Editor’s Note: This is part of an ongoing series examining the challenges of recruiting and retaining teachers in Hawaii.

Each year, the largest percentage of new teacher hires in Hawaii — nearly 25% — are sent to schools on the Leeward Coast of Oahu, an area with a high concentration of Native Hawaiian, homeless and disadvantaged students.

Many, if not most, teachers are from the mainland. Meanwhile, the percentage of new hires from in-state teacher preparation programs has been steadily declining, from 38% in the 2013-14 school year, to just 28% of new hires by 2017-18, according to Hawaii Department of Education employment data.

Enough, say education advocates on the west side. They have seen the trend of new teachers cycling in and out of their area for too long. That’s what drove them to apply for a federal workforce development grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

The Title III grant, which was for a five-year period, funds what’s known as the West Oahu Education pathway, which seeks to cultivate an interest in education careers from a young age, particularly among Native Hawaiian students and students from local communities.

University of Hawaii West Oahu campus graduation sign.
A couple of dozen UH West Oahu education graduates each year become Hawaii public school teachers. The number of prospective teachers coming out of college programs nationwide has been declining. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“It’s a constant problem, the teacher shortage,” said Camille Hampton, the project director. “There hasn’t been one solution that’s worked really well. I think we’re just scratching the surface with this program.”

Reaching Out In High Schools

The West Oahu Education pathway, which receives $850,000 in annual funding, is aimed at giving high school juniors and seniors in Leeward coast schools a taste of what it’s like to be a teacher.

Through these teaching and learning academies, students may enroll in the Early College program at their schools to take dual-credit courses at Leeward Community College or the University of Hawaii West Oahu, work with mentor teachers and visit different K-12 classrooms. The program uses a “culture-based framework” that promotes the tenets of Na Hopena A’o, or a strengthened sense of belonging, responsibility, excellence, aloha and total well-being.

“Even though I’m not going into the education field right away, it’s still taught me so many different things I can apply to my career now, like social skills. It just opened my way to so many different things about where I live,” said Jada Jones, 18, a Waianae High senior who was part of the academy.

She plans to move to South Korea after school to study fashion business management at a Fashion Institute of Technology satellite campus.

Waianae High School student, Jada Jones screen prints paint onto a ‘kihei’ fabric to be used in an upcoming graduation ceremony. Left, Tatiana Hamilton looks on.
Waianae High School senior Jada Jones, who took part in the school’s teaching academy, applies prints and paint on a “kihei” draping for a graduation ceremony. At left is Tatiana Hamilton, another academy student. 

The teaching academy program on the west side is currently offered at Waianae, Campbell and Kapolei high schools. There have been about 50 program participants in total so farAbout half the students in the academy’s first class who didn’t initially see themselves as educators plan to pursue this field of study, said Hampton.

“Ideally the goal was to have students from within the community find some kind of connection through education, to inspire them to become educators, connect them to feeder schools so they have those relationships,” she said.

The grant will sunset in September. Hampton said program organizers are “actively trying to find private funders” to keep the education pathway afloat.

So-called teacher academies are new on the Leeward coast but they’ve long been a fixture in other Hawaii schools, particularly closer to denser population centers. At Farrington High, students develop and prepare lessons plans in the local elementary schools and learn about various educational methodologies.

The state DOE’s five-year teacher recruitment and retention plan to tackle the state’s teacher shortage crisis pinpoints such teacher academies as a vital part of increasing local teacher capacity.

“When we grow our own and as we invest in those young students and they already want to stay here, that helps us a lot,” said Cindy Covell, the DOE assistant superintendent in the Office of Talent Management.

Can Interest In Teaching Be Revived?

On a recent afternoon at the renovated Naulu Center, a student lounge on the UH West Oahu campus, soon-to-graduate seniors from Waianae High were putting finishing touches on their kihei, a type of cloak imprinted with symbolic markings to wear at graduation.

The significance of the kihei, said their advisor, Kainoa Nahulu, is to represent the transition from one phase in life to another.

Nahulu, 30, a graduate of local public schools, is coordinator of the Pueo Scholars Program, a type of “summer bridge” program for incoming freshmen. He said he’s seen big changes in his students who’ve gone through the academy, from an increased level of confidence to a better understanding of their community.

Nahulu said many of the area high schoolers he works with feel disparaged by the high rate of teacher turnover at their schools, leaving them with little security or sense of appreciation.

Kainoa Nahulu Pueo Scholars Program Coordinator.
Kainoa Nahulu, the UH West Oahu Pueo Scholars program coordinator, said he’s noticed a positive impact on students attending a program that seeks to cultivate an interest in educational careers among high schoolers. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“If they can figure out what I figured out later in life sooner, then they can begin to teach in a way that is conducive and will be contagious to those who see them teach,” Nahulu said.

Jones’ classmate, Tatiana Hamilton, 17, intends to go to UH West Oahu after high school and earn her bachelor’s degree in secondary education. She hopes to one day teach Hawaiian language.

