Hilo-Waiakea: ‘We’re a K-12 entity, not 13 different schools’


The Hilo-Waiakea Complex Area is a standout in this year's College and Career Readiness Indicators (CCRI) report. Two-year data trends show both high schools among the leaders in boosting readiness through early college, CTE concentrators and major remediation declines. Educational leaders point to a K-12 construct that's beginning to deliver results.

On Hawaii News Now Sunrise

Complex Area Supt. for Hilo-Waiakea Brad Bennett was on the morning show program during the 2017 Merrie Monarch festival to share some of the successes from the district. 

The latest College & Career Readiness Indicators data were released March 20, and in preparation for the event, Hilo High Principal Robert Dircks said, “We’re getting the college-going culture going here in Hilo. Between us and Waiakea (High), we would like to dominate the entire Hilo (community) if we could and get everybody going to college.” 

And not just going, but being ready for it. Both Hilo and Waiakea are among those leading the state’s two-year improvements in: 

  • Dual credit enrollment (earning college credit while in high school) — Hilo is up 17 points, Waiakea up 11 points (the state is up 6 points); 
  • Earning 6 or more dual credits while in high school — Hilo up 8 points, Waiakea up 12 points (the state is up 4 points); 
  • Students completing a Career and Technical Education program of study (known as CTE Concentrators) — both Hilo and Waiakea are up 15 points (the state is up 8 points); and 
  • Slashing rates of remediation in English and math among their students attending the University of Hawaii System — Hilo has cut theirs by 24 points in both subjects, Waiakea by 27 and 11 points, respectively (the state’s remediation rates are down 11 points in English and 8 points in Math). 

Hilo-Waiakea data

The dramatic improvements indicate a sea change in the approach of teachers and administrators in preparing students for post-secondary life that is not limited to the area’s two high schools. If you spend time around educators you’ll hear them talk about the K-12 construct, a focus on ensuring students receive the right academic and social-emotional supports to succeed through all school transitions, not just elementary to middle to high school. 

Complex Area Superintendent (CAS) Brad Bennett cites Hilo-Waiakea’s success in making its own transition from 13 schools to one K-12 organization that is beginning to deliver strong results. 

“We’re approaching education as a K12 entity, not 13 different schools. Our principals shifting thinking towards operating as a complex area, it’s having positive effects,” said Bennett, who was a longtime educator and administrator in Hilo-Waiakea schools before stepping into the top job two years ago. 

When Bennett came on board as CAS, each school was asked to come up with a five-year improvement plan. At the time, schools were on an annual cycle of goal setting with their Academic Plans, which is the governing document for how schools spend funds on academic and enrichment programming. (The state has since shifted to a three-year cycle aligned with the updated Strategic Plan.) 

For Hilo-Waiakea’s five-year improvement plans, schools codified ideas and goals in four areas: Leadership, Response to Intervention (RTI is a process using data to track the effectiveness of resources and strategies to help struggling students), Community Partnerships and K-12 Construct. The plans give “big picture” context to the schools’ role not only in student readiness, but community health — engendering the skills and aptitudes for thriving families and economies here in Hawaii. 

“We’re starting at the early levels of elementary and getting the college-going culture going, stressing the importance of moving past that into job markets that will support their families at some point,” Principal Dircks said. 

The Complex Area office provides resources, such as the Alaka‘i Academy to grow teacher and administrative leadership and the complex-wide professional development days (see video), and then lets the schools design plans that meet common goals. 

“It’s autonomy within a framework,” Bennett said. 


There’s strong energy now around community engagement in particular. Hilo-Waiakea is moving forward with sector partnerships as part of Connect to Careers (C2C), to prepare students to work and lead in business sectors of value to the community. The business-led effort has identified agriculture as its first Hawaii Island-based sector to grow and expand. 

