Hawaii’s new school superintendent says she’s not going to tell school leaders how to do their jobs or second-guess decisions they’ve made about what’s best for students.

Instead, Christina Kishimoto, who took over a little less than a month ago, wants to give those closest to the community the power to make decisions for what works best for their school and the community at large.

“As long as you’re not breaking the law, and you have the resources and you’re making decisions on behalf of children first … and you’re being really being student-centered, then come ask me for forgiveness,” Kishimoto said in an interview with Civil Beat Monday. “I’m not looking to police everyone around what they can and cannot do. We hire professionals for that reason — to go and make decisions at the various levels.”

Hawaii Education Superintendent Christina Kishimoto says local schools already have more power than many of them think they have. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Kishimoto, who most recently headed public schools in Gilbert, Arizona, moved to Hawaii this year to oversee the country’s ninth-largest public school system, which consists of 180,000 students.

In a nearly hourlong interview, Kishimoto said she does not profess to know which school models may work for any one community or what programs should be implemented for any one school.

She intends to let educators and school leaders decide that for themselves — and she’s encouraging them to take risks.

“The people who are going to impact student learning are the teachers in the classroom,” she said. “They have to be empowered to make decisions on a daily basis about the adjustments they need to make on instruction to support the kids.”

The 48-year-old Kishimoto, who took over Hawaii schools Aug. 1, paid a visit to the Civil Beat office straight off a flight from Pukalani Elementary School in Maui. She praised that school’s “The Leader In Me” model that draws from the content of “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.”

“I’m interested that you make a commitment to design, that you have full fidelity and don’t just half attempt a model,” she said. “With full fidelity to these various vetted models, we’re going to get great results.”

In taking over a school system perceived as being overly centralized and being too top-down, Kishimoto said she understands the need to give schools on the ground level the freedom to innovate and experiment, even if that means making mistakes.

Some schools seem to have “a clear understanding that they in fact can hand-design their schools” and other schools seem more reluctant to do so, she said.

“I think it’s a misunderstanding about the empowerment that already exists,” she said. “I hope to be working with those schools that need a structure for (empowerment) or support for it, or just knowing that it’s OK that if they try something and it doesn’t quite work,” that there won’t be repercussions, she said.

Kishimoto pointed to a recent conversation she had with a local educator who had tried out the model of a school academy but found it didn’t quite fit and planned to transition to an offshoot of that concept.

“And I said, ‘Great!’ The more they hear that from me, that it’s OK to try something that doesn’t work … that’s the piece of our public education that we can kind of turn the ship around,” she said.

Hawaii Education Superintendent Christina Kishimoto, Editorial meeting at office.
Kishimoto said she believes the state “needs to tell our story better about what’s happening” in the public school system. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Kishimoto, a native of Bronx, New York, who also once oversaw the Hartford Public Schools in Connecticut, is spending her initial months on the job visiting various schools around the state. She’s visited about eight schools, meeting with administrators and parents. Hawaii, which has the only single statewide school district in the country, consists of 256 public schools clustered within 15 complex areas that are divided up by region.

A product of the New York City public school system, the veteran schools administrator said she is “a huge fan, proponent and cheerleader of public education.”

But, she said, public faith in the system cannot result from internal messaging alone.

“The message actually needs to come from outside of our school district,” she said. “I can say all kinds of things, but I’m the superintendent, and what do you expect me to say?”

“Internally, we do have to tell a better story of what’s happening (in public schools) but externally, that’s basically my call to action — to (tell) my partners (in the business community), ‘I need you to tell the story of what public education means in this state,” she said.

Hawaii has one of the highest rates of private-school enrollment, which has helped contribute to the perception that a public school education in Hawaii is inferior to a private education.

When asked what she would do to convince more families to keep their kids in public schools here, the superintendent had a no-nonsense answer.

“I’m not going to worry about the rate of private school enrollment. Families are going to choose (that) for whatever reason families choose,” she said. “I don’t think that’s an affront to public education for there to be choices other than public education.”

“That being said, the public education system has to have a level of quality and level of reputation that attracts families to be able to say, ‘I’m going to choose to be a part of my local public education system. I can walk to the school, my child can be a part of the local public education system, my child can remain in their neighborhood and have an equally quality school.’”

Kishimoto says three prongs of focus as superintendent will be special education, English language learning instruction and teacher recruitment and retention.

The latter, she said, can benefit from “building out a talent management approach” that includes not only recruiting new teachers but homegrown teachers from the community for whom teaching is a second or third profession.

Improving retention will also require the support of higher education and “thinking differently about compensation packages and other kinds of resources” to lure more people to the field of teaching or to a particular area of the state, she said.

While she pushes the message of empowerment in the schools, Kishimoto also was firm that top-down mandates are needed for aspects of education that are failing.

Hawaii Education Superintendent Christina Kishimoto, Editorial meeting at office.
Christina Kishimoto says she believes in “the impact (public education) has on communities.” Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“There’s likely to be some top-down decisions in the area of special education,” she said. “We’re not seeing the outcomes we should be seeing. In fact, we’re terribly low in terms of student performance outcomes.”

Kishimoto was selected by the Hawaii Board of Education in May to serve as superintendent. She starts with a three-year contract.

“The public education system has a charge of educating every child that walks through that door, and that’s what I believe in,” she said.

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