Climbing a mountain in Upcountry Maui paying off at King Kekaulike


Just two years ago, the student readiness picture at King Kekaulike High was murky, as students struggled to demonstrate deep understanding of core subjects and the on-time graduation rate was running 11 points below the state’s. But what a difference two years makes. An all-in approach with interventions and co-teaching, among other efforts, is improving student outcomes.

Just two years ago, the student readiness picture at King Kekaulike High was murky. Their students were struggling to demonstrate deep understanding of core subjects (English, math, science) and the on-time graduation rate was 11 points below the state’s.

But what a difference two years makes, their results rising like the slopes of Haleakalā on which the school is situated. KKHS’ students are now:

  • Up 13 points in English Language Arts achievement
  • Up 18 points in Mathematics achievement (it has more than doubled from 2015)
  • Up 14 points in Science proficiency (in fact they’re up 21 points over four years)
  • Up 11 points and pulling even with the state’s graduation rate — 82 percent

During that surge, their achievement gap stayed comparatively low, meaning their high-needs students were moving up apace. This is a data point that schools and districts nationwide scrutinize because it provides some insight into whether students have equitable access to education. KKHS' gap is well below the state’s average:


​33 points
​28 points
​15 points
​18 points

This is heavy lifting in educational circles, but to listen to Principal Mark Elliott (pictured), they’re just getting started.

Principal Mark Elliott“The climate of the school is, ‘We can always do better,’” said Elliott, who has been KKHS principal since 2015 and principal at Lokelani Intermediate and Lahaina Intermediate schools before that. “It’s a constant process. I’m personally very proud of the work, but there’s no celebrating. We’ve got more work to do.”

In speaking with the educators and support staff, what’s working is:

  • a “laser-like focus” on Response to Intervention (RTI) so students are supported, academically and emotionally, wherever they are on the learning spectrum;
  • being all-in on inclusion and co-teaching — two teachers in each classroom providing activities that are rigorous, engaging, and aligned with learning targets, differentiated to meet the needs of regular and high-needs learners, with dedicated time for lesson planning;
  • a highly collaborative and aligned structure working both horizontally across classrooms and vertically across grade levels;
  • having more experienced teachers provide instruction in grades 9 and 10; and
  • inculcating study and test-taking skills along with paying careful attention to the testing environment: calm and quiet, cool, snacks available, no surprises.

It wasn’t easy, but trust was developed along the way as teachers who voiced concerns had their needs addressed, or at least acknowledged.

“We took the time to really listen to the teachers’ concerns and learn what they needed,” said Melanie Nakashima, the RTI coordinator. “For example, with inclusion, they said they needed common planning time, and they got it. We’d like to give them even more time, but at least we got a foundation set up. Some were spread really thin, co-planning lessons with five different teachers, so we narrowed that to two. Making adjustments helped bring the staff together and kept the process productive.”

RTI foundation

At King Kekaulike, RTI is its own department, and it’s an evolution in progress. Nakashima was tapped to help build the program when she arrived three years ago. At the time, the school was working with a math consultant, Judy Keeney, who also had strong RTI experience and worked side-by-side with teachers. (She’s now working with Baldwin High in Wailuku.)

Nakashima had success differentiating lessons for her grades 4 and 5 students for eight years, but setting up a school-wide system at the high school level was something else.

“On paper it’s understood what differentiation is as a concept, but actually building it into tiers with high-quality instruction at each level, using data to feed all of it — that was the need,” Nakashima said.

The strategy, with Principal Elliott’s support, was to move quickly to implement RTI and refine as they go, understanding they would tackle the academics first and then behavioral needs. The staff is fond of quoting the school’s special education coordinator, Cindy Kochi-Asato, on what the process looks like — “Storming before norming.” Charge ahead, address the challenges as you go, lay down foundational practices.

First was learning where everyone was at. “What are you doing right now to RTI and differentiate?” Nakashima said. “Teachers would share, and there were some good strategies that could be used.”

First-year focus built upon that to include in-house professional development (PD) on differentiation and unlocking the benefits of two teachers in the classroom. Achieve3000 and STAR assessments were used to gather real-time data on students’ progress and pinpoint challenges, while also cross-referencing trend data from grades and summative assessments. They brought teachers on learning walks through their colleagues’ classrooms so they could learn what was and wasn’t working with different inclusion approaches.

“We’d debrief afterward and those became coaching sessions rooted in data,” Nakashima said.

This focus extended into the school’s Professional Learning Communities — when KKHS teachers meet, by subject or grade level, discussions about co-teaching and how to effectively co-plan lessons that dive into students’ individual education plans are happening.

