Pauoa Elementary: The little school that did


This small Title I school is at the epicenter of an academic earthquake. With high achievement results in language arts, mathematics and science, and a low achievement gap between students with high-needs and their peers, more students are getting what they need to learn at the highest levels at this school. Here's what they're doing.

Tucked into a quiet corner at the foot of Punchbowl, a little more than a stone’s throw from the Pali Highway, is the unobtrusive, serene campus of Pauoa Elementary.

“Unless you live in this community, you probably wouldn’t even know we’re here,” said Principal Dale Arakaki.

Yet this small Title I school — 58% of student families last year were considered economically disadvantaged — is at the epicenter of an academic earthquake. Performance system results recently released show how all of Hawaii’s public schools are doing across several key measures, and over the last two years Pauoa Elementary has been a true standout.

  • High achievement numbers across tested subjects and extraordinary growth in each:
    • Language Arts: Up 21 points to 77 percent meeting the achievement standard
    • Math: Up 34 points to 81 percent meeting the achievement standard
    • Science: Up 15 points to 84 percent proficient or higher
  • Pauoa has one of the lowest achievement gaps in the state between high-needs students and their peers.
  • 90 percent of Pauoa’s 3rd graders are near, at or beyond reading at grade level — that’s a full 25 points higher than the state average.

At 16 points (language arts) and 12 points (math), Pauoa’s achievement gaps are running at more than half of the state average. It means that more of Pauoa’s students are getting what they need to learn — and at the highest levels. At this school, poverty, disability, and language barriers are holding fewer children back.

Principal Arakaki acknowledges that the results are remarkable, and he’s very proud of the staff and students, but he insists the practices at Pauoa aren’t uncommon. Perhaps Pauoa has added a twist, he acknowledged.

“There isn’t a magic bullet,” said Arakaki, who was vice principal at Waipahu Elementary and Kamaile Elementary before coming to Pauoa four years ago. “It’s just like what’s in the Strategic Plan. We’re looking at our data, we’re looking at our core content.

“We simplified things. We provided time and resources to support the teachers,” he added.

Here’s what they did.

Pauoa Elementary staff photo

Photo: Pauoa Elementary School teachers, support staff and administrators in the school library, November 2017.

Practices and Actions

Three years ago, Pauoa wasn’t doing badly, but neither were they doing great — an academically average school. Pauoa belongs to the Roosevelt complex of schools that includes perennial academic powerhouses Noelani Elementary, Mānoa Elementary, Nu‘uanu Elementary, and Maemae Elementary, which is just up the road from Pauoa. Pauoa was being outshined, which likely contributed to a 14 percent decline in enrollment over five years as families sought to place their children in those other schools.

Staff agreed: something had to change.

Stand Up! Be Heard! Let’s Excel Now! became the rallying cry that Pauoa would not only do better, it would be noticed. That phrase became the framework around five data-intensive practices and actions that were adopted schoolwide:

  1. Use of the i-Ready learning platform
  2. Intervention blocks embedded into the school schedule
  3. Action plans for each student, adjusted quarterly
  4. Targeted walkthroughs of classrooms
  5. Data Teams

Staff say that the first two items are what’s largely behind the surge in student learning and achievement, for both struggling and proficient students. They also acknowledged that steady leadership when making big changes helped keep everyone going when the work got tough.

“We have been talking about data teams, small group instruction, and conversations around data for a while now,” said Jeanne Oliveira, a 5th grade teacher who has taught for a dozen years at Pauoa and 35 years in total. “It really took Principal Arakaki initiating this paradigm shift where intervention had to be informed and targeted, and saying ‘we’re all doing this’ — that was the difference.”

The high-quality data on a student’s standards-based learning from iReady is giving the teachers what they need to do deeper work, they said. Students using the platform navigate through adaptive exercises which can pinpoint to sub-skill levels and note what they’re easily grasping and what they’re struggling with. It’s engaging and students who are self-directed can log on anytime to see if they can reach next-level benchmarks on their own.

Then the intervention blocks come in. Into the complicated jigsaw puzzle that is a school’s bell schedule, Arakaki and his team carved out 45-minutes daily during which teachers worked one-on-one or with small groups of students who were struggling to master certain concepts, while the rest of their students continued self-paced learning with iReady.

“The minutes were always there, instructionally — it’s just more of a cross disciplinary experience now,” Arakaki said.

It’s up to the teachers to select the approach for the intervention block tailored to what their learners need; this included any requirements for special-needs students identified in their Individualized Education Plans (IEPs). The iReady data enables laser-like focus for teachers.

“This is what data is supposed to be. It’s not a judgment.
We’re having informed conversations as a team.”


