From left, Kalani Han. Lydia Trinidad and David Lichtenstein from Kualapu'u Elementary visited Chicago for the National Charter School Conference.
By David Lichtenstein
The number of charter schools in this country has increased by 40 percent over the past five years. This fairly new model for public education now serves over 1.6 million students in nearly 5,000 schools. The impact of this movement can be felt in all corners of this country, including Molokai.
Evaluating the success of charter schools is not an easy task. In some places, charter schools have clearly not served the student population as well as traditional public schools. But in other places, especially in inner-city neighborhoods, charter schools have proved that they can transform rundown and failing schools into places of hope and success.
Test results are the most tangible measurement of school success. In Hawaii, the Department of Education uses the Hawaii State Assessment tests as the primary benchmark to determine Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) for each school as mandated under the federal No Child Left Behind statutes.
Based on AYP and other positive changes, Kualapu’u Elementary School, Molokai’s only public charter school, has been one of the success stories. The school has met the AYP benchmarks for several years in a row, placing it in the status of “good standing, unconditional” with the state. This year, Kualapu’u improved the percentage of students proficient in reading by 6 percent and in math by 14 percent.
With an enrollment of 385 students, Kualapu’u is the largest elementary school on Molokai. The next two largest elementary schools on Molokai, Kaunakakai Elementary and Kilohana Elementary, did not meet AYP this year.
But test scores are not the only measurement of success. Since converting from a regular public school to a charter school in June of 2004, Kualapu’u has added a pre-school, a full-time physical education teacher and last year avoided closing on furlough Fridays.
More dramatic changes will be starting next week when the 2010-2011 school year begins. The school community and the Hawaii Charter School Review Panel approved an Expanded Learning Time initiative that will add about one hour to each school day. Helping make this possible will be a private payroll system that will replace the DOE system. A second PE teacher has also been added.
Lydia Trinidad, principal at Kualapu’u, said ELT would not have been possible without the flexibility that the charter school system allows.
“I’ve always been in one large district (in Hawaii),” said Trinidad. “The one-size-fits-all model is sometimes a frustrating way to serve the community. You can have a good solution but it takes a long time to implement.”
This local flexibility allows charter schools to negotiate with the teacher’s union separately from the DOE and manage their own finances. Unlike a DOE school, a charter can create and advertise staff positions as needed. For instance, the school has a full-time reading curriculum coordinator and a math curriculum coordinator to help ensure the school stays on track in meeting state standards in those areas. Trinidad attributes much of the success in meeting AYP to the work of these two coordinators.
To stay on top of the latest educational trends, Kualapu’u sends members of the school community to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools national conference.
“We have tried to send a team every year, members of the Local Advisory Panel and/or a teacher leadership team,” said Trinidad. “Sending our representatives allows our staff and parents a view of the larger movement — how big it is and how schools are different within the charter world.”
As a community member of the LAP Committee, I was fortunate enough to attend this year’s conference in Chicago from June 28 to July 1. Also attending were Kalani Han — a parent, LAP member and the school’s resident farmer — and Trinidad. We attended numerous breakout sessions in areas like student achievement, quality innovation and leadership development. The general sessions provided updates on the political changes in education from the leaders and politicians who support charter schools. Keynote speakers included Bill Gates of Microsoft and Reed Hastings, founder and CEO of Netflix.
During the conference, the three of us were able to observe the Namaste Charter School in Chicago while it was still in session. With the slogan “educating children from the inside out,” this K-6 ethnically diverse school offers a holistic approach to education that emphasizes health and nutrition training and regular exercise. Every student begins each day with a healthy breakfast and yoga. Vigorous daily physical education instruction goes along with rigorous academic instruction.
Trinidad found the visit to Namaste to be particularly interesting because Kualapuu is attempting some similar innovations with its ELT program.
“I liked the ideas at Namaste — the alternative menu, snacks, all with unprocessed foods. It showed that it can be done and still meet (nutritional) guidelines,” said Trinidad. She said she also liked the emphasis on rigorous physical education classes. Under ELT, every Kualapuu student will have daily PE instruction.
Trinidad said the annual conference provides an opportunity to learn about the diversity of charter schools, many of which have only been in existence a few years. Many charters get started because of the passion of a few parents or educators to define the needs of their community. They included technical, Hebrew language, traditional, science-oriented, arts-oriented and too many other types of schools to list. Combined with the hundreds of educational service exhibitors, the conference showed the tremendous amount of support provided to charter schools nationwide.
Trinidad believes that the charter movement is leading the way in educational innovation.
“Charter schools will grow because there will be more pressure and desire to have strong outcomes. If the powers-that-be want that they have to allow principals to manage and run their schools,” said Trinidad.
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