Those discussions can be lively, as English department head Matthew Cerny noted, but with comparatively low turnover, strong collaborative teams have developed at KKHS.

“We trust each other enough to disagree,” he said. “We have a full debate about topics, but when we come to a decision, it’s a real and practical thing. The RTI approach has been instrumental, but we’ve also been blessed with our staffing. There are four other department heads here who have served for several years. We haven’t been plagued with any holes in our schedule. You combine that with strong inclusion relationships between the classroom and co-teachers... there are a lot of pros up here."


As more clear and consistent co-planned lessons could be shared, more classroom time was returned to teachers. With solid inclusion practices taking root, the RTI Team set up tiered pull-out classes in core subjects to give struggling students extra support. (You can see what this looks like in this video profile from Maui District Television, above.) The goal, however, is to return students to the inclusion classroom quickly.

“There’s a lot of dialogue between the RTI coordinator, the special education teachers, and the content teachers,” Elliott said. “The students get to see their data and their improvement. They’re part of the conversation about their growth.”

With that academic cycle set in the first year, the RTI Team began adding behavior supports as well as a focus on sharpening study skills. In an effort to promote good behaviors and celebrate successes, the RTI Team helped create The Na Ali'i Way, a matrix showing examples of good behavior in different areas of campus, and connected HĀ: BREATH, the Hawai‘i DOE’s statewide framework of core values and beliefs, and used both as a means of earning Kala cards.

Farmer's check for KKHS“Pukalani Superette donated 5,000 Kala cards to the Na Ali'i Store, and the PTSA, Farmers Insurance, Target, Costco, parents and staff donated money and items to keep the store stocked," said Nakashima, pictured at right with Farmers Insurance agent Bill Doherty with a check for the Na Ali'i Reward Store. "Kala cards are the only currency accepted at the Na Ali'i Reward Store and students earn them from teachers and staff for modeling good behaviors, setting goals and meeting those goals. It's really changed the culture, and I feel it's helped with building relationships and goal setting."

Another layer was a new approach with suspensions. While the number of discipline incidents at KKHS has been edging down, suspensions fell 27 percent in 2015-16 compared with the year prior, and plunged another 72 percent last year. Traditional suspensions are only levied when there’s a violent incident, and in-school suspensions are served for other infractions.

“It’s a concentrated environment with very high teacher engagement and removal from their peers: separate classes, separate lunch. That’s the punishment — all the kids want peer interaction,” Elliott said. “But some kids really thrive in that environment. It’s like a sanctuary. They get work done.”

This is not to say that everything’s perfect. KKHS special education teachers spend more time in the classroom and less on paperwork, which is great for kids but challenging for teachers. “They’re really squeezed but they’re making it work and doing an excellent job,” Elliott said. Program refinements continue, but with two positive years of data under their belts, it’s with the knowledge that they’re on the right track.

"There are so many things that are working," Nakashima said. "We have great teachers learning from each other, putting in all the hard work, and we are happy to see it pay off. Now, we are expecting it to continue!"

Principal Elliott summed up the effort with, “I’ve got four private schools within a mile of me. We’re like Upcountry’s Statue of Liberty. If you’re challenged because of a disability or you’ve got no problems and you’re headed to Harvard, we’re going to give you the same effort.”

Meet the ‘pros’

Principal Elliott talks about the teaching staff collaborating (sometimes loudly) in common purpose for students, which he facilitates. “They’re a highly motivated and self-critical group of gung-ho professionals, so I’m not necessarily leading. I’m just supporting great people.” Like an orchestra, they’re different folks with different instruments and performing styles, leading and following each other, pulling together to create a symphony.

Take BIOLOGY. “That’s a specialized effort by two teachers who work in perfect tandem,” Elliott said. The teachers are Sadie Mossman and Lynn Yamada (pictured below), and because they’ve boosted science assessment results by 21 points in four years, taking them from lagging the state average to running four points ahead of it — and 14 points ahead of high schools statewide — they get asked how they did it.

“It’s funny, we get asked this question a lot,” Yamada said. “It’s not one thing.”

They decided a few years ago to align their curriculum, which had multiple benefits — students who have to change their schedule can enroll in the other’s class and not miss an assignment, it makes it easier for students to study together, they can team up on curricular resources (copies, lab equipment), and substitutes have steady guidance. Also, the alignment helps them reflect on their practice, which both value greatly. “It's so nice to have someone else to bounce ideas off of if a lesson didn't go as planned, or as we attend more PD, we bring back new ideas to implement,” said Yamada, who has taught at KKHS for nine years.

