HANALEI — Step one, done.
That’s what the Save Hanalei School group said about Superintendent Bill Arakaki’s decision to remove Hanalei Elementary principal Lisa McDonald effective Monday.
“We are grateful that Arakaki decided to make the right decision and reassign Ms. McDonald and we wish her all the best,” said Julie Mai, parent of a first grader. “Our goal was new and better leadership.”
McDonald has been reassigned to the district office pending an investigation after three days of sign-holding rallies at the entrance of the school’s parking lot.
That group is accusing McDonald of mismanagement, making unethical choices, and not following through with federally mandated requirements. They are also unhappy with her communication style and accused her of not listening to teachers.
They said Arakaki ignored more than a year’s worth of requests to look into the situation at the school.
“Concerns brought to my attention about the school and its administration are being looked into on a priority basis,” Arakaki said in a statement to The Garden Island on Monday. “Although I am unable to disclose specific details of my discussion, recommendations and actions, please know the matter is of high priority.”
Reiko Beralas, vice principal from Kapaa Middle School, is set to step into the principal’s shoes temporarily on Wednesday.
Staff at the Hanalei Elementary School declined to comment.
What sparked the issue
While there had been dissatisfaction brewing for over a year, things came to the surface at the beginning of this school year, when McDonald was faced with a bigger kindergarten class than anticipated.
She created a combination class of kindergarten and first-grade students to even out class sizes and appointed one of her first-grade teachers, Sarah Purcell, as the K/1 combo teacher.
“The lower education teachers came up with at least three other options for solving the problem,” Purcell said. “The K/1 (combo class) solution was something that no teacher agreed to.”
Purcell said due to the size of her classroom and the curriculum available, the combination class should never have been created.
“There is curriculum for combo classes in the older grades, but with a K/1 combo class, no curriculum exists,” Purcell said.
She resigned from the school on Sept. 8.
“All (creating that combo class) really did was look good on paper, it made every class size at 18 to 20 children,” Purcell said, “but it wouldn’t work out. The (biggest) problem is that there isn’t enough time in the day.”
Purcell said her schedule in her first-grade classroom was tight and the idea of adding more classes into an already full day was impossible.
“In the morning, I teach language arts, writing and math and I barely have enough time to get those lessons in before lunch time,” Purcell said. “I’d have to teach six lessons and there’s not enough time.”
Purcell said it was suggested she teach half of a lesson to each grade level to accommodate all of the students.
“I refuse to do that, because it’s unfair,” Purcell said. “My first graders deserve a full first-grade curriculum, as do the kindergartners.”
The Save the Hanalei School group held a rally in front of the school on Monday thanking the community for their support and Arakaki for his response, but they haven’t reached their ultimate goal yet.
“Parents are happy and hopeful about (McDonald’s reassignment), but we’re focusing on rectifying the K/1 combo class situation and then we can turn our focus back to learning,” said Ashley Jones, who has been instrumental in the group since the beginning.
As a form of continued protest, parents of students in the K/1 combo class are keeping their children home.
“The 13 of us that have first graders in that class, we won’t be sending kids back to school until they get the curriculum right and the kids are back with their teacher, Sarah Purcell,” Mai said. “We now need to address the issue of getting our keiki back in school.”
Deborah Stryker, whose grandson is a first grader in the combo class, said he’s going on seven days out of school.
“It’s unstable. They have no curriculum and they only have a substitute teacher,” Stryker said. “We have to get (the kids) back in a place with a perfect environment and with the teacher they came to love.”
Purcell said she’s on board with that demand.
“I want that as well,” Purcell said. “I just want to go back to teaching my kids.”
Jones said the parent teacher student association and a few parents have requested a meeting with Arakaki to hear his plans for the next step.
“We feel like he has the ability to make a call on this issue and to move forward as early as tomorrow, but he felt his schedule was too busy to meet with him today,” Jones said on Monday. “He told us to check his schedule with his secretary and find a time we can meet.”
The other goal the group is highlighting is their desire for the community to be involved in the selection of Hanalei Elementary School’s next principal. The way to do that, they say, is through community meetings like the ones they held last week before their rallies.
“It’s time for the ohana community and the powers that be within the board of education and the superintendent to work together and work out a consensus for the greater good,” Stryker said. “We can make this an example of how to make the best decisions possible with open doors, open communication and speaking honestly.”
Parents, kids, teachers and community members exercised their right to a peaceful demonstration last week by gathering in front of Hanalei Elementary School to wave signs demanding the resignation of the school’s principal, Lisa McDonald.
They got what they wanted, at least for now, and McDonald has been reassigned to the district — a decision that was effective Monday, and members of the Save Hanalei School group held one last rally that morning in celebration.
“(Holding sign-holding rallies) was the last resort,” said Juile Mai, mother of a first grader at the school. “It wasn’t that we were being dramatic. We had taken all the steps we could.”
Within the last year, members of the parent teacher student association, the school community council, and individual parents sent over 30 letters to Superintendent Bill Arakaki requesting an investigation into the goings-on at the school. They say he never responded.
“We needed more people to get involved, to take a stand,” Mai said.
Among those holding signs outside the school in the morning and in the afternoon were young children — many in kindergarten or the first grade. Parents who brought their kids to the rally said they didn’t think a peaceful protest affected them in a negative way.
“Kids need to know that they have the power to speak up in situations,” said Deborah Stryker, grandmother of a Hanalei first-grader. “I believe it’s important to instill that within them at a young age. It’s not something where we protect them from it. It gives them strength and a voice.”
Mai said before she brought her children to the rallies, she made sure they understood what was going on.
“They knew that we were bringing awareness to the community,” Mai said. “I told my girl, the whole point is helping people understand what’s going on. I don’t think having them out there with us was a negative thing at all.”
Mai explained that the group isn’t planning more rallies, but they’re not going to give up on their mission.
“We might show up at (Superintendent Bill Arakaki’s) office and take further action there, but I have a feeling that he understands that we are serious,” Mai said.