Graphic: Emily Metcalf
Graphic: Emily Metcalf

BY JORENE BARUT – Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s newly appointed Board of Education (BOE) cohosted its first Oahu community meeting along with the Windward Oahu District Complex Area Superintendents. About 200 people gathered to hear their views on public education and discuss community solutions for higher student achievement.

The board members present were Donald G. Horner, Kimberly Gennaula, Charlene Cuaresma, Cheryl Kauhane Lupenui and Air Force Col. William F. Morrison II. Complex Area Superintendents Lea Albert (Castle/Kahuku ) and Suzanne Mulcahy (Kailua/Kalaheo) rounded out the panel at King Intermediate School in Kaneohe.

Board Chairman Horner highlighted the BOE’s recent work. It includes reducing the BOE’s operating budget from $1 million to $200,000 and establishing four interlinking groups to promote student-centeredness – Student Achievement, Audit, Human Resources, and Finance and Infrastructure committees.

“Our goal is improvement in student achievement,” stated Horner, “and AYP [Adequate Yearly Progress] is only one benchmark.” Defining “model school” and “best practices,” creating accountability, and moving the Hawaii State Library System into alignment for student achievement were other goals that Horner promoted at the Oct. 20 meeting.

The new BOE members were appointed and installed last April.  The majority graduated from public schools and many of their children attend public schools. Members take their role very seriously. According to Horner, “We are accountable to the state constitution for public education policy and performance.”

Gennaula, best known as a TV news reporter, said that her public positions allow her to interact with legislators, state senators and other influential leaders. “I bring a realistic idea of what’s happening on a ground level in the schools,” she said.

Morrison – who earned two master’s degrees, was a section and flight commander, deployed to Iraq and was awarded the Bronze Star Medal – was bullied in school. His focus includes anti-bullying measures; exploring opportunities with the Department of Defense Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics Education and Outreach program; offering online instruction in advanced subjects beyond the regular curriculum; and solving the transition issue of going from grade to grade and relocating to different schools.

Cuaresma worked in the pineapple fields; lost her mother at 11 years of age; lived in a family plagued with alcohol and substance abuse; and was so exhausted from caring for her five siblings that she couldn’t grasp fraction-decimal conversion in seventh grade. Consequently, she was slapped in the face and humiliated by her teacher. The holder of two master’s degrees and recipient of the 2011 Hawaii Friends of Civil Rights Martin Luther King, Jr. Award wants to improve community input.

Horner works as the chief executive officer and chairman of First Hawaiian Bank; lost his father when he was 12 years old, said that he came from the wrong side of the tracks and saw many of his friends jailed. He strives to ensure academic growth by leading the BOE and expecting the best from students and educators.

Expecting the best is not always the case. Superintendent Albert’s school counselor told her that she was not college material. In a look-at-me-now moment that brought cheers from the crowd, Albert stated that she is a fourth-generation public school educator; has served the DOE for 44 years; and that her Kahuku High School graduate daughter is a teacher. “Every child has assets, gifts and interests,” she said. “We need to do a better job of figuring out what they are for each child.”

Lupenui, who is the former CEO of the YWCA of Oahu, said that students learn differently from one another. The former painfully shy student wants to expand teaching outside the classroom, and make it project-, place- and problem-based.

Area Superintendent Mulcahy shared that her father was a Mexican immigrant. “I don’t believe in school reformation because when you reform something, you still have the root,” she said. “I believe in school transformation.” One of her goals is to build the capacity of expert teachers in Hawaii “because we can’t depend on teachers coming from across the ocean,” she said.

The community voiced concerns and solutions in breakout groups that were individually facilitated by each host. One student said that having “teachers who actually care” would help, as well as a curriculum that is tailored by the teachers for the Islands’ diversity rather than dictated by an educator who is not in their classrooms. Clearly defining PE and health requirements, and not allowing educators without health-related backgrounds to teach these classes would lead to healthier lifestyles and improved student performances, a parent-educator said.

Challenges that were identified included motivating disengaged students, raising student awareness of support programs and electives, and transitioning to an employee-based model for students with autism. Brainstorming ideas for strengthening families included combining sporting events with academic-related meetings to increase parent participation and initiating four-way parent-teacher-counselor-student meetings. One group’s consensus was that a good teacher boils down to one who creates a genuine, ongoing connection with the student.

Jorene Barut is an Education Journalist with the Hawaii State Department of Education – Windward District. 

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