9th graders at Wai‘anae High know 'We've got your back'


A few years ago, about a third of 9th graders at Wai‘anae High weren’t getting promoted to the 10th grade. Staff designed a framework of supports called “The R.I.D.E.” that tackled academics, behavior, and culture. Grade 9 misconduct incidents plummeted and the grade point average is now above the state average. Downstream, rising enrollment in early college, career pathway completion, and graduation rates show the strategy is working.

​#WaianaeStrong, a campaign that started at Wai‘anae High, brands the community's commitment to overcome negative stereotypes.
The school's award-winning Searider Productions multimedia team has made strong work of it.

Freshman orientation at Waianae High started under an ominous haze and the faint scent of burning brushland on Monday, Aug. 6. A series of wildfires had caused a couple of elementary schools near the Makaha Valley area to close on the first official day of school.

Wai‘anae High, perched like a resort destination on a breezy stretch of rugged coastline, was under no fire threat but the skies were a reminder of the challenges that many of these new students were dealing with — relocated families, evacuations. And for this community, it was a metaphor.

“How many of you were impacted by the fires this weekend?” asked Vice Principal Rebecca Gebreyesus, known around campus as “Mrs. G.” About three-quarters of the students assembled in the room raised their hands. 

“So, you’ve been impacted, but you still make the commitment to show up and be ready for school. That’s resilience. You have already demonstrated that you’re Wai‘anae Strong,” she said. “Your job is to come to school prepared and work hard. We’re here to make sure you’re prepared, mentally and academically, for college and career and community life.”

The school’s incoming Class of 2022 had spent the morning being introduced to its 9th Grade Success Academy. There was a welcome pep rally and students were teamed up with teachers who guided them around campus to give them a feel for navigating to the classes they would start the next day.

Now they were getting a debriefing from leadership in the school library, but in a surprising twist they were told, “This is about what you should expect from us, your teachers and support staff.”

Expectations run both ways when you’re on the R.I.D.E. at Wai‘anae High.

​Wai‘anae High's cheer squad gets ready to welcome new freshmen during orientation day, Aug. 6, 2018.

Starting the R.I.D.E.

There’s a lot of research looking at 9th grade because of the critical transitions these students are moving through. New school, new classmates, and every activity is geared toward post-secondary readiness — this all plays a big role. In addition, data show that how 9th graders do academically sets the stage for all that comes after. The University of Chicago published research last year (view report) that pointed to the significance of freshman year grades as a predictor of future success — including whether they graduated — and was a stronger predictor than assessments.

Or as Education Week put it, “When students experience a rough freshman year of high school, they usually don't recover from it.”

This was proving to be the case at Wai‘anae High. In a presentation to the Hawai‘i DOE’s Educational Leadership Institute this summer, Wai‘anae High Vice Principal Hayley Spears laid it out for the assembled educators: “About a third of our 9th graders weren’t making it to 10th grade. We had to be really honest about what was going wrong.”

That meant going beyond the data to audit classroom practices. While there were plenty of examples of teachers going above and beyond, on the whole there was a lack of fidelity and consistency in standards-based instruction, and poor coordination with behavioral supports. In a community challenged by poverty and housing insecurity, this manifested into frayed learning environments where students didn’t feel much was expected of them, and they delivered on that. 

The good news was the core of Wai‘anae’s teaching and support staff wanted to do something about it. Four years ago, they began. The timing was right: Principal Disa Hauge had a year under her belt at the helm of the school and had a strong grasp of the school’s strengths and challenges. 

“Principal Hauge has really been the driving force behind all of this,” Gebreyesus said. “She gives each of the grade academies the flexibility they need to try new things, and provides enough oversight and structure that we work cohesively.”

New freshmen at Wai‘anae High sitting with their teachers learn the school's
alma mater and cheers before taking a tour of the campus.

It was also around the time that the state’s innovation office was supporting “Bright Spots” field trips so school teams could learn from each other about promising practices that were delivering results. A team from Wai‘anae High flew out to Kapa‘a High, where teachers had created a support structure for freshmen that was fueling a major turnaround for the school.

“The great thing about that visit was we didn’t go into a debriefing with the administrators. They said hello and we went straight to the teachers who were doing the work,” Spears said. 

With the support of Principal Daniel Hamada, Kapa‘a’s teachers created two smaller learning communities — freshmen hui, ‘Onipa‘a and Ikaika — in which they implemented a “Transition Skills to High School” program that provides concentrated academic and behavioral supports. They included a “Kauai Leadership Challenge” that engages students with service projects to prepare them to be active community contributors. The hui flow into the school’s pathways-based structure with skills development around service and design.

Since implementing “The Kapa‘a Way,” 9th grade Ds and Fs plummeted, behavioral referrals dropped, and nearly all students were moving on to 10th grade — stellar improvements from having one in five 9th graders held back. (View chart.)

