Fred Birkett recently came on board as director of Alakai O Kauai Charter School at Kahili Mountain Park. He sat down last week after a long day to chat with The Garden Island.
How long have you been involved with charter schools?
I’ve been running charter schools since 1997. I was part of the charter school movement back in the ‘90s in Boston, Massachusetts. That’s where I ran my first charter school. From there I went back across the river to Cambridge, Massachusetts and ran a new charter school there. So, part of what I’ve been doing over the years is helping to get new charter schools off the ground or help fledgling charter schools. Most recently, I ran two charter schools on Oahu. I’ve been living on Oahu for almost 18 years now.
What else have you been involved in?
I was a principal at the University of Hawaii Laboratory School for two years. I was also the principal at a place called Lanikai charter school in Kailua for three years, so that was my foray into Hawaii.
I got here first when I was stationed in the military back in 1980. This was my first duty station, at Hickam. I was an Air Force officer at Hickam, administration officer. Spent eight years in the Air Force, just had a good time, after I did my time in the Air Force I went back and got my master’s degree. I was fortunate enough to get accepted to Harvard University, so I got my graduate degree from the Harvard graduate school of education.
How was Harvard graduate school?
You learn lot about research there. You learn the value of research, the thing you want to look at when you are educating children and running schools. Some teachers run their classrooms based on anecdotal information. The problem with that is that you can have a great class this year, with the right students, the right environment, the right everything, and you try to do the very same thing with a new group next year and, all of the sudden, things call apart. That’s because it cannot be anecdotal. It has to be based on research that can support your teaching and learning and things like that.
Why do you believe in charter schools?
I believe that charter schools are really great because it allows us the autonomy to make the changes on the ground level. I don’t have to answer to a school district. I have a local school board, we work together, plan out the curriculum. In this case, we’ve adopted the curriculum from a company called iLead. We are a project-based school with project-based learning, where students learn hands-on, they learn by doing rather than just sitting with a text book and memorizing facts and figures and things like that.
Research shows that when children are in project-based learning, they get a deeper level of learning where they can really understand what they are doing, and know their mistakes, almost like a scientific method. Come up with a hypothesis, decide this is what I’m going to do, do my research on it and then figure out what direction I should take once I’ve done my research, so it takes the children through a step-by-step process of their learning. That’s what we’re doing here.
How is the school’s enrollment doing?
We’re a K-5 school. We have 140 students right now. Our goal is to become a K-8 school in five years and to add a grade a year. Next year we’ll be adding sixth grade, as well as another kindergarten class and a first-grade class. So we’re going to be growing pretty quickly here and we want parents to know we are here. Now, we’re not trying to steal students from any other school. We want parents to know we’re here to provide their students with an innovative way of teaching and learning and if they’re looking for a different, innovative way of educating their children, I highly recommend they consider sending their children to Alakai O Kauai Charter School.
What brought you here?
I like project -based learning. Having been in schools a long time, I understand the value of that, and that got my attention. I wanted to come and see how I could become a part of this and how I could help them build that up. Also, I like the fact that it’s a new school because what I do for a living, I like to go to new places and help build the foundation. I like to help hire new teachers, I like to help train new teachers. I like to help hire them, train them and support them. That’s why I came here, because I have the ability to do those things.
Another reason is, I have a supportive board of trustees. I have a group who trusts me, hired me based on my experience, education and background, and they’ve asked me to kind of let them know how we’re doing, give them a barometer of how things are going. It’s nice to have a support group like that in terms of a board of trustees. I’m not being micromanaged by people saying do it this way and this way and this way. They say to me, ‘Fred, you let us know how things are going, and then we’ll decide what we’re going to do next.’
What else is key to success here?
The other piece is the parent piece here. One great thing about charter schools is, parents choose to be in a charter school. They could easily go to the district school right down the street. They make a choice to take their children out of that local school district and bring their children here, to this pothole-filled road, tear their car up trying to get there, but clearly they’re looking for something different, something innovative, so I’m here because of those kind of parents as well, parents who make choices for their kids’ education. That’s a special group.
For example, we have a library out there. We had a group of parents spend the last two weeks fixing up our library, putting in a card catalogue, putting in the Dewey Decimal System. Parents are not paid for that. They came in for their children, because they’re investing in their children’s education. They came here to help us rebuild the library. Pretty good.
So you have a lot of parent volunteers?
I probably have about eight to 10 parent volunteers coming in each week to help us in the office, support us in the playground, lunches, things like that. Having that great parent support, you can’t beat it, because parents in charter schools are fully invested. They made a conscious choice to either take their child out of the district school or a private school or in some cases here, we have several kids who come from homeschool.
What else will it take for Alakai to succeed?
We have a lot of great factors here that are going to lead to us being successful. It’s going to take time. Rome wasn’t built in a day. So it’s going to take us a minute, so to speak, to get our foundation strong, to make sure the curriculum we’re using is researched based, well-informed curriculum, one that works for their children.
