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Founders of an arts-focused charter school in central Oahu are facing mounting complaints from parents in the midst of rapid teacher turnover and signs of a possible shift away from the school’s original mission.
Around 20 parents crowded into Kamalani Academy’s office space in Aiea and formed a line out the door during the school’s governing board meeting on Tuesday to air concerns about the school’s principal, the teaching qualifications of the staff, and issues surrounding communication and safety at the school.
“Kamalani has changed. It’s in a deeply understaffed crisis with no sense of structure or unity,” said Courtney Pascua, a Kamalani parent who pulled her child out of the school last week.
The K-8 charter school opened in Wahiawa in 2017 with an enrollment of 311 students and a curriculum plan that focused on melding arts and Hawaiian culture into standard school subjects. Civil Beat chronicled the school’s first year in the podcast series On Campus.
Kamalani’s founding principal resigned last summer, after a challenging first year that saw the loss of at least seven teachers and staff members — nearly half the staff — and low morale among those who remained. The school also struggled in its first year with teacher training and identifying the governing board’s role in the day-to-day operations of the school.
The school’s governing board named Kamalani’s former student services coordinator, Amanda Langston, as interim principal on July 2, and expressed confidence that staffing challenges would be resolved moving into the new school year.
But parents say 10 teachers and support staff have left Kamalani since Langston took the helm. Langston was unable to confirm the exact number of departures with Civil Beat, but said she thought it was lower.
Several parents and students at the meeting expressed support for the current administration, but the conversation quickly turned to testimony from one frustrated parent after another on issues ranging from a lack of communication about bullying to student injuries during school hours, and even a tearful apology from a teacher.
“Why is building trust with my student important, but building trust with me neglected?” said Kamalani parent Casey Schmidt.
Parents and teachers at the school also appear perplexed at the decline in the arts-integration curriculum and focus at the school. Last year, the school joined the prestigious Kennedy Center’s Partner in Education program that provides support and teacher training for school arts programs.
Rae Takemoto, an arts integration educator who founded Pomaika’i Elementary on Maui, helped build Kamalani’s vision for arts integration as a consultant. She retired this year, but is concerned that the school is not going through with its plans for arts integration professional development with the Kennedy Center teaching artists.
“Arts integration involves training teachers,” she said.
Kamalani founder Ku’uipo Laumatia said teachers at Kamalani are being given the proper amount of arts integration professional development through additional partnerships with Native Hawaiian teaching grants.
But the loss of the school’s arts integration curriculum coordinator, Patricia Massoth, was troubling to Takemoto and Kamalani parents. Kamalani replaced Massoth with a curriculum coordinator with no arts integration background.
Kamalani parent Desiree Rose said the school has repeatedly failed to inform parents of big changes at the school. The growing number of teachers with very little teaching experience or teaching certifications is also troubling to her. Though not unique to schools in Hawaii, several of Kamalani’s teachers have no teaching license or are on emergency hire contracts.
As a result, Rose is considering pulling her daughter from Kamalani and re-enrolling her at their old DOE school where the learning style was much more rigid.
“I’m asking myself, do I go back to that model where only the left brain is honored and developed, or do I stay and ride out the chaos at Kamalani,” she said in a text.
“I have hope that the school will iron out the problems and do what they set out to do,” she said. “It seemed like they have a really innovative vision and I want them to succeed, but they have to be held accountable.”
Some parents came to Tuesday’s meeting just to voice concerns about the principal’s lack of administrative experience. Langston has 10 years of teaching experience, but never worked as an administrator or principal before coming to Kamalani.
The governing board said in July that it was appointing Langston on an interim basis and would launch a search for a new principal, but never did.
Laumatia said that Langston’s accomplishments during her short time at Kamalani were incredible.
“We really support her,” she said.
But Laumatia acknowledged that communication from administration to the parents was still a problem the school is working to address.
“Are we done with that? Not by far,” she said. “We do realize it’s a work in progress.”
At the end of Tuesday’s meeting, the governing board unanimously approved Langston as permanent principal to shouts of dismay from the few parents who stuck around after public comment ended. “Is she even qualified?” Stephanie Safholm, a Kamalani parent said.
Steve Davidson, vice chair of the governing board, said he thinks many of the complaints against Langston are unfounded.
“If we didn’t appoint (Langston), half the people would be unhappy. You can’t please all the people all the time,” he said.
Davidson presented a lengthy document at the meeting detailing Langston’s achievements. “I wrote that statement. I truly believe it. The best person for the job, is on the job,” he said.
Langston, reached by phone while boarding a flight back to Oahu from an education conference in Nevada, said she thought the meeting went well, despite the many concerns aimed at her. “Everyone has a right to their own opinions,” she said.
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