In 2001, Palolo Elementary was failing its poor, but proud neighborhood. Students’ test scores had plummeted to historic lows and the school was put in “restructuring” under No Child Left Behind, the federal accountability system. (Today, NCLB is replaced by Hawaii’s
Strive HI System.)
In stepped then-Principal Ruth Silberstein. Under her watch, during which she engaged families, restructured curriculum and established important partnerships, student achievement climbed dramatically.
A little more than a decade later, Silberstein was tapped to oversee the Kaimuki-McKinley-Roosevelt complex of more than 30 elementary, middle, high and charter schools. On June 6, she received the latest honor in her decorated, 47-year career: the 2014 University of Hawaii College of Education’s Distinguished Alumni Award. Silberstein has also earned other prestigious awards including being named the National Distinguished Principal for Hawaii and a distinguished alumna of Sacred Hearts Academy, and nominated for the Masayuki Tokioka Excellence in School Leadership Award.
Palolo’s turnaround story is a remarkable one. As principal, Silberstein wasn’t afraid to knock on public housing doors to tell parents the law requires their children to be in school. It was a challenge in a neighborhood where residents spoke 17 different languages, but Silberstein took it upon herself to get children to class and overhaul the curriculum.
The school saw strong gains in reading and math scores, but they eventually plateaued. While students loved their classes, especially science, Silberstein felt the school needed to do more.
To pique students’ interest, Silberstein and her staff implemented a project-based curriculum focused on finding solutions to global problems such as sustainability through real-world applications of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM).
“Global warming was a hot topic at that time,” recalls Silberstein, referring to what’s now known as climate change. “The question was: ‘How will our students, and their children… and their grandchildren survive?’”
During the transformation, Silberstein enlisted the support of the University of Hawaii, Kapiolani Community College and Chaminade University to help tutor Palolo students during and after school, as well as summer school.
The result of her efforts: from 2002 to 2012, reading proficiency rose to 77 percent from 11 percent, math proficiency climbed to 76 percent from an astounding 1 percent. She would be the first to say it was because of the hard work of teachers, students, partners and families, and it is. Her leadership, however, made it all possible.
In addition to her role as Kaimuki-McKinley-Roosevelt complex area superintendent, Silberstein also has served as a member of the Hawaii Teachers Standards Board, National Association of Elementary School Principals Board – Hawaii Chaminade Education Committee, and the prestigious Edison’s Principals Roundtable.
Silberstein holds a core belief that the family and community play large roles in a child’s education. Today, this belief continues to drive her passion for student achievement and staff success.
TEDxHonoluluED Talk: Ruth Silberstein