The team left inspired and with a better understanding of what a multi-tiered system of support looks like, and started constructing their own. It needed to resonate and reflect the pride of a community that doesn’t want its challenges to define it, pride coinciding with humility and a deep conviction in overcoming the odds. #WaianaeStrong grew from that, and the school’s award-winning multimedia program, Searider Productions, has made powerful work of it.

Wai‘anae Strong, a brainstorm of the 10th Grade Academy, was the first of a series of schoolwide initiatives that would provide the foundation for their support system. A block schedule school since 2008, teachers have a period a day to devote to professional development and collaboration. Ninth grade initiated standards-based grading (now schoolwide) and trained teachers on the MasteryConnect platform to better target student instruction, while also committing schoolwide to Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) backed by trauma-informed schools training and the school’s “4 Classroom Rules”:

  • All personal electronic devices will be off and put away to enable learning.
  • Be well prepared and on time for every class, every day.
  • We will speak respectfully using appropriate language.
  • We will behave in a way that respects everyone’s right to learn.
These set the stage for The R.I.D.E. — framing the school’s goals and assessing whether what they’re doing is working.

R — Students are READY for the next level
I — Students are INVOLVED
D — Students are DEMONSTRATING positivity
E — EVERY kid, every credit

When Mrs. G tells a room full of freshmen that “We have your back, and we’re gonna get you there, because each and every one of you matters,” the R.I.D.E. is what she means.

The R.I.D.E.'s results

Wai‘anae High built a comprehensive system of academic and behavioral supports, including adopting some good ideas from Kapa‘a High: the Transitions to High School Curriculum for its new 9th Grade Success Academy and peer-to-peer mentoring. All freshmen fill out an onboarding survey to help guide their new teachers and administrators in the kinds of enrichment and supports that would help them fly, rather than relying just on the data from their previous schools. Administrators visit the classrooms to help explain to students what the rigors of standards-based grading looks like and to hammer home that extra credit is a thing of the past — every kid will work to earn every credit. They fan out to homes in the neighborhood to try to connect with family members when students don’t come to school, and leave tags on the doors when no one’s home. Students who are living out The R.I.D.E. are issued Searider Pride tickets that are showcased on the 9th Grade Academy’s bulletin boards and are eligible for monthly awards.

The changes and additions that Wai‘anae High teachers and administrators implemented for 9th graders were many and varied and all interlocking. Taken together, every freshman is wrapped by supports.

The results — academically and behaviorally — have paid off like a jackpot, only luck wasn’t a factor. From 2015 to 2018, Wai‘anae High’s 9th graders:

  • grew their collective grade point average among full-school-year students by 15 percent while the rigor of their learning increased:
    • the state’s 9th grade GPA grew 6.5 percent in that time
    • Wai‘anae is beating the state average for 9th grade GPA as of last year

Grade 9 grade point average shown for full-school-year students only (started and ended the year at a HIDOE school).

  • reduced their incidents of Chapter 19 student misconduct — which includes everything from fighting to insubordination — by 77 percent:
    • statewide the incident rate of 9th graders has gone down 15 percent in that time
    • Wai‘anae slashed its 9th grade student misconduct incidents by 62 percent in the first year alone
    • When Wai‘anae High started its 9th Grade Success Academy, the school was responsible for nearly 1 in 4 of all 9th grade student misconduct incidents statewide. As of last year, that’s dropped to 1 in 14.

“Wai‘anae High implemented these supports quickly and effectively, and their students are benefitting,” said Stephen Schatz, executive director of the Hawai‘i P-20 Partnerships in Education, which works to strengthen the education pipeline from early childhood education to post-secondary education. “It’s a real testament to what’s possible when school teams collaborate and share what’s working for them.”

Hawaii P-20 produces the College & Career Readiness Indicators reports that track performance of our high schools. Wai‘anae’s culture shift and focus on 9th grade are having the desired effect down the road. The on-time graduation rate has risen eight points in four years to 78 percent. And among Wai‘anae’s Class of 2017:

Career & Technical Education (CTE) Program finishers (learn more)
Students earning diplomas with honors (learn more)
Early College/Dual Credit enrollment (learn more)
Students earning 6 or more dual credits15%8%

Though assessments remain a challenge and they’re not enrolling in college at the same rate as their peers, Wai‘anae’s students are working harder, meeting the higher requirements of CTE and honors diplomas, and taking advantage of the enrichment opportunities available to them while they’re Seariders.

“We’re gonna push you, but we’re here for you,” Mrs. G told her new freshmen. As they were released to lunch, she reached out to them as they walked by:

“How’s it going so far?
You doing good?
Have any questions?
Okay, have a good year.
Come talk to us anytime.”

Vice Principals Rebecca Gebreyesus, left, and Hayley Spears talk with new freshmen at the end of an orientation session.

Vice Principals Rebecca Gebreyesus, left, and Hayley Spears talk with new freshmen at the end of an orientation session that featured an overview of academic and emotional supports.

Contact Information

Communications Office

Phone: 808-586-3232

Email: doe_info@hawaiidoe.org


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