The two finalists for Hawaii school superintendent made statements and fielded questions from reporters Thursday, and one of the two could be offered the job next week.

Public testimony on the candidates will be accepted at next Thursday’s Board of Education meeting, said board Chairman Lance Mizumoto.

The finalists are Linda Chen and Christina Kishimoto.

Board of Education building2. 10 jan 2017
The Department of Education surveyed hundreds of people regarding what’s wanted in a new superintendent. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Hawaii is the only statewide school district in the nation with 290 schools, 180,000 students and 12,700 teachers. Neither candidate has held an administrative position in such a large district.

It was important for the public to hear from the candidates, Mizumoto said, but he asked them to refrain from granting any additional interviews until the search concludes.

“There was a strong consensus between the (BOE’s) search committee and the advisory group as to the top candidates,” Mizumoto said.

‘At The Core, I’m A Teacher’

Chen is managing director and founder of Ikigai Educational Consulting, an educational consulting company that works with urban K-12 institutions.

Previously, Chen was a chief academic officer at Baltimore City Public Schools, which served about 84,000 students in 188 schools. She has also held administrative jobs in Boston and Philadelphia school districts.

Chen graduated from Columbia University Teachers College with a doctorate in education from the Urban Education Leadership Program, and also holds master’s degrees in education and arts. She also holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Washington and completed the school’s Teacher Education Certification Program.

Linda Chen began her educational career 20 years ago as a teacher at Hawthorne Elementary in Seattle. Courtney Teague/Civil Beat

In opening remarks Thursday, Chen said, “at the core, I’m a teacher.”

She said educational equity, strong teaching and learning, and community engagement are three principles that have guided her career. She credited her parents, Chinese immigrants, for playing a big part in her education.

“I believe Hawaii, especially at this moment in our nation’s history, is poised to be the leading example of what can truly happen in public education when a committed community comes together around shared values, culture and history … to make a difference for kids,” she said.

To improve teacher retention, Chen said she hoped to encourage more local residents to become teachers in addition to recruiting from the mainland. Providing “early college pathways for teaching in schools,” and encouraging more paraprofessionals, long-term substitutes, and teachers assistants to get additional certification could be other options.

Test scores aren’t the sole indicator of progress in a child’s education, she said.

Asked if she was intimidated by the size of Hawaii’s district, Chen said she’s held administrative positions in a district as large as 160,000 students, and was a teacher and principal in New York City’s school district.

Critics have said the Department Of Education became top-heavy under current Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi and teachers didn’t have enough input.

In many districts she’s worked at, Chen said people complain about an overly centralized school system. It’s important to look carefully at how human resources are used, she said, but added that doesn’t necessarily mean eliminating positions.

“Sometimes … people in the schoolhouse may not know exactly what everyone else is doing in the department and I think that’s important to highlight as well,” she said.

Though she’s moved around a lot, Chen said she now wants to settle in one place — that was part of the reason she decided to go into consulting, she said. With family and a best friend in the state, Chen said she already has a support system here.

Last week, the Star-Advertiser reported that Chen resigned from her Baltimore district job after being brought in by embattled schools CEO Gregory Thornton. Thornton was replaced less than two years into a four-year contract and Chen was one of three top employees to leave in his wake, the article said, citing Baltimore Sun reports.

‘A Bold Leader’

Kishimoto has served as superintendent and CEO of Arizona’s Gilbert Unified School District since 2014. The district serves about 38,000 students in preschool to 12th grade. She previously served as superintendent and assistant superintendent of school design at Hartford Public Schools in Connecticut.

Kishimoto holds a doctorate in education administration from the Columbia University Teachers College and a master’s degree in public affairs from the University of Connecticut. She has been certified as a superintendent of schools and intermediate supervisor in Connecticut.

Like Chen, Kishimoto emphasized equity in her opening remarks to reporters. She described herself as a “big proponent of public education” and said “public education is key to our democracy in this country.”

