Editor’s note: The Civil Beat Editorial Board and reporters spoke with Hawaii Department of Education Superintendent Christina Kishimoto via Zoom on Feb. 17. Here are some of the highlights from our interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.

Civil Beat: If you have any opening remarks, Dr. Kishimoto, we would welcome those.

Kishimoto: Thank you for your interest in having this conversation and continuing to cover what’s happening in our schools and what’s impacting kids and families.

I will start off by saying I don’t think it’s any surprise that this has been a very challenging period, if not the most challenging period I’ve had since coming to Hawaii. But as a superintendent, this is what we do. We deal with all the unknowns that hit us constantly. And sometimes they are short-lived; seldom are they as long-lived as this pandemic has been and will continue to be for a while, which really exacerbates kind of the situation and impact and how we lead here and (what we have) to deal with during this time period.

Hawaii DOE Superintendent Christina Kishimoto answers questions during a Civil Beat Editorial Board meeting via Zoom on Feb. 17. Screenshot

When I came in four years ago, there were a lot of meetings held as part of my interview process and as part of the first few days on the job. And without a doubt, the number one thing everyone talked about was the need to have empowerment of schools, to really innovate and do things differently, to really lead in this innovation space. And we have been in the past few years really focused on that school-based empowerment, making sure the schools have the resources they need, that they can authentically design, but that they can also uniquely kind of design so that you don’t have one size fits all in the public school system, which makes no sense.

All the research says you have to have the design for community schools belong to the community. You need to have student, teacher, parent, voices and so forth and that one demand from community has also been the most difficult part of my job.

And I think as we went into the pandemic, it became even more obvious that the demand for empowerment means different things to different people and that the demand for innovation also exists within a box.

And if you look at just the bills being introduced right now (at the Hawaii Legislature), very traditional — what to teach, where to teach, how to teach it. That’s not about innovation. Some of the legislators are the same folks that were demanding this innovation. If you look at how I spend my time between the Board of Education and the Legislature, in many ways it’s like having two boards of ed that I report to.

“I don’t think it’s any surprise that this has been a very challenging period.” — Christina Kishimoto

And so we have a governance structure that’s not quite empowering. And often it keeps me short of being able to truly empower schools to be able to design. We get questioned on everything from a hire to a curriculum to why we’re not all marching to the same drumbeat throughout the week.

And yet we know students are learning in urban centers and rural communities. Each community has some unique history. We have teachers that come in with this wealth of experience and they should be able to bring that to the classroom and so forth. And so I do think we’re at this important turning point and I’ve been talking to lots of folks about this important turning point; we either are going to wrap ourselves around coming out of this pandemic, really pushing into this innovation space and into this empowerment, or we’re going to remain  — we’re going to come out really going back to what’s the old normal and what I would consider a mediocre expectation of the department as part of that normal.

So I would say four years in that’s my number one thing. Do we really, as a state, want a great public school system for kids or are we very, very comfortable where we are right now? And I would say that there’s a lot of action that says we’re very comfortable where we are right now.

That sounds a little frustrating, just hearing you say you wish we were not so comfortable.

I think we should be very uncomfortable about where we are. I shared recently that we have 23,000 students, the majority of them in the middle grades, and the majority of them have never met grade-level expectations. And they’ve been part of the DOE for their education path. We own them. We own that lack of success. And we want to do the same thing with them. And we don’t want to talk about how we change education for them. So that means that we’re comfortable where we are. We are comfortable that some kids would do well, some kids won’t.

We’ve got to be really, really willing to say that’s not good enough and we’ve got to do it collectively.

Not too long after your hire, you went on a tour of the state. There are over 260 schools and multiple islands, varying terrain. Are you still trying to get on a plane, get your COVID-19 test first and then go to schools to see how things are going?

I don’t think it’s fair for me to be on a plane being in the space that really principals need to have full control of. And so, no, this year I’ve grounded myself. No travel. We’re doing everything digitally. We’re online. We can see each other. We can still work with one another. We have a lot of meetings all day long, all week long, staying connected with one another.

But the first three years that I was here, I hit almost every school with a visit. And what that allows me to do is see the things that are the same. There are consistencies. We are the Hawaii Department of Education and we’re a community that’s consistent on some things. And it also allows me to see all the differences. You know, if I’m in Pahoa, that’s very different from being here at Campbell High and in the Central District. Our schools have different access to resources and communities that voice in some different ways.

And that’s really important to me, because one thing you’ve heard me consistently say is that public schools belong to their communities, which is why a public school is impacted, whether it’s a volcano or whether it was on Kauai with the flooding that shuts down access to some of our schools.

We’ve been hearing a lot of national news stories about conflicts between unions and school districts about reopening. Can you talk to us a little bit about your relationship right now with the HSTA and whether or not their efforts are causing any sort of roadblocks for what you think should be happening with school reopening?

I don’t think that we’ve had roadblocks to reopening. We haven’t always agreed on all the steps or the timing and so forth.

There are other states that have real roadblocks. I mean, just look at the whole Chicago situation, all over the news and just not showing up to work. We don’t have labor organizations that are telling their employees, “Don’t show up to work.”

