.
—Dennis Oda /Honolulu Star-Advertiser

Educators there blend online learning with face-to-face instruction

The line began forming before dawn at a drab, mixed-use building overlooking Farrington Highway in Waipahu as parents vied for a chance to sign up their children for a slot at the Hawaii Technology Academy. Just a small white sign tips off passers-by to the location of the fastest-growing charter school in the state, on the second floor above a kayak store.

“One family came at midnight, and by 5 a.m. we had 51 people waiting outside,” said Jeff Piontek, an energetic New Yorker who heads the school, Hawaii’s largest charter.

Launched in 2008, the charter school has quadrupled its enrollment over two years, with 1,000 students at last count. On March 1, it opened 250 additional slots for this fall, triggering that line of parents. The school can grow so quickly despite its limited space—10,000 square feet—because its students work mostly at home. They come to the learning center, on average, twice a week for face-to-face classes, with additional time for electives.

“It’s one size fits one; it’s not one size fits all,” said Mr. Piontek, formerly the state science specialist for Hawaii’s public schools. “If you’re a 4th grader and don’t know fractions, we can teach you. If you don’t know how to conjugate a verb, we teach you. Every child has a customized learning plan.”

So-called hybrid schools that blend face-to-face teaching and online learning are one of the fastest growing models of e-learning, according to organizations such as the Vienna, Va.-based International Association for K-12 Online Learning. Experts say hybrid schools such as the Hawaii Technology Academy are trying to use this approach to do a better job tailoring teaching and learning to students’ individual strengths and weaknesses while still maintaining some face-to-face interactions.

Students at the Hawaii Technology Academy undergo a baseline assessment before they start school. Teachers review their performance every Monday and adjust each student’s agenda for the coming week. The school uses a standardized online curriculum purchased from K12 Inc., a Herndon, Va.-based e-learning company.

Academy teachers say success depends on two factors: an engaged parent and a motivated child. “Your parent or guardian is actually a teacher; they’re responsible,” said middle school teacher Tiffany Wynn. “It’s not sitting your child in front of a computer and saying, ‘Here you go, good luck!’”

'Work at Your Own Pace'

Hawaii Tech’s students score well, with 85 percent proficient in reading and 45 percent proficient in math last year. But the school’s close connection with K12 Inc. has raised a red flag with the state auditor’s office, which is examining Hawaii’s charter school system.

The for-profit firm gets 41 percent of the school’s allotment of funds from the state. Under its contract, it also pays the principal. That means Mr. Piontek is a private employee, not a state employee like other public school principals.

“That is a huge issue with a lot of people,” said Mr. Piontek, who makes $115,000 a year. “They are afraid the curriculum company is running a public school. I would much rather be a school employee, and so would the local school board.”

The board has been trying to renegotiate its K12 contract, which was signed before Mr. Piontek was hired and runs until 2014.

‘Work at Your Own Pace’

The academy enrolls students from South Point, on the Big Island, to the North Shore of Kauai, some of them competitive surfers or performing artists who need a more flexible schedule. The school’s individualized approach has struck a chord, especially with military families and home-school students.

Mr. Piontek pulls up some profile data with a few quick strokes on his laptop: 47 percent of students came from regular public schools; 31 percent are military dependents; 20 percent were home-school students; 12 percent came from private schools; 2 percent came from other charter schools.

“I could fill the whole school with military, but we want it to be a local school,” Mr. Piontek said. “Our plan caps it at a third.” Despite the building’s bleak exterior, cheerful posters hand-lettered by students decorate the central hallway. An art teacher enlightens her pupils on the concept of proportion at one end of the hall, while biology students dissect rats in its science lab.

“I really like this school because it’s challenging,” said Joelle Lee, a soft-spoken 7th grader with a flair for drawing. “You can work at your own pace. If you get it down in most schools, you have to wait for everyone else. This one, you learn it once and you get ahead and go on to the next thing.”

Vol. 30, Issue 33, Page 10

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