At Gilbert Unified School District, Christina Kishimoto manages a $305 million budget. Courtney Teague/Civil Beat

Her mother immigrated from Puerto Rico to New York City, she said, and went to school where culture and language weren’t valued. Kishimoto said it’s clear to her that community and family are core values in the Hawaii’s education system.

“This is an incredible system and what’s so attractive about it is the fact that this is a place where there is a shared vision about what we want to accomplish for our students here and for our families and our communities,” Kishimoto said. “And it’s a shared vision that starts with the governor … and the board and administration in terms of a strategic plan, but also the teachers and administration who are at the implementation level … And at the end of the day, that is what matters.”

Teachers need to have “tremendous voice” in the implementation of the DOE’s educational model, Kishimoto said. To retain teachers, she emphasized providing living wages.

It’s important for teachers to have some freedom to create classroom-level assessments, as opposed to solely relying on standardized tests, she said.

Kishimoto doesn’t have a teaching background. She said a superintendent needs to be a strong leader who can plan strategically, work with state politicians and manage Hawaii’s $1.9 billion budget.

Asked about concerns that the Hawaii DOE has become overly centralized, Kishimoto said while it’s important to centralize the education system, she’s also for empowering principals and teachers to design curriculum based on the community’s needs.

“You train people well and you let them be,” she said.

The Star-Advertiser cited articles by the Hartford Courant and reported Kishimoto was unanimously denied a contract extension for her job as Hartford superintendent. The board harshly criticized Kishimoto’s performance, though she called the remarks “inappropriate.”

Kishimoto told reporters she had a positive relationship with Hartford politicians and board members. The district had a high poverty level and was dealing with a state takeover, Kishimoto said, adding she was a “bold leader” who brought needed change.

“…There are things that you’re going to be attacked for, but those things are not at the core of my ethics or at the core of my commitment to public education, and I left that district in good hands,” she said, adding that  high school graduation rates increased by 22 percent and she helped raise $4.1 million for a “Hartford Promise” program to help graduating seniors go to college.

Asked generally about potential controversy in the district where she currently works, Kishimoto said Arizona’s education system is caught between pressure from a conservative right and a demand for innovation. She said she focuses on students — not “the adults in the community” — and her record of improving the district’s achievement records “speaks for itself.”

Kishimoto said her half-Japanese daughter has family in Hilo and she would look forward to being reunited by family.

Getting The Search Back On Track

Ray and Associates was hired by the BOE to aid in the superintendent search. The new superintendent will be paid about $240,000, depending on experience and qualifications, according to the job description posted on the firm’s website.

Civil Beat’s public employee salaries database shows that Matayoshi was earning from $120,000 to $250,000 in 2016.

Ray and Associates conducted an online survey that asked participants to prioritize nine out of 27 characteristics desired in a superintendent. Hundreds of parents, teachers and others took the survey, and the BOE pledged to consider the votes when writing the description.

Not everyone was impressed with the results.

In a March interview with Civil Beat, Jim Shon, director of the Hawaii Educational Policy Center at the University of Hawaii, dismissed the job description as “educational gobbledygook” that didn’t suggest the department’s priorities would change.

The search effort had setbacks early on.

In March, Gov. David Ige announced then-BOE member Darrel Galera was resigning from the board to apply for state superintendent. Less than five months earlier, the governor had named Galera to the board.

Galera had long been rumored to be a top contender for superintendent and was an outspoken critic of Matayoshi. Civil Beat reported that some worried the search was tilted in his favor.

Ige’s announcement prompted the Harold K.L. Castle Foundation to pull its $50,500 donation to fund the search process, resulting in the board suspending its search. The search resumed days later when Galera withdrew his candidacy.

A week after that, BOE Chair Lance Mizumoto said Galera told Ige that he didn’t intend to apply for superintendent when he joined the board and his candidacy was a “complete surprise.”

To see the resumes of the two finalists, click here.

The board plans to post the candidates’ full opening statements online.

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