Speaking of alignment, it’s almost as though the stars did to bring Mossman and Yamada together. They both received their Masters of Arts in Teaching from Puget Sound within four years of each other, a source of their strong collaboration, having been under the tutelage of the same professors. “Our philosophy in teaching and pedagogy is incredibly similar,” Yamada said. Both pursued and became National Board Certified Teachers in 2011. Yamada is a member of KKHS’ first graduating class, and Mossman’s son currently attends. They’re invested.

“The constant communication between Lynn and myself and our drive to find ways to make what we do better is an important aspect to the growth over the last four years,” said Mossman, who is in her 17th year teaching at KKHS.

Their co-teacher, Jennifer Asuncion, has also been a key benefit. “She has really helped us focus on special education and the ‘bubble students,’” Yamada said, referring to students just shy of meeting proficiency targets. “The friendship that we've all built with each other really helps us be more confident in the classroom and emphasizes the co-teaching model. Jenn has really done an amazing job at learning the biology content and reaching out to help all students, not just the special education students.”

With teachers in sync, the curricular tool they’ve found to be most helpful is the Interactive Notebook, an AVID strategy that helps cultivate organizational skills and provides a record of the interaction and dialogue between the teacher, the student, and the learning environment. Paging through one, you’ll typically see lesson guidance from the teacher on one side, and a student’s own observations on the other in the form of questions, metaphors, drawings, interpretations. Students’ abilities to process complex concepts over the course of a year are expanding as a result, Mossman said, and it’s easier for them to refresh their knowledge at anytime by reviewing their binder. Mossman and Yamada are now providing PD to other Maui teachers on the technique.

Students provide valuable feedback on how to improve the coursework and expand other opportunities at the school, both say. That participation has sparked strong interest in science across campus. The school offers 14 Advanced Placement courses, more than any other Maui school, including Biology (taught by Yamada), Computer Science, Physics and Psychology. At the request of students, Environmental Science is coming next year.

“We were the first high school in the state to offer Forensics. To be able to take that course, students double up in their junior year in Chemistry and Human Physiology,” Mossman said. “They’re taking multiple science courses in their junior and senior years as electives,” beyond the graduation requirement.

Robust enrichment activities and competitions in STEM, robotics, HOSA (Health Occupations Students of America) and others may also be having a beneficial spillover into Career and Technical Education, but Mossman noted the real champion there is STEM teacher Emily Haines-Swatek, who also is the CTE coordinator and a former Maui District Teacher of the Year. (Forty-seven percent of KKHS graduates completed a CTE Program of Study in 2017; the school is five points ahead of the state average.)

Matthew Cerny

At the heart of it is relationships, Yamada says. “I believe we do a good job at getting to know our students and their needs. We try to keep up with technology and really make our lessons fun, engaging, and meaningful.”

In ENGLISH LANGUAGE ARTS, Principal Elliott noted that the team is highly organized and collective in its approach to rigorous, relevant learning; that’s their contribution to the orchestra. “The teachers love it, they did it all, and they continue to work really hard on this.”

Student-driven learning in combination with this academic core appears to be the magic formula here. Some background: The KKHS team was working to increase rigor in English and literacy even before the state shifted to Common Core standards in 2013-14; they were effectively trying to build a schoolwide Advanced Placement English language and composition program. When Common Core came along, as well as the Springboard curriculum to support it, they had a better platform to build from.

“Then it became a question of how can we make it our own,” said department head Matthew Cerny (pictured), who has been teaching 10th grade English at KKHS for nine years. The veteran teachers among them understood that to do that well, they’d need to narrow the focus — “You can’t teach everything and do it with fidelity,” Cerny said. They focused on three non-negotiables: unit objectives, assessments and standards. Beyond that, the teachers changed up all kinds of materials. They swapped out articles and fictional reading, brought in stories from local writers, and added stories about native peoples from the Mainland.

Why the extra effort? Relevance — finding materials that mattered to their diverse student body.


An example of what this looks like: 10th grade calls for the study of the ancient Greek play, Antigone. At KKHS they use Shakespeare’s The Tempest. “If you’re going to study works more than 400 years old, make it about a shipwreck for kids who live on Maui,” Cerny said. "We’re very focused on our community, we have a very diverse population, we are really passionate about engaging our students and bringing them meaningful content."

Because they’re anchored to those non-negotiables, there’s no question about where students are at on their learning path. The teachers are in sync. “Students are now prepared for a true cycle of instruction and the academic stamina has been raised,” Cerny said. “When I get a new cohort of sophomores, I may have to review some things, but I don’t have to teach down to rubrics. The kids are ready to go.”

“When we say we’re going to teach something, we do,” he added.

