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Reinventing Waimea High so that it ‘works’

Editor’s note: This is the second of two stories on redesign of the public high schools on Kaua’i.

WAIMEA — Waimea High School has adopted a redesign model known as “High Schools That Work.”

Principal Bill Arakaki says that being a part of this consortium allows him to benefit from the experiences of all the HSTW member schools across the nation.

He says he can click onto the Web site and get easy access to a wealth of information. In addition, his leadership team just went through a “Technical Assistance Visit Exit Report” prepared by a team from the Southern Regional Education Board.

This report cited the “outstanding practice” already happening at Waimea High School: increasing expectations; providing extra help; increasing access and rigor of academic and career/technical courses; developing a guidance/advisement system; system of school leaders.

“Next steps” the school plans to take were outlined in the report. The report concluded by issuing six “challenges.” The six challenges came with suggested strategies that the school now needs to review and act on accordingly.

To Arakaki, the specific strategies to build the 10 key practices promoted in HSTW are the strength of this model.

He says Breaking Ranks II has concepts, and schools have to figure out what to do. The technical assistance from HSTW “lays” it out for the school.

Arakaki says the cost of the program is mainly the cost for the end-of-the-year assessment and accompanying report compiling the data from the assessment.

The school has been able to fit the cost into its school budget, but as more students need to be assessed, it is unclear at this time if there will continue to be adequate funding.

Arakaki envisions a Waimea High School student interested in mechanics being able to graduate with the skills needed to get into an apprenticeship or part-time job or technical school, or a student interested in engineering graduating with the skills to succeed in a college chemistry course.

Arakaki points to the school’s significant adult advisement program, in which teachers and staff serve as advocates for a small group of 10 to 15 students.

They meet monthly with a prepared curriculum. Because Waimea High School is a small school, they did not rush into the smaller-learning-community model, Arakaki says.

The caring and nurturing environment created by the significant adult program encourages students to do better. Student surveys indicate that the program is succeeding.

The Accelerated Reader program is another initiative that Arakaki feels has been successful. Students read books, and are assessed either on a computer test provided by the AR program, or by a student-written book evaluation.

After three years, the program continues to be refined to meet the needs of the students.

Teachers have aligned their curriculum with Hawai’i content and performance standards.

Curriculum maps show what standards are being taught, and when. They also include lessons and activities. It will take until the end of next year for each department to develop common curriculum maps to allow for consistency among teachers, Arakaki explains.

For two years, teachers have been working as Professional Learning Communities on these curriculum maps, sharing best practices.

Arakaki feels that it will still take more time for results. He feels it will take “until we are on the same page with every teacher in every department,” and that takes time.

Youn says his school is not relying on any one model for redesign. They are using a process called “action mapping,” guided by Dr. Bruce Matsui from the Claremont Graduate University’s School of Educational Studies.

They do their own assessment of what their needs are, and select strategies they feel will work for them.

Many of the strategies they have selected appear in Breaking Ranks II, and are similar to what Kaua’i High School and Waimea High School do.

One strategy they have been working on for about three years is Teacher Learning Communities.

In order to establish these TLCs, time needed to be carved out of the school day for the groups to meet.

A memorandum of understanding in the Hawaii State Teachers Association union contract allowed the teacher day to be adjusted so that, on two days of the week, teachers work until 3:10 p.m., and two days of the week they are released at 2:20 p.m.

This allows focus groups to meet for 50 minutes on Mondays, and department groups to work Thursdays. The focus groups work on issues important to the learning community, like standards-based assessments.

The focus groups then present what they have learned to the entire faculty.

The department groups work on departmental issues like curriculum mapping. The science department is aligning what is covered on the HSA with the various courses like health and guidance and food science, etc.

Kapa’a High School Principal Gilmore Youn claims that they are going “straight for the jugular.” That is, they are attacking their weakest area, which is math.

He feels that, “in order to bring up the school, we have to bring up the math.”

He wants to have this solid foundation on which to build the other components of high-school redesign. He has evidence to show Kapa’a is on track, he said.

Two years ago, teachers identified students who would benefit from an additional class in math. Students took letters home explaining the class to parents. Only one letter was returned with signed consent.

The next year, teachers sent the letters home. There were about 100 students whose parents consented to have them enrolled in the math workshop class.

This year, students signed up for the course, filling up the classes. Students are finding that the workshop classes help them pass their math classes, Youn says.

The TLCs have been working with Dr. Margarita Calderon, a research scientist with the Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk, John Hopkins University, on a program called ExCELL.

The program focuses on vocabulary and reading strategies. Youn credits the TLCs’ work with the program for last year’s HSA results where all the subgroups met the reading benchmarks.

Some subgroups saw an increase of 9 to 13 percentage points from the previous year’s HSA scores. Youn says they are only now realizing how significant those increases are.

They did not celebrate much when the scores first came out at the beginning of the school year. All they saw, Youn says, is the bottom line, that they did not meet the No Child Left Behind adequate yearly progress bench-mark.

They knew that meant that they had to go above and beyond the good work they had already done, Youn says.

The state Department of Education is currently working on a “compact” for all high schools that outlines goals of high-school redesign.

The “compact” will be presented to the state superintendent for approval in the coming months.

In this way, schools have the flexibility to choose their own form of redesign, but can be sure that the essential goals are being addressed, Arakaki explains.

The call to re-think public education was voiced back in 1983 with the “Nation at Risk” report from the National Commission on Excellence in Education, which issued a warning: The United States’ “once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation in being overtaken by competitors throughout the world.”

On April 6, U. S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spelling in her testimony before the House Education and Workforce Committee said that “We know that 90 percent of the fastest-growing jobs require postsecondary education. Every year about a million students drop out of high school.”

A report by the High School Alliance in 2004 stated, “Although the goal of reinventing the high school is held in common, the rationale for proceeding is not. Agreement on what needs to be done, in short, is rarely accompanied by consensus on how to proceed.”

The report went on to identify two different perspectives. One was more “policy-oriented and managerial,” and concerned more with standards and assessments. The other was “focused more on students.”

Breaking Ranks II echoes the magnitude of the change by positing that even the question of where to begin is difficult: “Which should change first: school culture? School structures? Instruction?”

They divided their strategies for change into three categories: collaborative leadership/professional learning communities; personalizing the school environment; curriculum, instruction, and assessment.

  • Cynthia Matsuoka retired from the state Department of Education last year as principal of Chiefess Kamakahelei Middle School in Puhi. She writes on education exclusively for The Garden Island, and may be reached at matsu5@hawaiiantel.net.
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