We have to also train parents regarding our curriculum, train them how they can support their children when they go home at night, training them about reading with their children, training them about doing math and things like that. In this school, we have what’s known kind of as a parent university, where parents can get workshops on helping their children succeed in school and at home. That’s a great thing.
So between the parents’ support, really motivated teachers who are very knowledgeable about their subject matter, and good board support, we’re going to be a successful school, and I think that we’re going to be the measure here on Kauai.
Can you talk about your routine day at work?
For example, I come in and a group of parents want to see me about something. I love that. That’s one thing I love about the job. I love issues that come up.
My routine simply is I come in, make sure everything is working in the office, and every morning I do what is known as school rounds, classroom rounds. I go into every single classroom just to see how things are going. I tell my teachers, ‘Look, when I come into your classroom, you don’t need to say, ‘Hey, Mr. Birkett.’ I just want to kind of come in, do an atmosphere check. I want to see how things are going for you, I want to see how things are going for the children. Now, I’ve learned through the years if I do that every day, and usually I try to do it twice a day at certain times in the morning and a certain time in the afternoon, I’ll get to know the kids better.
When a teacher sends a child to me for X amount of misbehavior, I’ll be able to figure out what he or she is about because I’ve been in the classroom enough to know, ‘Yeah, I saw them acting up the other day.’ It allows me to get closer to the kids as well, not to mention, it helps the teachers. They feel like they’re being supported when they see the principal, in this case, directly in the classroom.
I really like to spend my time in the classroom, engaged in the learning process, watching what the teacher is doing, listening to what the students are doing, and see where I can support the teachers in the classroom.
Do you like what you’re seeing so far?
Yeah. It’s still a work in progress. When you’re a new charter school, you have a lot of things to do. You don’t really know what it takes to make a school work until you start a new school. You have to really dissect everything you’re doing.
I know that we’re going to get better from what we’re doing right now, but it’s a work in progress. It’s not done overnight. You give us a couple of months here and you’re going to see something. I hope the parents begin to beat down the doors to come in here and place their children in our school.
Is there a favorite part of this job for you?
I like seeing the kids. I like seeing them coming to school. I love that. When the teachers send problem kids to my office, I love that. That’s a part of the job I like a lot, because I get to know the students that way.
I love solving problems. This is why I love schools, because there’s always problems in schools. I love helping teachers.
And I believe that we are partners with parents in the education of their children. If they can see us as partners, it will help their children grow and develop, not just academically, but socially as well. That’s what I love about being here.
I noticed on the walls in the reception office it talks about the seven habits of highly effective people? Why is that?
One of the seven habits is to seek first to understand, then to be understood. That’s a major principle here at this school.
That’s what we do here. Part of the goal here is not just to help kids develop academically, but help them socially as well. We call it ‘social, emotional education.’ So we’re going to make sure we help them develop socially. Not all the kids come from solid homes, and in even the most solid homes you still need help.
Did you attend charter schools growing up?
I grew up in New York City. I’m a project kid from the Bronx. I was able to self-educate. I was born to a single parent. My father raised three of us. I was a twin. And so I came up in a hard-scrabble situation in New York City, but all my life I understood that education was the way out and the way up. I understood if you just worked hard enough, you’re going to succeed.
I’m also a spiritual person. I do a lot of praying. Right things happen when you work hard and do a lot of praying. That’s me.
Where’s your twin at?
She lives in Boston.
Do you get back to Boston very often?
Oh no, I don’t really like going back to Boston. It’s too cold for me, even in the summer.
What about family?
My wife and I have two children. Our son is a college football coach. Our daughter and her family live in Santa Monica. My wife Andrea and I have been married 40 years. She’s my greatest supporter. She supports me in this all the way. We live here on Kauai and we live on Oahu as well. We also run a business, a staffing agency. But she does that. That’s why I’m here and she’s there running the company. We provide charter school subs on the mainland.
How do you like life on Kauai after a short time here?
I like it. It’s different. Reminds of Kaneohe. To me, this is a large Kaneohe. I love the fact it’s quiet at night. I love the fact I’m only 10 minutes away from school. And it’s just a nice, rustic environment. So far, people I’ve met here have been very nice to me.
You seem like a very disciplined, high-energy man. Are you?
I went to officers’ training school, so that certainly disciplines you. I do have a lot of energy. I never get tired. I’m 24/7. You love what you do. There’s an old saying: ‘When your work is your play and your play is your work, you never work a day in your life.’ I’m playing, have fun, and getting paid, too.
I like to do the best, be the best, that I can be.
What’s one thing you would like people to know about you?
I’m what’s known as a servant leader. I serve people so they better serve others. I serve my teachers so they can better serve children. If we are all serving people here together, we’re going to have a heckuva good time. It’s going to be a very good school.
Bill Buley, editor-in-chief, can be reached at 245-0457 or firstname.lastname@example.org.