One of Mary Correa’s toughest assignments as a local school superintendent on the Big Island of Hawaii: finding a leader for Keaau High School just outside Hilo.
The principal’s job stayed vacant for three years—no one wanted to lead what was one of the poorest, lowest-performing, most dangerous schools in the state. (On one day in 2010, for example, more than a dozen students were arrested after a series of fights on campus.)
But Ms. Correa saw a spark in a middle school principal, Dean Cevallos, and persuaded him to take the job. On his first day—and he still keeps the pictures on his digital camera to prove it—vandals spray-painted 5,000 square feet of profane graffiti on nine of the 10 buildings on the 930-student campus.
The mess cost $40,000 to clean up. Because of federal Race to the Top money—and because the Kau-Keaau-Pahoa complex area where the high school is located is a “zone school of innovation,” a particular emphasis under that program—Mr. Cevallos got special access to state facilities funding. The walls were repainted within days.
But then the birds came. A structural flaw in the relatively new high school left an opening in one building’s roof, which provided an inviting home to 90-some birds and the biting mites that came with them. Faced with an epidemic of bird-mite bites among his students, Mr. Cevallos had to fix that quickly, too.
“Fixing up the school was huge for us,” said Mr. Cevallos, whose school has now been featured by U.S. News & World Report as one of the top high schools in Hawaii. “It shows you care. That kids are safe when they come to school. You have to start there before you can start teaching them.”
Now, if only someone would come mow down the field of marijuana growing by the high school. (Marijuana is said to be one of the Big Island’s greatest cash crops, and drug use is one of the school’s bigger problems.)
A version of this article appeared in the December 11, 2013 edition of Education Week as Hard-Driving Principal Welcomes Extra Resources