What we have is we don’t agree with you on this or we agree with you on that. And I think that that’s important. And I think that’s been very helpful. I don’t think we all need to agree all the time, but we do need to be willing to make sure that students are first, that schools are open, that we’re paying attention to what’s happening with kids.

Again, the concern about kids being home alone, the concern about kids being isolated, kids who are saying they feel sad more often. We have all this data and we keep trying to lead the conversations by having the data front and center to have these conversations.

To pivot from that a little bit, to hear you talk at the beginning about sort of these barriers to innovation and being comfortable with the way public education is in the state. What do you see, as we come out of this pandemic, as the real barrier to a turning point? What will let the school system move in a direction that you think is really going to be in a positive direction?

That’s a great question. I think if we look exactly the same as when we closed down back in March, then we should be asking ourselves some questions about why we’re not using what we learned during this time period.

One thing that’s come out of this from the positive perspective is that prior to the pandemic, this question about whether we could do blended or distance learning at some scale was a hard conversation to have. Is that something that you negotiate in the contract? And does that change teacher time? Does that change how much training we need?

Well, we were forced into the situation of using and leveraging technology that already exists to try to figure out how we educate during the pandemic. And I think it’s just forced us to go into areas that we may not have been comfortable with. And to say we can do this, especially if we’re planning, we have more planning time.

Kapolei Middle School, cafeteria, DOE
The pandemic forced the DOE to adjust how students are taught. Suevon Lee/Civil Beat/2020

We can put in place the training and we can start thinking differently about how we teach, where kids learn, what the school day looks like, that we start to think about the classroom beyond just the walls of the classroom. There’s been a desire to do that. Now we have lots of additional tools to start thinking differently about it. So that’s certainly one.

The other is even the conversation around teleworking and how do we run this organization in a way that there are certain jobs within the DOE because our jobs are not just teachers. We have engineers and we have electricians and we have financial experts and we have our experts. Can we hire someone from anywhere in Hawaii? And they have their choice of where they’re going to live. We often talk about being Oahu-centric, but can we think differently about where our workforce is, which allows for, again, attracting and retaining talent here in Hawaii by providing this flexibility in our workforce design?

So I think there’s a lot of things that have come out of this pandemic that has allowed us to think differently about the work, the business side of the house, as well as the education, teaching and learning structure of our work.

This goes to infrastructure and to broadband. There are many households in Hawaii that don’t have internet capabilities and so forth. These are the kinds of things that are going to have to come into play in order to move in that direction — more telework, more remote engagement.

Yeah, absolutely. From the moment we shut down, we were trying to figure out how to break apart and make sure those laptops have cameras and do homes have enough bandwidth.

And we started out with more parents saying, “Yes, we’re OK, we got this.” And then as they started to have multiple folks doing video streaming say, “No, we don’t have this, we don’t have enough bandwidth, we don’t know what to do. We’re interrupting each other’s work.”

“One thing you’ve heard me consistently say is that public schools belong to their communities.” — Christina Kishimoto

So I think there’s this opportunity for the state to think about how it provides equity of access through technology. And one of the examples I often give is not just in instruction. What really hit home quickly was when I was asked by several legislators in a very, very early COVID hearing, “By the way, all these devices you’re handing out to kids, can mom and dad and auntie use it for telehealth because they’re afraid to get to hospitals?” Right. Or to the doctors and we don’t want them not to go to their appointments. And I said we’re not monitoring other than the safety side of it, whether they’re using it for something positive.

But at the same time, that’s not a question for me. That’s a question for you, Legislature. What is our vision in the state? And so there’s been a broadband hui that’s been meeting and that’s great.

I think it goes even beyond education — it is an equity issue for health care, for even being able to check in with whoever’s home. It’s an equity issue for us. When we did the parent help desk, we had to work with a partner to hire on the help desk folks who spoke different languages and had the technical knowledge to be able to use in those other home languages. And we needed also individuals who knew how to work with a kupuna, someone in that age group who’s home with their grandchild and hasn’t used technology. And now they’re the ones trying to solve this.

So we’ve all had to learn and grow very quickly and learn how to do our school work differently. That’s a good thing for modernizing and advancing Hawaii.

Speaking of the Legislature, some of the proposals you’ve seen are kind of mundane and not innovative. What kind of things would you like to see the Legislature do?

I would say on an annual basis there are more bills I want to stop than I want to support. We have over 600 bills that touch education. We don’t need 600 bills every year.

What we don’t want is we don’t want the Legislature legislating work that belongs at the Board of Education level — what to teach, how to teach, when to teach it. That really by statute belongs at the Board of Ed level.

We also don’t need to put in statute work that’s already happening, especially when it’s related to the core work of a coalition of the Board of Education.

We have a couple of bills that we are certainly supporting. Our number one bill is the maintenance of effort bill that’s been introduced both on the House and the Senate side. That’s a bill that says there needs to be stability and predictability in the base budget for the department. And year over year, we can’t have these ups and downs. It’s very destabilizing. We think it’s a great bill. Technically, it probably has some things that someone from the legal perspective has to clean up, and that’s fine. But it’s a sound bill and it’s a great complement to the weighted student formula statute that says we have to have equity and funding now.