“You don’t see that many teachers from the community where they understand the culture that we have,” she said.

The number of in-state Hawaii education graduates entering the DOE is modest: In 2017-18, the University of Hawaii Manoa, the largest in-state campus, graduated 187 students who went on to become public school teachers. By comparison, the school graduated 243 future teachers four years earlier.

UH West Oahu has never sent more than a couple dozen of its graduates into DOE schools in any year during that same time frame.

Enrollment in teacher preparation programs is on the decline around the U.S., with about 23% fewer people going through such programs from the 2007-08 to the 2015-16 school years.

But that doesn’t dilute the level of commitment other young people have toward a career in education.

Mark Kauanui, a recent graduate of UH West Oahu’s secondary education program, spent the past year student-teaching at Farrington High.

The first in his family to graduate from college, the Kamehameha Schools graduate said he was first turned onto the profession from a 10th grade English teacher.

Student Teacher Mark Kauanui teaches at Farrington High School.
Farrington High School student teacher Mark Kauanui is a recent graduate of UH West Oahu’s secondary education program. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“You don’t need to give back to the same place where you started,” he said, when asked why he wanted to teach in public schools. “If I’m able to pour my knowledge in these students, they’ll be inspired to give back.”

During a recent morning at Farrington High, Kauanui paced the classroom as his 10th grade English class sat clustered in groups to work on exercises around the elements of persuasive writing: logos, pathos and ethos.

When one student playfully groaned about how challenging the exercise was, Kananui, not skipping a beat, responded, “I know it’s hard. School’s not meant to be easy.”

He told his students he expects no “donuts” — a reference to a grade of zero.

Kauanui, a natural in the class environment who has a self-described “tough love” demeanor, said he tries to see his kids not just as students, but as people with real interests and opinions. To establish some level of comfort, he’ll ask them what kind of music they listen to, what television shows they watch.

“And if I find out they don’t like ‘Star Wars,’ I kick them out of class,” he jokes.

The regular classroom teacher, Carlee Kim, was also born and raised in Hawaii and attended the Maryknoll School, a private, Catholic K-12 school.

“I had heard Farrington was the hidden gem of the island,” she said, on why she wanted to teach at that school. “It took me very little time to realize my experience in Hawaii is very different from (my students’) experience in Hawaii.”

Teachers As Advocates

The Hawaii State Teachers Association, which represents the islands’ 13,700 educators, has been holding a yearly spring workshop for the last decade as a way of supporting future teachers, like providing practical advice and tips from principals and an opportunity for networking.

The idea is for education majors or soon-to-be graduates to come out of the workshop “a little more prepared for the classroom,” said Jonathan Leibowitz, the HSTA liaison who helped coordinate the event.

“People want to be able to have a space to talk honestly and openly about themselves,” he said.

One overcast Saturday in April, dozens of education majors hoping to springboard into a public school teaching role convened at McKinley High School for this year’s workshop.

They learned about how the DOE teacher pay scale moves along in “steps” and how to jump to a new classification to improve salary. They heard from first-year teachers and talked story with a trio of high school school principals in an informal setting where the tone was light.

Don’t interview at a school unless you’re actually interested in that school, advised Mililani High principal Fred Murphy.

Put a working phone number and email address on your resume and be well-groomed during an interview, advised McKinley High principal Ron Okamura.

When the conversation turned to mainland recruitment and high teacher turnover, Murphy offered his view on the issue.

“Hawaii is a very different place. You have to know who you are before you travel to the most geographically isolated place in the Pacific,” the veteran principal said.

State Rep. Amy Perruso, who also teaches history in high school, addresses future educators at an HSTA-organized April workshop. She told them that teachers now have to also be advocates for the profession. Suevon Lee/Civil Beat

The HSTA workshop participants also attended sessions on the school to prison pipeline and inclusion settings for special education students and learned about funding their classrooms through websites like DonorsChoose.org.

The day started with a keynote address by Amy Perruso, a veteran high school history teacher, former HSTA vice-president and state representative representing Wahiawa, who just wrapped up her first legislative session.

Standing at the front of McKinley’s auditorium, Perruso encouraged the future teachers to invite legislators into their classrooms to see what actual learning looks like, saying that “can have a ripple effect” as far as shaping strong legislation for education.

She said teaching is no longer “a protected profession,” in that teachers now carry the added lift of being the strongest advocates for the profession.

“I don’t think we can afford to not be political,” she said. “I can go back to the classroom when I achieve some of the objectives that we set out with in terms of public school funding, respect and honoring public school teachers and changing the system to be a little more democratic.”

She offered insight into her own trajectory to becoming an educator, describing that role as a lifelong pursuit.

“I was meant to spend my life in the classroom,” she said. “I am a civics educator. That’s who I am. That is my identity.”

This story was produced with support from the Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowship program.

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