Hawaii’s public school system has a communication problem. At recent community meetings across the state, parents and teachers have said they often don’t know who to go to with complaints. And, when they try, they run up against a steep chain of command and responses are few and far between.

“We want to have a voice and we want to be part of the solutions, and I feel like the DOE could be better at communication and inclusion,” said Andrea Dias-Machado, whose son goes to a Hawaiian immersion school in Pearl City.

The meetings are part of a Board of Education effort to gather community input as it drafts a new strategic plan for public education in Hawaii.

Input was sought for previous plans, but nonprofit leaders and educators say  engagement efforts were lukewarm and lacked follow-through. This time around, turnout has been high and leadership seems to be listening, said Cheri Nakamura, director of HEʻE — Hui for Excellence in Education.

BOE member Makana McClellan talks at a community meeting at Ewa Makai Middle School. The BOE has scheduled 15 such meetings as part of the strategic planning process. Viola Gaskell/Civil Beat/2022

“I think the outreach is more extensive, and I think the intent is sincere,” she said. 

The Department of Education has been without a strategic plan for two years, and the new plan will set the vision and goals for public education in Hawaii as schools find their way forward after the disruptions of the pandemic. 

Stakeholders have voiced concerns over a lack of inclusivity and transparency from the DOE, low pay in schools and persistent staffing shortages — all of which they say ultimately affects learning and wellbeing in schools. 

At another meeting, Bradley DeCastro, whose son attends Kalakaua Middle School, said communication with parents often comes at the last minute, is vague and filled with unfamiliar acronyms. 

“Parents are calling parents trying to figure out what is going on — it’s like a game of telephone,” DeCastro said. 

An Overdue Plan

The new plan will influence financial and academic blueprints for all schools in the state for the next three to five years. 

Hawaii’s strategic plans typically span three years, but in 2020, when the previous plan expired, then-Superintendent Christina Kishimoto presented a 10-year plan that was overly complicated, according to BOE member Kili Namauʻu. 

Kishimoto’s 2030 Promise Plan was never approved by the board.

Before 2010, the BOE and the DOE created their own separate plans. Then voters approved a ballot measure that said BOE members would be appointed rather than elected and directed the two agencies to operate under a joint plan. That largely translated into the DOE creating a plan, the BOE approving it, and the DOE implementing it. 

However, a National Association of State Boards of Education training earlier this year inspired the board to take the lead on policy, and as a result, the board is now authoring the plan with input from the DOE. 

DOE Deputy Superintendent Heidi Armstrong and BOE member Shanty Asher discuss concerns from the community at a strategic plan meeting at Ewa Makai Middle School. Viola Gaskell/Civil Beat 2022

Board members and department leaders have sat side by side at community meetings, but ultimately the BOE will create the plan and the DOE will be responsible for implementing it, according to board member Lauren Moriarty. 

Roughly 8,000 people completed the board’s online survey before the cutoff date earlier this month — far more than the board president had expected. Only 1,429 people took the survey in 2020. 

About 76% of respondents were parents or guardians and 25% were teachers — respondents could self-identify in more than one category. Hundreds of students, school staff and business leaders also took the survey, along with 57 elected officials.

The BOE has also been holding meetings across islands to gather input from community members in each of the state’s 15 complex areas. Results from the survey and meetings will be released after the final Nov. 10 meeting in Waipahu. 

The board is also relying heavily on data to get a more detailed understanding of education problems in Hawaii. One big concern to come out of recent data presentations has been the performance gap for high needs students and Native Hawaiians. 

Only 30% of Native Hawaiian students met language arts proficiency standards on last year’s statewide assessments, compared to 52% of all students and only 18% were proficient in math, compared to 38% of all students. The numbers were lower for Pacific Islander students.

Chair Bruce Voss said in a BOE meeting that data on Hawaii’s high-needs students would have a big impact on the board’s new strategic plan. Viola Gaskell/Civil Beat/2022

Board member McClellan said the numbers on Native Hawaiian students’ test scores and persistently low college-going rates were unacceptable. 

