Update: 12:10 pm, Nov. 4: This story has been updated to include a comment from the superintendent.

Hawaii Department of Education Superintendent Christina Kishimoto on Monday replaced her top official in charge of curriculum and instructional design at a time many public schools are still limping across distance learning territory due to the pandemic.

Alisa Bender served as head of the DOE’s Office of Curriculum and Instructional Design since January, albeit in an interim role. She is being replaced by Teri Ushijima, the DOE’s Assessment & Accountability Branch director in a different department.

According to Hawaii DOE spokeswoman Nanea Kalani, Bender was “initially tapped to serve six months as interim assistant superintendent for OCID.”

“She filled in for 10 months,” Kalani said via email, adding that Kishimoto plans to initiate a search for a permanent head of the curriculum department in December.

Queen Liliuokalani Building. Board of Education offices. 16 june 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
The Hawaii Department of Education building in downtown Honolulu. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2015

While it’s not unusual for DOE assistant superintendents — there are seven in total that oversee different functions — to serve on an interim basis and not stay on permanently, the timing of Bender’s departure stands out.

The DOE is currently navigating a messy fallout from its reliance on the online distance learning program Acellus Learning Accelerator, which the state Board of Education recently mandated be phased out by the end of the 2020-21 school year due to its remedial pacing and offensive content.

Under Bender’s watch, Acellus was green-lit as the statewide credit recovery program for DOE schools back in April and rubber-stamped as an appropriate choice for most distance-learning students for the fall, despite poor reviews from curriculum specialists within her own office.

Bender had defended the program to the BOE as fulfilling a “right-now need” for schools.

Although close to 80,000 DOE students have accessed Acellus, schools have now had to scramble to provide an alternate online learning option for families who prefer not to return to the classroom, although the timing of this transition seems to vary school to school.

It’s not clear whether Bender, a former elementary school principal, high school vice principal and Central District DOE personnel specialist, will remain within the DOE.

The DOE did not respond to Civil Beat’s inquiry on whether Bender’s removal from her interim post was sparked by the Acellus controversy.

In a comment provided to Civil Beat, however, Kishimoto praised Bender as an “award-winning National Blue Ribbon Schools principal” and that she “stand(s) by her as a leader.”

“I am not the type of leader who would turn an outstanding school leader into a scapegoat for a decision that was collectively made under these pandemic conditions,” she said in a statement.

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