Lighting the way

Kilauea school principal Sherry Gonsalves has lived on Kauai for 13 years, but still hasn’t lost her Tennessee accent or charm.

Her educational credentials include a bachelor of science in special education from Bethel College in McKenzie, Tenn.; a master’s degree in educational leadership from Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville, and an educational specialist degree in administration supervision from Tennessee State University in Nashville. Today, she leads 20 teachers and 35 support staff at Kilauea in their goal to teach nearly 300 students. Recently, she was nominated as the 2014 Distinguished Principal of Kauai District.

TGI: Did you work in the school system In Tennessee?

Sherry Gonsalves: I began my career as a teacher at a Wilderness Program in Tennessee and I focused on teaching teens that were court ordered, aggressive or who have not been successful in other residential programs. I later transferred to the public school system where I taught at-risk students with disabilities for nine years, seven of those were in Tennessee and two years in Hawaii.

TGI: What sorts of things do you think you learned from the Wilderness Program experience?

SG: It really helped me to develop a passion for helping them to have success in their lives. Some of the situations they have been dealt in their lives are beyond their control and I really have a heart for those students and helping them find achievement and success.

TGI: Can you recall a situation or student that still sticks in your mind from the Wilderness Program that had an impact on your heart?

SG: There are so many. The majority of all the kids had very abusive backgrounds, questionable upbringing, and limited support in their home environment. Just helping them to be able to tap into their strengths and build on that and actually feel successful and see what they are able to achieve and basically helping them believe in themselves and what they are capable of once they’re removed from that environment. That’s what really helped me.

TGI: It sounds like that applies to all students, not just at-risk students.

SG: Yes, and my philosophy of education is just that. My belief is that education helps all students to discover their individual gifts and talents. As we build upon these areas in a safe and nurturing environment, the students develop into life-long learners, striving to reach their full potential as they enter the workforce, college or careers of their choice.

TGI: Can you remember when a grade school teacher who had an impact on you?

SG: Honestly, I do. And I remember a struggle I encountered in school and that was moving from a private school to a public school. And that was in third grade and there were very different academic expectations when I moved into the public school. There were some challenges I encountered with the different curriculum and my best teacher honestly was my mother, who spent every evening with me helping to catch and fill that gap. When I look back at all of the teachers I had, I have to say my most inspirational person in my life was my mom. My mother always told me I could do anything I wanted and trials would arise and I would find a way to make it work. Without her help every night and without her persistence, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I want to help those kids that have the same challenges. That’s what I love about this school because the teachers provide a safe and nurturing environment that helps the students feel secure and supported. This stimulating atmosphere helps students to develop skills and become engaged in their education. This is a wonderful place to work with a dedicated faculty and staff that truly cares about helping their students succeed.

TGI: What is your favorite part of the day?

SG: One of my favorite parts of the day is greeting the parents and students in the morning and just seeing their smiles and getting their days off to a nice start, just to say good to see you this morning, good morning and just putting a smile on their face.

TGI: So what does it mean to you to get this honorary award?

SG: When I think of all the deserving principals on this island and this state, it is very humbling and I’m very appreciative. And while I’m honored to be nominated to represent Kauai, I recognize that all of our accomplishments are the result of the combined efforts of one another and when we stand together supporting one another, we become better at what we do and we grow together. I feel like since I’ve been here, I’ve grown with the teachers and the faculty. We’ve all grown together.

TGI: I couldn’t help but notice there was a teacher and student that came into the office when I arrived. It seemed like the student had gotten into trouble. Do you deal with those types of interventions?

SG: I handle all the disciplinary referrals as long as I’m here.

TGI: What sorts of things do you commonly see here?

It could be non-compliance, maybe disrespect to a teacher and sometimes physical contact between two students, mostly at recess.

TGI: Did you ever get in trouble in school?

SG: I think I left on the wrong bell one time. What’s funny though is that was so minor but I’ll never forget it. And that is what I recognize about the kids. To me, I do this every day, but to the child they are always going to remember it. And I always keep that in mind. So that was good that I left on the wrong bell and the principal getting on me.

TGI: What does your husband do?

SG: He is in the construction field.

TGI: Did you meet him on island?

SG: I did. I actually met him in church. My pastor introduced me to him.

TGI: Did you get married on island?

SG: I did. And he has been an amazing support.

TGI: Do you share your day with him?

SG: I do share some things but not everything because of confidentiality. He is always happy and makes me laugh. He is really good at being able to find the positive in any situation. And he helps me to appreciate things in life. He’s always happy so it’s always an inspiration that way. He focuses on the good things.

TGI: Anything you wish you could do to improve at Kilauea for the students and faculty?

SG: We currently have a few things in progress. Our community support is tremendous. One of the most influential community supporters, but one that stands out, is Ric Cox, a Rotarian. He’ll occasionally come to me and say, “What are your dreams? What are your wishes?” I have to be careful now as to how I answer him because he’ll make them happen.

TGI: Give me an example.

SG: One of them I might have mentioned is having a significant adult in their life and having a sense of belonging.

TGI: That’s what you had.

SG: Not everyone has that significant adult in their lives. If we can proactively do that at an earlier age I think we are going to see the benefits in the years to come. And so we are working with our PTSA and Mr. Cox to generate possibly a grant and what the grant would do is provide after school activities. What we’ve done already is we surveyed our student body and we asked them if they could do any activities after school, what would they be, and we took the top five, not necessary all academics.

TGI: What are a few of those?

SG: Ukulele, dance, computers, iPad clubs, and so basically there would be an adult, ideally teachers if they want the extra pay, that would work with a small group of students after school every Monday and that would be their sense of belonging. That would be their group and that would be their acceptance. And that adult would also inquire with the child how they are doing in school just to see how we can help to support the child. Currently we have that started as a pilot program.

TGI: Can we look at how your students do as far as measurable academic scores?

SG: The reading scores were at 68 percent proficiency for all students and 52 percent for the disadvantaged. The math scores were at 47 percent proficiency for all students and 27 percent for the disadvantaged. The spring 2013 HSA reading scores were at 73 percent proficiency for all students and 66 percent proficiency for the disadvantages subgroup. The math scores increased by 26 percent for the third through sixth graders and 104 percent for the disadvantaged. It’s a really nice reflection on the teachers. We’re really proud of the growth.

TGI: What is your favorite memory from grade school?

SG: I never considered myself an artist and I drew a picture of an owl and I won the art contest. So, I was reaching out and achieving what I didn’t think was possible. I think that is one of the best memories that come to mind. It was sixth grade and my mom and dad probably still have the drawing today.


Lisa Ann Capozzi is a features and education reporter and can be reached at


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