“It’s problematic that our largest constituent has the poorest outcome. It is inexcusable to me. Our largest population is the most underserved — I think that’s a big solve,” she said. 

Nakamura said she was hopeful that both the data and community feedback would be used to sharpen the focus of the plan. 

“We need mission, vision and objective. We need some kind of direction — clear direction — because otherwise there are a zillion things to focus on and we can prioritize everything, but the truth is we have limited resources,” she said. 

Poor Communication, Pay Challenges

Staffing shortages and low pay have been another primary complaint at meetings. 

Testing Coordinator Bea DeRego, who has worked at Kahuku High and Intermediate since 1997, says that the majority of teachers don’t have time to be concerned with what’s happening in the BOE because they are overworked. 

Though 72% of Hawaii teachers got a raise this year, DeRego says school support staff wages remain too low for recruitment to be effective, and without enough educational assistants, counselors, behavior support specialists and security, schools will continue to struggle. 

At multiple meetings, groups of speech therapists showed up to voice concerns over shortages in their department and stagnant pay, an issue they say leadership has ignored for years despite their complaints. 

At the Ewa Beach meeting, speech therapists Jeanne Iwashita, Karen Kama, and Jo Ann Verzon said their pay has been stagnant for decades and the DOE has ignored their complaints. Viola Gaskell/Civil Beat 2022

“There’s this whole other piece that needs to be fixed because we can only do so much with what we have,” DeRego said. 

Poor communication was a consistent criticism leveled at the DOE and BOE by participants at several of the community meetings.

BOE member Makana McClellan said that people she spoke to at the meetings were frustrated by gatekeeping within the DOE and the BOE and wanted to see more empathetic communication. 

“Parents want to be heard on the first or maybe the third time that they call, not the 15th time that they call,” she said. 

McClellan said that parents at the Nanakuli—Waianae meeting were upset because they found out about the meeting at the last minute through social media rather than from their school or the DOE directly. 

Even principals say that relevant information sometimes fails to reach them before they make decisions. 

“It’s kind of frustrating,” said McKinley High School Principal Ron Okamura. “Sometimes I’ve got to watch Hawaii News Now to know what is happening.”

Cynthia Reves, an English teacher at McKinley High School, said that participants’ eagerness to discuss concerns with board members at the McKinley meeting demonstrated that it isn’t very easy to talk to the board of education.

More Accountability Needed

Some policy experts who say their input has been ignored in the past remain skeptical of current efforts. 

Earlier this year, James Shon — former director of Hawaii Educational Policy Center — and a group of educators and policymakers put together a document that analyzed previous strategic plans and proposed ways to make the next one more effective and measurable. 

Shon said the BOE’s failure to respond to them inspired little hope that a wide range of feedback would be truly considered this time around. 

“Are the community meetings really asking the public to look at systemic (for every school) decisions rather than adopting nice sounding goals?” he wrote in an email. 

David Sun-Miyashiro of HawaiiKidsCAN said that during previous transitions from one strategic plan to another, he never heard a full accounting of why most student achievement targets were missed. 

Shon says that is because previous strategic plans have not included built-in accountability measures. 

“The BOE and DOE often articulate aspirational goals but do little to connect them to action,” he said in an email. 

Parents and educators also echoed non-profit leaders’ desire for increased accountability. 

“Where is the follow through? Where is the quality assurance?” Asked Mike Thorne, whose son is in eighth grade at Kalakaua Middle School. 

Thorne and others at the Kalakaua meeting said that ideally the community would be given the opportunity to respond to the actual plan before it was implemented. 

“There should be another meeting to share the strategic plan and get feedback, then another meeting down the road to say ‘here’s what we were able to do and why,’” said Ann Mahi, executive director of the Hawaii State Teacher Association.  

Civil Beat’s education reporting is supported by a grant from Chamberlin Family Philanthropy.

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