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Hawaii’s new schools superintendent Christina Kishimoto began her first day on the job Tuesday slipping unscheduled into a state Board of Education subcommittee meeting, nodding along during presentations about health services for students and a program that celebrates bilingual students.
With little fanfare, the lei-draped Kishimoto took a seat at a table across from several board members and listened.
The rather unexpected morning appearance provided a glimpse into how Hawaii’s newest schools superintendent intends to approach her job: by being an active, visible figure who, at least starting out of the gate, wants to talk with as many people as possible.
“My priority is really to hear from the principals and the students,” Kishimoto said during an interview after the session. “I think they give me a great reality check of what they like and what they’d like to see improved in their schools and what resources are working and what resources are not working.”
Kishimoto, a Bronx native of Puerto Rican descent and former schools chief for the Gilbert Public School District in Arizona — who only recently arrived in Hawaii to assume her new role — takes the helm during a notable time on the education stage.
Hawaii has an updated strategic plan for the years 2017-2020 and a blueprint inspired by the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which reflects a move away from test-driven accountability metrics in the direction of handing more leeway to the states to measure student achievement.
Starting her job a week before the new school year begins for Hawaii’s 180,000 public school students, Kishimoto said she’s aware the state’s school system has long carried a perception that it’s “too top down.”
“At the same time, principals are really taking off with this empowerment structure and putting in place some new academic designs,” she said. “They’re running with that and that’s what I want to encourage them to do. I want them to know that they in fact can do that and find out how we can support that.”
A longtime schools administrator with family ties to Hawaii, Kishimoto was tapped in May by the education board to replace former superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi, whose contract was not renewed by the appointed board amid criticism she ran an overly centralized public school system.
Kishimoto’s three-year contract provides a salary of $240,000 per year — nearly $100,000 more than her predecessor’s beginning salary seven years ago.
She’ll be taking over the nation’s ninth-largest school district. Hawaii has the nation’s only statewide district, covering 256 schools, 180,000 students, 22,5000 permanent employees and a $1.9 billion annual budget.
Kishimoto was previously superintendent of the 38,000-student Gilbert school district in the Phoenix metro area and before that was chief of the 25,000-student Hartford, Connecticut, public schools from 2011 to 2014.
The Barnard-educated schools chief, who holds a master’s in public affairs from University of Connecticut and doctorate in education administration from Columbia University’s Teachers College, was chosen for the top job among 92 applicants — a majority of whom were from the mainland.
Some members of the public voiced their displeasure in comments to the board about the selection of a superintendent from outside Hawaii.
Kishimoto said she isn’t daunted by the size of Hawaii’s single-district school system and how that compares to school systems she’s led elsewhere.
“There are things that are different, there are things that are the same, in terms of student engagement and the achievement gap,” she said.
“I want to lead not just by (addressing) the achievement gap, but how to create a quality school where kids are really engaged, excited to be there, and how we think about time, curriculum and preparation for teachers and support for teachers.”
Kelvin Roldan, a former Connecticut state representative who served as head of strategic partnerships and also chief communications and public policy officer in the Hartford Public Schools, recalls Kishimoto had a very data-driven approach to coming up with solutions, focusing on improving post-secondary enrollment and college readiness.
“She really is very focused on the work at hand, on student outcomes, and really tried to create a structure internally within the organization that would deliver a set of outcomes,” he said in an interview.
Kishimoto’s contract with Hartford’s schools was not renewed in June 2013, following a negative review of her job performance by the school board, according to the Hartford Courant.
Roldan believes the rejected contract renewal “was more a context of the politics” resulting from a new school board following the election of a new mayor in Hartford in 2011, rather than about performance.
Milly Arciniegas, a parent leader in Hartford, recalled Kishimoto’s eagerness to reach out to corporations, philanthropists and foundations for support.
“She wasn’t afraid to get in there, with parents, it wasn’t all pretty. She was up for the challenge. She didn’t run away from it,” she said.
Transforming how kids learn is something Kishimoto wants to focus on in Hawaii. One way is by moving away from a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach.
“I think there’s great opportunity to rethink how we’re organized to turn the system on its head and be a support structure for schools,” she said.
“The nexus of work is at the classroom level, which means the teacher and the principal is supporting (the fact that) teachers (form the) important leadership team. The question then is how do we organize at the district level to support them.”
One of the first orders of business is building her team. Interim Deputy Superintendent Amy Kunz will stay on in that role for another month as Kishimoto plans to prioritize hiring internal staff members.
“I have put in place a process to put interims in place so I have a chance to get to know some folks, and also to identify high capacity needs based on the strategic plan. So if I have to reorganize or combine positions, I have time to do that,” she said.
The new Hawaii schools chief will also spend her first six months on the job visiting all the islands to get to know educators and students throughout Hawaii. She will visit a representative group of schools, chosen by the complex-area superintendent that oversees each area.
“With a system that’s over 180,000 students and over 22,000 staff, it’s unrealistic to say that I’m going to be able to meet everyone,” she said. “At the same time, I want to have a really strong presence out there,” she said.
Kishimoto told those gathered at the full state Board of Education meeting Tuesday afternoon that her priorities include focusing on “school redesign,” identifying students’ passions and having teachers collaborate to share best practices across the district.
She also wants to take a “deep dive” into the school system’s special education and inclusion practices, as well as English-language learning programs in the schools. She also hopes to develop a pipeline to retain top teaching talent through “proactive recruitment and retention.”
“I’ve been doing lots of listening and learning from our constituents over the last several weeks,” she told board members. “I’ve been enjoying that.”