“We’re trying to show our community that we want to be partners. We’re not just asking you for support, it’s going to be mutually beneficial,” Bennett said. “We are preparing our students to be leaders in this community. We want to prepare Hilo for the future.” 

On a related note, the CCRI reports are starting to track CTE Concentrators, an enhanced high school diploma aligned to a particular industry that has greater labor market value and options for credentials. Hilo-Waiakea is showing strong 15-point growth over two years in CTE Concentrators, with Waiakea High running 10 points above the state’s average for students pursuing this option. The school also has one of the strongest on-time graduation rates in the state at 88 percent. 

The academy structure in place at Waiakea High has played a key role in this, said Principal Kelcy Koga. Students can choose from four career academies after a year in the Freshman Academy, which helps with their transition to high school and fosters their engagement and connectedness. The academies each have community advisory boards comprised of individuals working in related fields. 

“It provides experiences in potential career fields including both white and blue collar fields,” Koga said. “Waiakea High attempts to support our students with community internships and other types of real world career experiences that will enable them to be successful with or without a college degree.” 

Subject literacy stronger 

Statewide, hundreds fewer Hawaii DOE graduates entering the UH System need remediation in English or math. A change made at the community college level has edged that number down further with the Class of 2016, as students are able to use additional ways to prove subject readiness (including Smarter Balanced scores), but even with that change the trend has been going solidly downward. Over two years, the state has reduced English remediation by 37 percent and Math remediation by 26 percent. 

Hilo-Waiakea is outpacing the state: 

  • Hilo: down 65 percent in English and 62 percent in math 
  • Waiakea: down 82 percent in English and 50 percent in math 

Supt. Kathryn Matayoshi reflected that greater rigor in those subjects via Hawaii Common Core and high expectations have prepared more students for college-level work. At the school-level, CAS Bennett also noted the importance of the RTI process. 

“We have to be proactive,” he said. “We’re providing supports early rather than after the fact, trying to help them with credit recovery. We look hard at data, look hard at 9th grade transitions. We spend a lot of time as principals on this. It’s definitely a matter of paying attention.” 

Brad Bennett

College credit in hand 

More public school students have college credits in the bank before starting their freshman year. This is increasingly because of the Early College program, which was expanded to 12 schools including Hilo and Waiakea thanks to a grant from the Harold K.L. Castle Foundation. For the Class of 2016, 13 percent of Hilo’s seniors and 16 percent of Waiakea’s seniors graduated with six or more college credits through this program. (Statewide, the rate is 7 percent.) 

This six-credit amount is considered significant as it leads to more students enrolling and persisting in college — because they’ve already made progress, for free, toward fulfilling their degrees. 

Principal Dircks said the value of Early College can’t be overstated, particularly for neighbor island schools where “we don’t have access to a lot of things.” 

He said he’s also seen a shift in attitude among families. “A lot of our parents are supportive for their kids to pursue post-secondary education. They want their children to take college level classes. Support of the parents is really critical and we’ve seen a change in the mindset.” 

Facing future 

While the data show areas that need additional work for these schools, the Complex Area, and the state, the trajectory is positive; Principal Dircks noted the “momentum” is there. The agility necessitated by using data to drive efforts (i.e., Strategic Plan, the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle) is allowing school and system leaders to adjust as needed. 

“What we’ve done really well is look at our results and have the courage to change course as necessary,” Bennett said. “Everybody’s really open to that.” 

“I’m very fortunate to be working with these talented people,” he added. “My job is to support them and let them run. Great people, great community. I’m looking forward to what’s to come.” 

About CCRI reportsCCRI reports are an annual collaboration between the Department and the University of Hawaii, coordinated by Hawai'i P-20 Partnerships for Education, to present information on how well Hawaii public school graduates are prepared for college. Hawaii's CCRI reports are continuously recognized by national organizations, including the Education Sector, the Data Quality Campaign, Achieve, and the National Governors Association, as a leading example of collaboration between K-12 and higher education and for providing useful information on college readiness.

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