A transformation process formerly reserved as correction for the nation’s lowest-performing schools may soon become a model for school reform in Hawaii.

This year, 91 schools in Hawaii are undergoing “restructuring,” which is the fifth and highest level of state intervention under the federal No Child Left Behind law. For a school to arrive at the status, it must have consistently missed federal student achievement targets, called Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), for several years in a row.

Historically, restructuring has been synonymous with school failure, but now the U.S. Department of Education and Hawaii Department of Education are beginning to expand the principles of restructuring to other schools. Some of those principles are included in Hawaii’s strategic education plan, outlined in the state’s Race to the Top application.

Under restructuring, schools that don’t manage to improve student achievement are eligible for state interventions up to and including the replacement of school staff. In Hawaii, they are generally audited by third-party companies like EdisonLearning and the staffs undergo extensive retraining and coaching.

Since the law was enacted in 2002, 106 of Hawaii’s 286 public traditional and public charter schools have entered restructuring. In 2009, 90 entered the comprehensive turnaround process. This year, only two of those exited while four more entered.

Palolo Elementary School in Kaimuki was one of the first both to enter and to successfully exit restructuring. Now educators from all over the state visit Palolo on holy grail-like pilgrimages to learn the school’s secrets to success. (Read about the secrets to Palolo’s turnaround in our companion piece.)

As painful as the process was, principal Ruth Silberstein says she is grateful that her school was hurried into and through restructuring.

“The process we went through and what we’re going through today is what the whole nation is going through now,” Silberstein said. “The changes that are happening right now are no longer known as ‘restructuring,’ but they are really an attempt at reforming schools nationwide. It’s almost like we piloted change.”

Restructuring is expensive and it entails inviting outsiders to come in and nitpick every aspect of your school. It involves asking them to pinpoint problems and suggest changes. Sometimes it means giving up cherished teaching methods, throwing out textbooks that aren’t working or doing additional work to keep track of your progress. It often demands extra personnel training. In short, it can be humbling and painful. Schools may receive additional money for restructuring based on their level of need.

Each school’s reform scenario is going to vary a little from the others, said Lisa DeLong, complex area superintendent for the education department’s Nanakuli-Waianae complex area. Seven out of nine schools in the complex area are restructuring.

“If you’re going to turn around a school that’s underperforming, the number one thing is culture building,” DeLong said. “It’s like turning around a sports team. It’s developing a belief system that ‘we can do this.'”

Nothing Palolo did was truly experimental, Silberstein said, because best education practices are well known and well researched by EdisonLearning, the education company that helped turn the school around. But re-learning everything and taking new approaches wasn’t easy.

And the stigma attached to restructuring is one of the greatest obstacles to teachers and principals embracing cultural changes.

“All the restructuring schools were really demeaned, but it turns out we were the very ones making changes that all the schools are being advised to do today,” Silberstein said.

She added that restructuring successes like Palolo may help reassure schools that might otherwise fear taking the leap into school reform.

DICUSSION: What are your thoughts on restructuring and school reform? Share them in our education reform discussion.

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