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Editor’s Note: This story is part of an ongoing series examining the challenges Hawaii faces recruiting and retaining teachers.
HOOLEHUA, Molokai — Molokai High School is not where one might expect to find a largely stable teaching community.
The school, enrollment 315, reflects many of the same characteristics that contribute to high teacher turnover elsewhere around the island chain: a remote location, little to do by way of recreation, a high-needs population where nearly 70% of the student body qualifies for free or reduced lunch.
Yet the school defies that trend. Of its 24 teachers, 17, or 71% of the staff, have taught at the school five years or longer as of 2018. The state’s average retention rate is 51%. All but one of the high school’s teaching staff was licensed in 2017-18.
Principal Katina Soares, when asked what she looks for in a new teacher hire, responds, “Someone that can relate to tough kids and people who like rural locations.”
“You have to like the outdoors, because the things there are to do are hunting, fishing and going to the beach,” she said.
And then there’s this: The high school has managed to keep many of its teachers for longer than average because many of them were born and raised here.
Stroll through the campus on any given day and it will be difficult to run into a staff member who is not a graduate of the school.
That’s the case with English teacher Karen Harada, class of 1972; Hawaiian language immersion teacher Gandharva Mahina Hou Ross, class of 1991; and vice-principal Kainoa Pali, class of 1994. They have served at the school for three decades, two decades, and nearly a decade, respectively.
And it’s largely true of Soares, who attended the high school until she left in the 11th grade and obtained her high school equivalency degree in 1995.
“It was really rough here when I was growing up, lots of fighting,” she said. “When I came back, that was my goal, to make this school better.
“We’ve always struggled with academics but the research shows if the school climate is good, the academics will follow.”
A positive school climate, research also shows, often begins with a stable teacher force.
Like many other states, Hawaii struggles with a teacher shortage. The revolving door disproportionately impacts schools on the neighbor islands, in remote, rural areas and multi-level schools, a Civil Beat analysis shows.
Why it matters to see the same teacher on campus is relayed in students’ own words.
“It makes it easier to be open,” said 10th-grade Molokai High student Dylan Coelho-Kelekolio.
“Like mister, I’ve had him for two years,” he said, gesturing toward his teacher, Richard Ornellas, during a recent morning in his classroom.
Ornellas, an 11-year veteran teacher at the school who teaches AVID, an elective college preparation course that begins in ninth grade, was leading the class in a discussion around the idea of how they might respond in a pressure-filled situation. Would they “fight or freeze?”
His students sat rapt with attention as Ornellas relayed a personal story of getting accosted by a knife-wielding thief in New York years ago and how he chose to respond.
“These students eventually are going to graduate, and they’re going to have to face life,” the teacher said. “And so we want to work with them on what possible choices there are.”
And the choices on their island are limited.
Thanks in part to a streak of fierce independence, Molokai, whose total population is around 8,000, has been untouched by the kind of rapid development that has reached Oahu, Maui, Kauai and parts of the Big Island.
Jobs can be scarce and lifestyles are more subsistence-based.
For post-secondary education, there is Molokai Education Center, part of the University of Hawaii Maui College that offers a two-year degree and admits roughly 14 to 16 new students each year from the area high school.
Because of the island’s scarce resources, many K-12 students aren’t exposed to the same opportunities as their counterparts around the state. Or, accessing them requires extra effort.
Athletics at the high school level requires off-island travel. Some students have to commute long distances to reach the school because it’s the only Department of Education high school in the 38-mile-long island. Teachers may not find professional development opportunities so conveniently within reach.
Nevertheless, Molokai High students say they aspire to the same kinds of things as peers in their age group: avenues like the military, a career in law enforcement, marine biology or psychology.
A Native Hawaiian teacher for whom education is his fourth career, Ornellas is helping pave that way. He mirrors the culture of many of the students in his classroom. Molokai High is almost 80% Native Hawaiian.
Ornellas, whose parents were Hawaiian homesteaders, grew up a mile away from the school, during a time when pineapple fields still dotted the landscape. He recalls the days of his youth when he’d spend all day on his bicycle, riding around with friends.
“We could just take fresh pineapple, bang it on the dirt, eat it if we were hungry or thirsty,” he said.
