When Dale Arakaki arrived at Pauoa Elementary eight years ago to serve as school principal, he was taken aback by the number of families requesting geographic exemption transfers to different elementary schools in the same Honolulu district.

They were decamping to historically high-achieving schools like Manoa Elementary or Maemae Elementary, located in more affluent areas serving students in higher socioeconomic brackets.

Pauoa Elementary, located in the Pauoa Valley which covers part of Papakolea, the Native Hawaiian homestead, is a Title I school, meaning many students are low-income and qualify for free and reduced lunch. A third of students are Native Hawaiian.

When Arakaki surveyed the parents on why they preferred the other schools over Pauoa, they’d say, “They’re doing well,” referring to student assessments.

“I told my staff, ‘We need to turn this around academically,’” Arakaki said.

And they did.

A student in Pauoa Elementary School 3rd grade Teacher Kristin Tatemichi class raises their hand during a lesson.
At Pauoa Elementary, located in Pauoa Valley, more than half of students qualify for free or reduced lunch and one-third of the student body is Native Hawaiian. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

By 2016, Pauoa saw students’ language arts proficiency on the Smarter Balanced Assessment soar 22 percentage points, from 56% the year before to 78%, compared to the statewide average of 53%.

In math, the gains were even more remarkable, catapulting from 47% to 72%, compared to 42% statewide.

That year wasn’t a fluke. Over the next several years, Pauoa would see its math and language arts proficiency scores remain consistently high, even reaching into the 80th percentile, whereas the state average flatlined at 50% or below.

By 2018, Pauoa Elementary had caught the attention of national education officials, earning a prestigious National Blue Ribbon School distinction, bestowed upon schools that demonstrate a high degree of academic excellence or success in closing the achievement gap.

Families aren’t leaving anymore, Arakaki says.

“The culture is very positive, so there’s a lot of trust,” he said last week. “That’s one of our core values — trust.”

After the pandemic hit, Pauoa, like other schools, struggled to maintain its equilibrium. But the strengths it had cultivated set it up to weather the storm.

At other schools, performance had flagged even before the pandemic. And the disruptions caused by the health emergency sent them reeling, leading to recriminations and soul-searching among educators and advocates.

The 2021 SBA results showed an alarming decline in math, language arts and science proficiency compared with 2019, particularly among Pacific Islander students, including Micronesians and Native Hawaiians.

“The impacts of Covid on student achievement in Hawaii are similar to impacts across the U.S.,” said Lorrie Shepard, a professor in the School of Education at the University of Colorado Boulder who researches assessments. “Student groups that have been denied learning opportunities in the past were also disproportionately affected by Covid closures, (such as) lack of access to the internet.”

Interim Superintendent Keith Hayashi said at an Oct. 21 Board of Education meeting that schools “stand ready to do what it takes to ensure our students get back on track and succeed,” by relying on tutoring, academic coaching, out-of-school supports and specialized instruction.

But some were not satisfied by that answer.

“We are not sure of what the goal is,” said Cheri Nakamura, head of the He’e Coalition, a nonprofit that includes education stakeholders in Hawaii. “Is it to get students back to pre-pandemic levels by the end of the year? Is there a short-term and a long-term goal? What groups of students are we looking at?”

Board of Education member Shanty Asher urged officials to consider the inequities and disparities that have long existed for student subgroups like Pacific Islanders, specifically Micronesian students, and really examine what supports need to be offered.

“For the socioeconomic status of this particular group of Pacific Islanders, they have been marginalized before and it just got worse during the pandemic,” she said.

Students work with plastic barriers in Pauoa Elementary School 5th grade Teacher Jeanne Oliveira’s classroom during the Covid-19 pandemic. October 28, 2021
Though Pauoa Elementary, like other DOE schools, saw declines in SBA scores during the pandemic, students’ performance in phonics rose by a few percentage points in 2021 compared with 2019. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The pre-pandemic upward trajectory of Pauoa Elementary, with its underdog status and share of low-income children, may have given it the momentum to keep succeeding despite the setbacks.

