Transition plan helps ease new principals

The Kaua’i school district is facing three principal vacancies at Wilcox Elementary, Kekaha Elementary and Hanalei Elementary schools.

“We have built capacity … we’re okay,” said Daniel Hamada, Kaua’i Complex Area Superintendent.

Hamada credits the work of Principals and Personnel regional officer Diane Nitta for recognizing potential leaders.

“Once we identify them, we support them,” Hamada said.

Under the Hawai’i Department of Education’s Professional Development and Educational Research Institute, there are the Teacher Leadership Academy and Aspiring Administrator Program to assist those considering administrative positions.

Once individuals decide they are ready, they apply for the Administrator Certification for Excellence Program that prepares them for vice principal positions, and eventually principal positions.

Rachel Watarai, principal at Wilcox Elementary School, is retiring. Her vice principal, Sherry Scott, will be the temporary assigned principal as of April 1.

They are preparing for the transition.

“I have been at so many different schools, so many different positions, change is nothing,” Watarai said.

Watarai began her career in education in 1972 as a teacher in the Windward District on O’ahu. Since then, she has been in 13 different schools and has done district work, and union work.

Watarai came to Kaua’i in 1992 when she accepted the vice principal position at King Kaumuali’i School.

“I wanted to be a school’s first vice principal,” Watarai said.

After three years there, she took over as principal at Waimea Canyon School.

She recalled being hesitant about applying for the principal position and her “King K” principal, Maggie Cox, telling her, “You’ll never be ready. You just have to do it.” Watarai stayed at WCS for seven years, until the position at Wilcox Elementary opened. She has been at Wilcox for the last five years.

“The more experiences you get, the less stressful it is to transition,” Watarai said.

Watarai said it is common, however, for her school community to feel “angst” over the change in leadership.

With the academic and financial plans in place, Watarai said, her school community members need not worry about major changes in direction or upheaval in programs.

“Everything is collaborative,” Watarai said. The school goals are clear, professional development is laid out and everyone knows where the money is going based on the academic and financial plans.

Watarai said there is a lot of accountability attached to the plans. Any changes would have to be made through the collaborative process.

Watarai is confident that no gap or void will be felt. “Sherry is very capable. The teachers know what to do. Things are in place.”

“It’s a matter of them going to the next level,” Watarai said.

Scott came to Kaua‘i in 2001 when the state contracted companies to provide special education teachers. She taught at Chiefess Kamakahelei Middle School, where she served as the Special Education department head.

Scott came with a master’s in education administration and had experience substituting as a vice principal and principal.

When her private educational contract ended, she entered the ACE program and was placed at Wilcox School as vice principal.

“It’s a unique situation moving into Rachel’s position,” Scott said. “I know the school, know the systems within it and I want to continue those.”

Scott said Watarai has been working closely with her, introducing her to reports that need to be done, requirements that need to be fulfilled and all the day-to-day things that need completion.

Scott was appointed to serve as a TA principal at Hanalei Elementary from Jan. 5 to March 5. Scott said the experience gave her a good understanding of how schools operate.

Scott said she received “tremendous support” from the knowledgeable and helpful district level people. She discovered a “close-knit administrative family” whom she felt comfortable calling whenever a situation arose.

“These professional relationships and bonds formed with people in the community are my biggest support,” Scott said.

Carol Shikada, principal at Kekaha Elementary School, will become an Educational Specialist with the Hawai‘i DOE curriculum office.

Since it is a move within the DOE, the gaining and losing entities determine the date of the change.

Generally, the change occurs within three weeks. The state, in this case, is being flexible and is allowing Shikada until June 5 to complete the transition.

Shikada did not expect the reaction her leaving generated.

“I didn’t realize how strongly they felt about having me here,” Shikada said.

Shikada is pleased that the apprehensions and concerns voiced by staff, teachers, parents and students could be addressed in the timeline and transition plan.

“I have a chance to finish up certain things, see certain things through,” Shikada said.

Hamada has identified Jason Yoshida, vice principal at King Kaumuali‘i and currently a TA principal at Hanalei Elementary, to be the TA principal at Kekaha Elementary.

“I don’t want someone to come in to this position and not know what’s happening, what’s important and what needs to be done,” Shikada said.

She has created a table that lists the major activities and events occurring now and through the summer. She has added her notes on who is doing what. She has outlined the weekly and daily things that need to be done.

Shikada has also had a discussion with the West Complex staff and they are poised to handle the Waimea Canyon School transition to a middle school that will bring kindergarten through fourth grade students to Kekaha Elementary. This will help to alleviate some of the burden on the TA principal.

The timeline includes dates when Yoshida will meet the staff, walk the campus and meet the School Community Council, some of which have already happened.

“The school is at a good place,” Shikada said. “Systems and structures are in place to move forward.”

Shikada has been a teacher, high school and elementary vice principal, district educational specialist, state educational specialist, school renewal specialist and principal.

The principal positions will be advertised in early May. From then to the time a recommendation is made to the State Superintendent for an appointment to the principal position is four to six weeks.

“It will be a busy May and June,” said Nitta. The plan is to have principals in place by the time teachers arrive for the next school year.

“Things always work out,” Nitta said Debbie Lindsey is a case in point.

Lindsey was a vice principal at Waimea Elementary on the Big Island when her family decided to relocate to Kaua‘i. She applied for the vice principal position at Chiefess Kamakahelei Middle School.

Hamada said he heard about her from his counterpart on the Big Island and had a chance to see her and what she had to offer.

When the principal position at Koloa suddenly became open at the beginning of this school year, he assigned Lindsey as the TA principal. She took over as principal in January.

Lindsey was a teacher, staff developer, vice principal and principal in Oregon before returning to the islands in 1999. She took a position as principal of Hawaii Preparatory Academy, a private kindergarten through eighth grade school on the Big Island.

After three and a half years, she took a break and went into private business. When she applied to substitute teach, the principal asked her to join the DOE as a vice principal.

“I was fortunate to immediately be allowed to participate in the ACE training,” Lindsey said.

Although licensed in Oregon, Lindsey had to meet Hawai‘i DOE certification requirements.

“The (DOE) system has nuances, so (participating in the ACE program) was helpful,” Lindsey said. “The system is so big with so many different interpretations. It is different from the Mainland and different from the private system.” Lindsey also had mentors on the Big Island and here on Kaua‘i.

“I’m fortunate to have an excellent mentor,” Lindsey said.

Her mentor is Rachel Watarai, who will continue to mentor Lindsey.

“She is a fabulous resource. It has been a great support to bounce off ideas,” Lindsey said.

• Cynthia Matsuoka is a freelance writer for The Garden Island and former principal of Chiefess Kamakahelei Middle School. She can be reached by e-mail at


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