“We don’t need 600 (education) bills every year at the Legislature.” — Christina Kishimoto

And on (Feb. 12), there was a press conference and (Tuesday) I get to testify about it on the House side, a requirement to use federal funding for positions. Well, I’m in opposition of that.

Funding for positions should come from, again, that base guaranteed funding that stabilizes the district. If you’re going to ask us to use one-time funding, then I’m going to have concerns with that, because it means that by the fall, not even a year from now, several months from now, I’m going to be back at the seat with legislators, saying, “Hey, by the way, are you going to backfill now with permanent funding?” So it’s bad practice to use temporary funding to do this.

Now, that being said, you know, if at the end of the session we can’t figure out how to fund our base budget, then we’re going to have to go back to that federal funding. But that should be a last resort.

The Board of Education is in charge of hiring you and evaluating you. During the pandemic, we have noticed that the dynamic has shifted a little bit between the board and you and your interactions during these very long meetings that happen monthly. Can you comment on just sort of that shifting dynamic between you and the board?

Yes, you notice a change in the dynamic, but so have I. So I would not say that I think it is an ideal dynamic. But I do think it is a reflection of (the fact that) we are in a very difficult situation. We’re trying to educate in a way we’re not designed for and doing distance (learning).

We’re trying to figure out how to pay bills, basic bills to run the organization. We’re trying to figure out how to get ready for summer school and learning beyond this year and how we get successfully through this pandemic with kids getting the kind of support they need. And I don’t think there’s anything easy about this decision-making. And I think everyone needs to shift how decisions are made, how we’re engaging. I think it’s been especially difficult for me that items are introduced at the board level and there’s been a change where I can’t introduce the item.

So I’m getting feedback from communities saying we don’t like what the superintendent is doing and they haven’t even had a chance to hear from me on an item. I think that is problematic. There are things that happen that have to happen logistically, but also legally. I have a fiduciary responsibility as a superintendent and so does the board. And there are things I have to present to the Board of Ed that may not be popular and may not even be what I want to do, but I have to do it because they have to make the decision and they have to have the hard discussions.

A lot of parents are taking their kids out of the schools, going to home schooling, going to private school or some other education pathway. How do you make public education viable and attractive? Is it possible after the pandemic you’ll get those students back?

I do think we’re going to get the majority of students back. Our data doesn’t look any different than every other state’s data that the trend is, especially pre-K families with the youngest kids, opting out because they’re working at home or they have grandparents at home to leave the youngest ones at home. They feel safer.

And so we’re seeing the big drop in kindergarten. And pre-K has been impacted tremendously. We don’t have a good read on that yet because we don’t have universal pre-K here. But certainly in kindergarten and the trends that we’ve seen where families have kids in the public school system through middle school, and then they’re going and opting for a private high school, for example, that’s trending the same way. So our data doesn’t look alarming from that perspective. That doesn’t look any different than the other COVID-19 impacts that we’re seeing across the nation.

We also have families who wanted only distance learning who are now saying we want to be back on campus. I’m more concerned about those that we need to catch and make sure that they are being educated somewhere. So in answer to your question, I’m less worried about where they’re being educated than that they’re being educated right now. And that they have adults who know them and are connected with that family or with that child.

Dr. Kishimoto, you talked in the beginning about how you would be disappointed if we return to schools the same way that they were in the past. Let’s say it’s August and September. The vaccines have been proliferating and kids are back in school. How is it different? Can you be a little bit more specific about your vision?

Well, I don’t want it to seem as if what we’re doing all needs to be replaced. That’s not true. We have some great models and designs. And so we want those things to continue. But where we see work that is not producing the outcomes that we would want to see, I expect that we’re going to work differently.

I’ll go back to the example I gave earlier, the example about the group of 23,000 students that we know they’re getting instruction from a highly qualified teacher. They’re getting wraparound services. And so their school day looks like everyone else’s, but it doesn’t work for them. If we’re not doing something different for that group of students, I would be very disappointed because we know what the trajectory is if we don’t mitigate that lack of access to learning.

And there are lots of reasons. It’s not just academic, it’s support for the families, it’s connectivity for families. It’s the empowerment of that young person to feel that they really can succeed and can do something different. It may be getting them onto college campuses and seeing that this is a place for them, getting them internships. We’ve got to make sure we are designing differently in the areas where it’s not working.

Is there a final point you’d like to make?

I would just say that it’s about a collective and also about a willingness to be at the table together. I hope that the politics of this time period, which we can’t avoid, doesn’t drown out the collective work. We have to do a little more, quietly at the table, together with our sleeves rolled up saying, what are the most important things we have to solve right now and let’s figure it out. And so I’ll end with that, because I think that’s the harder work.

I think trying to drown each other out with political statements or one-up on one another, it’s really easy to do. But I’m not here about the easy work. I want to get to the harder work. And we have some things we have to solve.

Dr. Christina Kishimoto, Civil Beat thanks you for joining us and thank you to your staff as well. We look forward to chatting with you again.

Appreciate the conversation today. Take care. Aloha.

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