Ke‘elikōlani Middle School leader honored as 2024 Principal of the Year


Under Joe Passantino's leadership, students' math scores have more than tripled over the last two years and English Language Arts scores climbed by 50%. Staff satisfaction has shot up by 35 to 44 points into the high 90s in the areas of well-being, satisfaction and involvement/engagement.

HONOLULU — Joe Passantino – the cheerful and energetic principal who is helping turn around Ke‘elikōlani Middle School in downtown Honolulu – was celebrated at a school-wide assembly Friday after being named the state’s 2024 Principal of the Year, a designation awarded by the Hawai‘i Association of Secondary School Administrators.

HASSA annually honors a middle or high school principal who has demonstrated outstanding leadership and a strong commitment to their school’s students, staff and community. The rigorous selection process takes into consideration the leader's ability to foster a safe and productive campus culture; promote equity among students; make decisions based on data-driven needs; and empower students to become competitive, creative learners.

Passantino joined Ke‘elikōlani, formerly Central Middle School, four years ago and has since turned around staff morale and student achievement at the urban campus that serves a predominantly immigrant and low-income student population. 

Under his leadership, students' math scores have more than tripled over the last two years and English Language Arts scores climbed by 50%. Staff satisfaction has shot up by 35 to 44 points into the high 90s in the areas of well-being, satisfaction and involvement/engagement.

Passantino, who grew up in Las Vegas, started his education career in Hawai‘i as a special education teacher at Kalākaua Middle, where he later served as vice principal. He was tapped to serve as principal of Ali‘iolani Elementary in Kaimuki before joining Ke‘elikōlani in 2020.

Colleagues and friends describe Passantino as a caring, passionate and humble leader who always puts students first. He's credited with building a culture of respect and pride, and strengthening community partnerships. He's also ambitious and driven, often orchestrating challenges and competitions among staff and students to increase motivation.

"Joe is always full of positivity, he's all about his students, empowering his kids, faculty and community," Superintendent Keith Hayashi said. "He is someone who is so full of enthusiasm (and) dedication, and takes his work very seriously – but in a very fun way – to help support not only this school, but our complex area and our state."

On Friday the school's packed auditorium erupted in cheers and applause as Passantino was ushered into an assembly that his team covertly organized as a surprise celebration, with his wife and daughter in the audience along with his mom and sister who flew in from Las Vegas that morning.

The audience included community organizations and business supporters and partners. House Speaker Scott Saiki, who represents the area, presented a commemorative proclamation from the state House of Representatives to help mark the occasion. HASSA officers and board members also presented gifts while students stacked lei on Passantino, made with paper flowers the students wrote personalized messages on.

"Your dedication to Ke‘elikōlani Middle School is truly inspiring," said Linell Dilwith, complex area superintendent for schools in the Kaimuki-McKinley-Roosevelt Complex Area, which includes Ke‘elikōlani. "In just three three years you've transformed the school culture with your daily presence, personal connections with students and unwavering commitment to their well-being. Your focus on safety, family involvement and community services set a standard of excellence."

Passantino said he was stunned when he learned he had won the award. "I'm very grateful. I'm humbled. I'm honored that my name and that our school even comes up in these conversations," he said. "I have crazy ideas, I want crazy experiences for kids. I want opportunities for kids. I want all these things for you." (Recent example: He created an arcade to help incentivize and boost student attendance.)

"This award is not because of me; it's because of the work that you do," he told his students in the audience. "It's the teachers in the classroom that do this work. It's the counselors that support kids, it's the front office, it's the cafeteria staff, the custodians. ... We've got 65 people here that make this magic happen."

Hayashi asked several students ahead of the event what they view as the best thing about their school and what they think of Principal Passantino. 

"Students feel a sense of belonging, a sense of place," Hayashi summarized, adding that students praised Passantino as thoughtful, kind, awesome, having great energy, helpful and inspirational. "This is the environment and the culture that's created here at Ke‘elikōlani, together with your faculty and staff ... led by a very visionary principal."

HASSA is the local affiliate of the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) and was created in 1980. As the state's principal of the year, Passantino will represent Hawai‘i and be recognized by NASSP along with other national state awardees in Washington, D.C., and will be in the running for the national principal of the year title.

Contact Information

Communications Branch

Phone: (808) 784-6200



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