“Within that block, we had to figure out the best way to use those minutes so we were really helping students,” said 2nd grade teacher Jennifer Ota. “iReady allowed us to get information that we weren’t able to access before, the way it looks at each individual student and breaks that down by domains — we know exactly what they need and don’t need so we can be intentional with our instruction.”

Teacher Stephanie Toshi added that the platform has teaching tools and parent resources that support high-needs students, which was especially helpful in her 3rd grade class last year. “The program shows them, ‘In this domain, you’re doing really well,’ and they can clearly see the progress. ‘Now we need to focus on this other area.’ It boosted their confidence so that no matter where they were coming from, they felt they could do it.”

The intervention block gave teachers the necessary time to target instruction where it was most needed, without slowing anyone else down. “Kids really like the platform because they have a sense of ownership,” Oliveira said. “The students are driving their own learning and the teachers are in the facilitating role.”

With all students on the platform and reliable data coming in school-wide, the teachers find it easy to collaborate with each other and troubleshoot solutions for kids as a team. “Our classrooms are always open to each other,” Toshi said. “I want to hear how they’re presenting something if it’s not working.”

“There’s no walls. We’re not building walls,” noted Oliveira, whose years of experience is a key resource for the team. “No one has shame, we go to her for help,” laughed Ota.

The team is close-knit, and Oliveira notes that’s part of a culture of support, trust and aloha that enabled staff to push through challenges and take bold risks. It’s also helping them bring new teachers into the fold; half of the school’s teachers in the testing grades (3-5) are new this year.

The other three components of the school’s Practices & Actions — action plans for each student, classroom walkthroughs, and data team work — keep a solid system of review in place to ensure the entire school works together on behalf of each student.

“The teachers look at the data and come up with the action plan based on their practice,” said Vicky Yama, a member of the school’s leadership team, which reviews student action plans. “Then we look at all the students — who needs a little more help, who needs a lot, provide feedback. And now when we’re doing our walkthroughs of classrooms, we know exactly what’s going on. We know all the kids and what their strengths are.”

Oliveira noted, “This is what data is supposed to be. It’s not a judgment. We’re having informed conversations as a team.”

Principal Dale Arakaki

The swing in the school’s academic outcomes has had another benefit — enrollment at Pauoa stabilized this year. “They are choosing us now,” Yama said.

“Once the gains were made last year, the parents really got on board,” Principal Arakaki said. “They started to realize their kids can compete. Now that we’ve had another year of stronger results, they know it’s not a fluke. This is now the culture of the school.”

With most of Pauoa’s students moving up academically, high-needs students aren’t seen as ‘different.’ “It’s hard to tell one from the other, it’s very fluid here,” Arakaki said. And the feedback from kids regardless of background was that they felt more prepared. “They’ll say, ‘It’s hard, but I get it now.’ And there’s an abundance of confidence that comes from that, and a greater willingness to do it — because they know they can.”

“To sustain this at this level, that’s now the goal,” he said.

Keeping balance

There’s no lack of focus on academics at Pauoa, clearly, but learning isn’t a one-lane road there. In addition to hosting after-school tutoring sessions, which are provided by the teachers, they offer performing arts, physical education, science resource and other learning opportunities that have strong student interest. The school has also teamed with partners to provide robust after-school activities including ‘ukulele, world languages, robotics, singing, dance troop, and more.

This year, they’re taking an innovative approach to Whole Child learning. Toshi, who taught 3rd grade last year, is now teaching social-emotional learning (SEL) skills as well as P.E. in all grades, providing a comprehensive K-5 focus on social emotional learning with and emphasis on health — physical and mental. The approach, which was the idea of the school’s former Student Services Coordinator Allan Mamaclay, employs the Second Step program for curriculum with Toshi filtering concepts through a Hawai‘i lens where appropriate so it connects with their students.

“It’s rooted in mindfulness teaching, so there’s a focus on the skills that make you a good learner,” Toshi said. “Understanding yourself, how to listen, how to focus, being respectful. We role play and do dramatic enactments.”

So far, it’s been promising for students and teachers alike. “It’s funny, when Stephanie comes into my classroom to teach, the students come right to attention,” Ota said. “They know she’s there to provide them with an important lesson.”

“Every time Stephanie leaves my classroom she gives me common language,” she continued. “Even the kids say now, ‘That was an aggressive voice. Can you speak with more respect, please?’ There’s a greater understanding of resilience.”

Because of the school’s successful pivot to academic achievement, this year they’re easing up on weekly iReady minutes (though students can continue to self-pace on the platform) in order to accommodate the SEL focus. Arakaki said that created a bit of anxiety for some staff who wondered if it might impact their hard-fought gains. But he noted that they’ll do as they’ve always done: watch where the data goes and make adjustments as needed. It’s part of their process now, something other schools can also do, including those serving large high-needs student groups.

“Maybe we can be a road map for other Title I schools, give them hope that it can be done,” he said. “It can.”

​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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