Education, he said, is a chance to connect with the generations after his.
“This is the time to give back to the community that raised me,” Ornellas said.
While Molokai High has academic challenges — only 15% of students were proficient in math and 49% of students proficient in language arts as of 2018 — 80% of all seniors graduate and the school’s college-going rate of 54% is on par with the state average.
The school’s greatest challenge, according to principal Soares, is some students’ lack of motivation regarding why school matters. Administrators try to steer the students in a promising direction while being mindful of their ties to their community, she said.
“It’s a careful balance of staying here and giving back, but also going out and learning some new things to bring back. Because if you stay, there’s very limited opportunities,” she said. “So we want students to go but we want students to come back.”
Enrollment is just a third of what it is was two decades ago when the school served grades seven to 12. The decrease is partly due to families leaving the island for economic opportunities elsewhere.
But that’s created a silver lining in one respect: It’s filled with several teachers who’ve found DOE work stable and also want to contribute to the community in which they grew up.
“This is the time to give back to the community that raised me,” Richard Ornellas, Molokai High School teacher
They include Karen Harada, a 35-year veteran of the school who is such a long-time fixture, she has taught not only her former kids’ children but now their grandkids. She said that longevity has translated into a familiarity that makes students more motivated to pay attention — or understand that “perhaps they need to behave a little better,” she said.
“It makes it easy to relate to who they are,” Harada, 69, said. With her new students, for instance, she’ll ask, “’Who are your people? Do you have family here?’ It creates that connection.”
“My philosophy is, if my students can get out of here being able to write, speak and read and learn basic responsibilities like coming to school on time and being ready to learn, then that’s pretty much my whole job,” she said.
Molokai, in addition to Hana, Lahainaluna and Lanai complexes, is part of the Maui District. It’s also known as the Canoe Complex since it’s the only district stretching across three islands. Teacher retention for the most part remains challenging in these remote areas.
Lanai High and Elementary, the only DOE school on the island of Lanai, saw only 39% of its 44 teachers staying five years or more, while 16% of its staff was emergency hires, in 2017-18.
Education leaders in Hawaii often point out the needs of each complex area are unique to that community. Since taking over leadership of the state public school system in August 2017, Superintendent Christina Kishimoto has emphasized the importance of “school design,” the deliberate shaping of a curriculum to consider student voice, community engagement, area economic development opportunities and innovation.
Gandharva Mahina Hou Ross, the Hawaiian language immersion teacher at Molokai High, said it’s vital certain teachings are passed down to the students in keeping with the region’s unique attributes.
A 1991 Molokai High graduate, Ross started out teaching physical education and agriculture part-time at Molokai High in 1999. He went on to earn his Hawaiian language immersion teaching certification from UH Hilo in 2000. He eventually earned his master’s degree from the same place in indigenous language and cultural education in 2010, with a focus on place-based science, such as subsistence fishing.
There were 32 students enrolled in the Hawaiian language immersion program this school year.
At the program’s graduation ceremony last week, about 200 people gathered on the school’s lawn. They shared food prepared by the students themselves: poi pounded from kalo that was planted at the beginning of the school year and black crab caught from the waters just several days prior.
“For Molokai, that’s one of our important lifestyle things,” Ross said, as a group of his students practiced the hula in his classroom in preparation for the end-of-year ceremony. “A lot of our food doesn’t come from the store, it comes from the mountain, the ocean.”
“It’s really important we pass on those traditions and practices to the school system and also connect to the modern, outside world with the standards we need to meet,” he said.
He noted that there is a gradual shift in the state in which Hawaiian-based cultural education is spilling over into the DOE mainstream, citing Na Hopena A’o, a framework adapted by the DOE to emphasize learning rooted in Hawaii’s culture, history and language.
When he was a student, many of his teachers came from out of state and didn’t stay more than a year. Asked what it will take for more teachers like him to be retained, he paused.
“I think a big part of it might be changing the assessments to more reflect the way that kids learn,” he said. “Right now, all our schools are judged and assessed on a test that’s written by someone from Washington or wherever, it’s really not a Hawaii-based test at all. That’s the world we live in.”
This story was produced with support from the Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowship program.
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