Pauoa, like most other DOE schools, was not immune to declines in student proficiency in core subjects of math, reading and science on the annual test, which is given to Hawaii students in grade 3-8 and 11. But because its scores were high to begin with, the lower numbers still far surpassed the state average — nearly twice as high in the case of math.

And the school, which enrolls 357 kids, didn’t experience only academic setbacks in the midst of the pandemic. Students’ performance in phonics actually rose by a few percentage points in 2021 compared with 2019, a testament to the long-term efforts that are now paying off.

Just before the pandemic, in 2019, the DOE acknowledged the school’s success during a special all-day meeting to discuss the achievement gap, along with other low-socioeconomic but high-achieving schools like Laie Elementary and Kalihi Uka Elementary.

Pauoa relies heavily on data collection, small group instruction, and an “action plan” for each student that lays out goals for the year and identifies their strengths and weaknesses.

Pauoa Elementary School Principal Dale Arakaki.
Pauoa Elementary School Principal Dale Arakaki. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

“It’s almost like an individualized IEP for each student,” Arakaki says, referring to the individual education program developed for students with special needs that is the blueprint of the services they need to receive a free, appropriate public education.

Arakaki said he has shared presentations and had other schools and complex areas reach out since that time but it’s not clear if the DOE is broadening its approach to encourage similar practices.

The arc of Pauoa Elementary demonstrates that with a few core strategies, even a historically challenged school can turn things around.

Regaining What Was Lost In Online Teaching

On a recent Thursday morning, 18 students, most of them donning school-themed red T-shirts for the school “Spirit Week,” sat in Kristin Tatemichi’s third grade classroom, learning new words by discussing their meaning through “context clues” in a sentence.

She read students a passage that included the word “comfort.” “What do you think ‘comfort’ means?” the teacher asked the students. “When you’re sick, what kinds of comforts might your parents provide?”

As Tatemichi walked around the class with an iPad in her hand, the students’ hands shot eagerly up in the air.

The answers came in a steady stream: “medicine,” “soup,” “saimin.”

Pauoa Elementary School 3rd grade teacher Kristin Tatemichi works with her students during class.
Pauoa Elementary School 3rd grade teacher Kristin Tatemichi works with her students during class. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

All wearing masks, the third-graders appeared comfortable and engaged with the discussion, occasionally breaking into pairs to discuss the question before a three-clap rhythm from the teacher snapped their attention back to the full class.

“Those are the things that got lost online,” Arakaki observed of student engagement. “It’s really difficult to replicate that online.”

Arakaki, who came to Pauoa from Waipahu Elementary, a school with a high concentration of English learners and large Micronesian student body, said while the demographics of Pauoa are different, his kids face similar challenges like low socioeconomic status and lack of out-of-school opportunities that can better equip students for traditional schooling.

“DOE schools do not have a level playing field like most private schools do,” he pointed out. “In a Title I school, the playing field is even more uneven compared to non-Title I schools.”

So his school tries to foster an inclusive culture.

“The diversity in this community, it brings such a richness to the school,” said fifth grade teacher Jeanne Oliveira, who’s worked at Pauoa Elementary since 2004. “We talk a lot about our different origins and ethnicities.”

There are a growing number of Chinese students who are English learners. One third of students are Native Hawaiian and the school had many Marshallese students in the recent past.

Pauoa Elementary School 5th grade Teacher Jeanne Oliveira gestures while teaching her lesson.
Pauoa Elementary fifth grade teacher Jeanne Oliveira said the diversity of the student body “brings such a richness to the school.” Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Even the kids seemed happy to be at school.

“It’s fun,” 11-year-old Jaren Arcano, a fifth grader, said of being back in class after remote learning. “Everyone here and all of my classmates are very cooperative.”

Of the Smarter Balanced Assessments, Arakaki reflects like the veteran principal that he is, acknowledging what he can’t control and what he can.

“It’s just a number,” he said. “It’s added pressure, yes, but it’s what the DOE is measuring and I can’t change that. So I have to conform and meet that,” he said.

“I can’t fight what I can’t control, but what I can control is my students’ learning and the instruction my teachers provide in the classroom. Once that whole positive culture is set, then yes, you have intentional teaching.”

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