With $75 million in Race to the Top money at stake, the Hawaii Department of Education has put on its game face for a visit from key federal officials starting Tuesday.

“This week’s trip is part of the department’s ongoing effort to provide assistance, gauge progress and understand challenges,” Assistant Press Secretary Liz Utrup said Monday via email. “Our team on the ground is there to listen and learn from state and local officials.”

The U.S. DOE staff conducting the review of the state’s progress include: Ann Whalen, director of the Implementation and Support Unit; Melissa Siry and Monika Bandyopadhyay, ISU program officers; and
Jane Hess, an official with the Office of the General Counsel, according to a department official.

The feds’ primary goal during the on-site visit is to examine the state’s implementation of its Race to the Top reform plan and its oversight and support of participating local education agencies.

This means four days jam-packed with meetings around the state. Department officials will meet with teachers, principals and representatives from two of Hawaii’s Complex Areas.

The state is expected to provide “clear and compelling evidence” demonstrating it has made substantial progress across its Race to the Top plan, a U.S. DOE official said.

With Hawaii designated as “high risk” in terms of losing the grant money, this year’s routine visit is all the more critical. However, no decisions regarding status or otherwise will be immediately forthcoming.

“After the visit and over the next several weeks, the team will follow up with the Hawaii Race to the Top officals to ensure we have a full understanding of where the State stands in meeting the commitments outlined in their plan,” Utrup said.

Hawaii’s last visit from the feds was in June. The first year of the Race was slow in Hawaii, said Stephen Schatz, state DOE assistant superintendent.

“Since the last visit by the U.S. DOE our work has accelerated significantly and we’ve really gotten on track,” he said.

There are five big key reform areas. Schatz said the federal officials will be taking a “systematic look” at all the different related projects.

“We’ve accomplished a lot in the last few months and are grateful to all in the DOE,” he said. “I’m hopeful that the U.S. DOE will recognize and acknowledge our accomplishments, but at the same time I know that we’re far from perfect.”

The assistant superintendent said performance evaluations are on everyone’s mind.

The Legislature has bills pending that could effectively supersede any evaluation process agreed to through collective bargaining. Hawaii State Teachers Association President Wil Okabe said the union, which represents some 13,000 members, does not support the bill going through the Legislature.

While Schatz said the department has been excited about a pilot project for performance evaluations, he acknowledged “things haven’t gone exactly how we’ve planned.”

HSTA officials will be on the stand Tuesday before the Hawaii Labor Relations Board in a case over contracts. Next month will mark a year since teachers have been working under a mutually agreed upon contract. The one they are operating under now was imposed by Gov. Neil Abercrombie in July. Negotiations have been stalled since the state rejected the union’s Feb. 28 settlement proposal.

As the federal officials were hopping on a plane to Honolulu Monday, the Center for American Progress released its report on how states are doing in their respective races to the top. The study found Hawaii and Florida, while making some significant strides, are continuing to struggle. And the feds have not been shy about holding them accountable.

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