‘Yes, let’s do it’ is the mantra at Kea‘au Elementary


More than halfway through the first school year of an updated Strategic Plan and a state plan for federal funding under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) law, there’s a lot of discussion about putting more control of education into the hands of teachers, schools and communities. Kea‘au Elementary is testing what that looks like, one idea at a time.

More than halfway through the first school year of an updated Strategic Plan and a state plan for federal funding under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) law, there’s a lot of discussion about putting more control of education into the hands of teachers, schools and communities.

Kea‘au Elementary is testing what that looks like — one idea at a time.

That started with getting everyone to believe that it was okay to try new things. First-year principal Janice Ochoa Blaber is still working on developing that trust, she says.

“We should be focusing on figuring out what our students need,” said Blaber, who was vice principal at Kealakehe Elementary in the five years prior to her new post, and a teacher before that. “And I get questions back like, ‘Can we change what we know is not working?’ And of course we can. But it’s tough, because that’s not what the culture has been.”

At its core, the approach is to have teachers, staff and stakeholders collaborate to design lessons and activities that strengthen academics, health, and community, backed by research and documented to track its effectiveness. Teachers are reporting that there’s more sharing among them than ever before. And it has been invigorating.

“It’s opened doors and opened my mind to the power a classroom teacher has,” said Brynn Alcain, a 5th grade teacher in her fifth year at Kea‘au El. “Now, I found a new confidence in designing lessons — planning innovative approaches to deliver the curriculum made me realize how putting teachers in charge of teaching and learning builds immense capacity. There are so many other facets you’re considering.”

Culture conundrum

To understand why there’s this discussion of what teachers feel they can or can’t do, it helps to understand the last few years in educational policy. The federal No Child Left Behind law passed in 2001 had a laser focus on reading and math proficiency and graduation rates, with escalating consequences for schools that weren’t meeting targets on the whole and for several student subgroups. While it prevented school systems from hiding softness in select academic performance areas, the law’s narrow focus turned school into a zero-sum game, sharply curbing many of the quality experiences and subjects that make for a well-rounded and fun learning environment.

That relaxed somewhat under a flexibility waiver from the law that allowed Hawai‘i to launch a more holistic system in 2012, Strive HI, but contemporaneously schools were implementing rigorous new standards and assessments for English language arts and mathematics, as well as an educator performance system tied to results. Six years in, Hawai‘i can celebrate positive results for students’ college and career readiness (see the significant remediation improvement in Hawai‘i P-20’s CCRI reports as an example), but as for trying new things, with fidelity or even energy, it’s fair to say capacity was an issue.

And from a school perspective, of course, there’s a gap between a statewide drive to improve the academic outcomes of 180,000 students versus meeting the needs of individual students.

Staff and volunteers work on the Pono Garden at Keaau ElementaryFor Blaber, the approach is that you do both, but you always do what’s best for students based upon what their teachers and community know. “Our academic targets are markers in the road. We adhere to them, and we also do what’s best for keiki. And we don’t put aside what’s best for keiki, for anything.”

(Photo: Staff and volunteers work on the school's Pono Garden, a site for Team Resilience meetings to help the school build social-emotional supports for keiki and community.)

So to help teachers who feel unsure about what they can or can’t do, Kea‘au El teachers say that Principal Blaber’s approach has been helpful — she listens and she models by continuing to teach. “She said, ‘You guys know what you need and what the kids need,’” said Kellee Kelly, a pre-K special education teacher who earned her National Board Certification with this year’s cohort. “She has high expectations of us that reflects her knowledge of teaching as a profession, but she’s supportive. I feel supported to try new things.”

New ideas

The team launched Action Research in Education this year to help stir teacher leadership in designing effective lessons that resonate for Kea‘au’s students, but which are backed by inquiry, research and results. A sample of efforts under way:

  • Kindergarten teacher Blake Ann Antida is trying new curricula based on dinosaurs. Observationally, it’s well suited for students at a range of learning levels: the more proficient are learning and using terms like “herbivore” and “predator,” and others who are still learning words and letters are engaged and the joy of learning is there because of the subject matter.
  • Vice Principal Jason Britt is developing a project in tandem with the school’s Team Resilience, identifying practices to build trauma awareness, empathy, and mindfulness. He’s gathering data from their students to help design professional development with Team Resilience for the teachers and staff to create whole child learning environments that are informed by conditions in the community, which is high poverty and high needs.
  • Special education inclusion teacher Lynn Nagata is documenting the effects of “Brain Breaks” on her students’ learning and well-being — taking them outside, doing rounds of jumping jacks, making movement a regular part of class.