But students are also ready because they're driving their own learning. Four years ago KKHS started doing Socratic Seminars, in which teachers facilitate a discussion led by students, who are seated in a circle facing one another, to hone their analytical, speaking and listening skills. “It’s been a rousing success,” Cerny said. “It feels a little risky at first, but the students really demonstrated their knowledge.”

Students' voice in their education is also reflected in the Senior Project. With the assistance of teacher advisors in English and Social Studies classes, this specialized capstone project — a passion project — is chosen by the student, who then produces a research paper and an online portfolio of work, and then presents the work to a community panel of adults. Maui District Television recently profiled a couple of KKHS students' senior projects (below), one on henna art and temporary tattooing, and another on writing and illustrating a children's book about creating bonds among children with special needs. (You can view the Class of 2017 presentation event in this Facebook photo album.)


Cerny’s colleague Laila Popata is now in the process of revising their curriculum to align better with AP Composition and Literature courses — “an accelerated version of Springboard,” he said. They’re gathering input from the students and inclusion teachers on what improvements to make.

Reflecting on the progress, Cerny said the team dynamic at KKHS has been pivotal. “We visit each others’ classrooms, we’re constantly learning from each other. There’s a willingness to share. We like meeting with each other and getting through our challenges.”

In MATHEMATICS, when it comes to inclusion, Principal Elliott said the teachers are “thoroughbreds on race day — let us out and let us run.” In part that’s thanks to the foundational work of their math consultant who was also skilled in RTI, as well as special education lead Kochi-Asato playing another role as math curriculum coordinator. It’s also in part due to an energetic, collaborative teacher whom Elliott said he “stole” from Keith Hayashi, principal of Waipahu High. “I still don’t think Keith has forgiven me,” Elliott said. “She’s been the cheerleader, and the Dear Abby, and the drill sergeant of pulling the math program up. Which is why Keith misses her so much.”

Ritchilda YasanaShe is Ritchilda Yasana (pictured), and she’s taken the initiative to set up math coaching at KKHS during one of her class periods. Focusing on the newer teachers who need this support, Yasana goes into classrooms to co-teach either by demonstrating a lesson or observing and providing feedback to the teacher. This mentoring was crucial when she was getting her start at Waipahu High, she said.

“My mentor teacher at Waipahu, Janis Maki, really demonstrated what it looks like to be a dedicated, hard working, passionate, and hopeful educator,” she said. “My mentor teachers at Waipahu and my professors at UH-Manoa really supported me in my first few years. That's something that I've brought with me to Kekaulike. I realize how much the support and encouragement I received in my first few years made all the difference.”

The team’s goal is to make students comfortable in math — “talking math,” as Yasana puts it, “with peers and adults.” And fortunately the team has been able to do that for more students across the learning spectrum because they’ve successfully recruited special education teachers who also can teach math. “Most of our students have two teachers to help support them through a very challenging course.” Working with the consultant, Keeney, has also helped the team implement teaching philosophies that are supporting educators and students alike, from learning walks to 5 Practices for Orchestrating Productive Mathematics Discussions.

The investment is paying off, Yasana said. “The students are rising to the challenge because they have the confidence to do so.”

Facing future

Exciting things are on the horizon for KKHS. Their Hawaiian Language Immersion Program just celebrated its 20th year; a team from the program won the state title in the Conservation Awareness Contest, making them eligible to compete in the national competition in Oklahoma in May 2018.

Principal Elliott is looking to build a College & Career Office that would start counseling students from day one of freshman year, and work with its feeder middle school, Kalama Intermediate. He’s looking at partnerships to cement an expanded concept of college and career counseling, as well as to build a satellite Early College program to help mitigate the challenge of being comparatively distant from UH-Maui.

The school has a new $30 million performing arts center which not only means expanded learning opportunities for students studying theater, music and other arts disciplines, but also technical skills in live sound engineering, recording, lighting, rigging and technology integration.

“These types of performing arts facilities are like Formula 1 racing cars,” Elliott said. “You turn a knob wrong, it breaks, and that’s $300 an hour to fix, and the guy who can fix it is in California. Those are jobs and skills we can cultivate here by building an academy around it.” He’s working with the Hawaii DOE’s Office of Fiscal Services on a foundation to support the effort.

The end result of these last few years of intensive work is more students being better prepared for what comes after high school, but many agree it’s not enough students. No one at KKHS is stopping.

“Is the math department thrilled with 34 percent of students proficient? No,” Elliott said. “More than doubling the number of students who got there is great, but we need to do that again.”

With the team he has, the trajectory suggests they will.

Strive HI System

Hawaii's school performance system is designed to measure how schools and the state are doing across a host of measures to ensure student readiness. Click the link above to view 2017 results.


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