A handful of educators were ready to take risks while others watch and ask questions, Blaber said, and she expects that will continue while trust is built.

“My message to teachers is: You have the power to transform the lives of the kids in your classroom. You don’t have to ask if I’m going to like it. You do have to ask, How is this going to change the learning in a positive, optimal way for students?” Blaber said. “But I can’t just say all that and then close the door to my office. I have to model it, I have to teach, they have to see me taking the risk. I’m going to keep making mistakes, and I’m going to share them with you so we can learn together from them.”

This has been key in helping those first teachers take the leap, Alcain said. “She’s building with us — incorporating student voice, teaching alongside teachers, hosting Socratic Seminars with students. She’ll jump into classrooms to select student exemplar work, talk about what their goals are.”

Kelly added that the Action Research Hui, with the principal’s guidance and modeling, is providing the framework teachers need to work within so there’s organization behind the drive to try new things, not a free for all.

“It gives us the flexibility to try the things we know have great promise for kids while documenting whether they’re effective for our kids,” Kellee said.

The timing of this work is particularly good for Alcain with the implementation of Next Generation Science Standards happening in her grade level. “Our fifth grade team came together to design and plan NGSS lessons. We shared ideas to incorporate authentic place-based problem solving opportunities and reflected on our mistakes based on past experience. We sat as lesson designers and discussed ways to integrate a variety of standards throughout the projects. We researched ideas and strategies, had dialogue about our findings, and discussed plans to teach projects based on a common understanding and goal.”

Building student & community voice

The school finds all kinds of ways to bring student voice into the design of the school. Kelly brought her students into a leadership meeting to add their input to the school’s Comprehensive Needs Assessment, an exercise schools do annually to inform their academic plans and financial plans.

“We asked them questions about who they are. The answers they give are the answers we need to use to create a school for them,” Blaber said. “We need to have the personalities of our students in those documents.”

Students also took over the February edition of the school’s newsletter, The Nene, to feature interviews with teachers, bus drivers and administrators about their work.

The monthly Parent Coffee Hours are seeing stronger life with the help of Parent Community Networking Center coordinator Sally Deryke, with about 15 parents and other community regulars in attendance.

School walkthroughs, normally the purview of teachers and administrators learning from each others’ practices, are open to anyone from the community who’s interested in discussing ideas, needs and improvements. And walkthroughs are branching out to the school across the street, Kea‘au High School. Blaber asked teachers to volunteer to tour the campus and learn about programs to better understand where their kids would be headed. They explored the school’s student-constructed Space Shuttle Challenger replica, their growing agricultural program and career pathways for students, and more.

“It reminds us to be proud of the resources this community has to offer,” Blaber said. “The good thing is not that we have a MacBook Air for every student — that’s just lucky. It’s about the pride you have walking the hallways of school.” You can follow that journey on social media at #WeAreKeaau.

There’s also a literacy push that applies to more than the students. In addition to monthly literacy reviews to track student progress, a literacy night has been created to showcase student learning and pull in parents and the community, including Kea‘au High students who read to students (see post above). Blaber also encourages teachers to read books on promising new educational trends in order to have open discussions with their colleagues and share ideas.

“The expectations we have of students she also puts on us,” Alcain said. “We can read whatever we want based on our school’s focus areas: differentiation, place-based learning, multicultural education. It’s improving our collaboration in our PLCs (professional learning communities, teams within schools grouped by subject, grade or other similar demographic). This empowers educators to become learners and value multiple perspectives with regards to professional development. We’re sharing more now.”

There’s a laundry list of additional activities they’re trying: in the second quarter of this year they launched after school programs that included a makerspace led by Alcain. Principal Blaber hosts Genius Hours to let kids pursue passion projects they want to work on. They’re teaching chess to kindergarteners on Thursdays. They’re working with volunteers on a Pono Garden to provide calm, outdoor meeting space for Team Resilience to do more social-emotional support work with their keiki. They just hosted a STEAM Night (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) with the community that was sponsored by Ace Hardware.

Maybe there’s a trust-to-energy ratio at schools, or anywhere, really — the more trust, the more output. Blaber said she’ll keep working at it. “I’m still learning how to be an effective leader. We’re all learners, and I’m learning with the teachers and the students,” she said. “There’s a lot more sharing of ideas. As trust is being built, we see how much stronger we can be as a community.”

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