How a school’s academic turnaround helped it weather the pandemic

When Dale Arakaki arrived at Pauoa Elementary eight years ago to take up the post of principal, he was surprised by the number of families requesting geographic exemption transfers to different elementary schools in the same district of Honolulu.

They decamped in historically very successful schools like Manoa Elementary or Maemae Elementary, located in richer areas serving students from the upper socio-economic groups.

Pauoa Elementary School, located in the Pauoa Valley, which covers part of Papakolea, the native Hawaiian farm, is a Title I school, which means many students are on low income and are entitled to a free lunch. and reduced. One third of the students are of Hawaiian descent.

When Arakaki asked parents why they preferred the other schools in Pauoa, they said, “They are fine”, referring to the students’ evaluations.

“I told my staff, ‘We have to turn the situation around academically,” Arakaki said.

And they did.

At Pauoa Elementary School, located in the Pauoa Valley, more than half of the students are entitled to a free or reduced rate lunch and a third of the student body is of Hawaiian descent. Cory Lum / Civil Beat / 2021

In 2016, Pauoa saw the language skills of students in the Smarter Balanced Assessment jump 22 percentage points, from 56% the previous year to 78%, compared to the state average of 53%.

In math, the gains were even more remarkable, rising from 47% to 72%, compared to 42% statewide.

This year was no accident. Over the next several years, Pauoa would see its math and language proficiency scores remain consistently high, even reaching the 80th percentile, as the state average stabilized at 50% or less.

In 2018, Pauoa Elementary caught the attention of national education officials, winning a prestigious distinction from the National Blue Ribbon School, awarded to schools that demonstrate a high degree of academic excellence or succeed in closing the achievement gap. .

Families are no longer leaving, Arakaki said.

“The culture is very positive, so there is a lot of confidence,” he said last week. “It’s one of our core values: trust. “

After the pandemic, Pauoa, like other schools, struggled to maintain its balance. But the strengths he had cultivated enabled him to weather the storm.

In other schools, performance had already declined before the pandemic. And the disruption caused by the health emergency shook them, leading to recriminations and soul-searching among educators and advocates.

The 2021 SBA results showed an alarming decline in math, language arts and science skills compared to 2019, especially among students in the Pacific Islands, including Micronesians and indigenous Hawaiians.

“The impacts of Covid on student success in Hawaii are similar to the impacts across the United States,” said Lorrie Shepard, a professor in the School of Education at the University of Colorado Boulder who studies assessments. “Groups of students who have been denied learning opportunities in the past have also been disproportionately affected by Covid shutdowns, (like) lack of internet access.”

Acting Superintendent Keith Hayashi told an Education Council meeting on Oct. 21 that schools “stand ready to do whatever it takes to ensure our students get back on track and succeed “, by relying on tutoring, school coaching, extracurricular support. and specialized education.

But some were not satisfied with this response.

“We don’t know what the goal is,” said Cheri Nakamura, head of the He’e Coalition, a nonprofit organization that includes education stakeholders in Hawaii. “Is it to bring students back to pre-pandemic levels by the end of the year?” Is there a short term goal and a long term goal? What groups of students are we looking at? “

Education Council member Shanty Asher urged officials to consider the inequalities and disparities that have long existed for subgroups of students like Pacific Islanders, especially Micronesian students, and really looking at the supports that need to be offered.

“For the socio-economic status of this particular group of Pacific Islanders, they have already been marginalized and this has only worsened during the pandemic,” she said.

Students work with plastic barriers in the classroom of Pauoa Elementary School grade 5 teacher Jeanne Oliveira during the Covid-19 pandemic.  28 October 2021
Although Pauoa Elementary, like other schools in the DOE, experienced a decline in SBA scores during the pandemic, student performance in phonetics increased by a few percentage points in 2021 compared to 2019. Cory Lum / Civil Beat / 2021

Pauoa Elementary’s pre-pandemic upward trajectory, with its underdog status and its share of low-income children, may have given it the momentum to continue to succeed despite setbacks.

Pauoa, like most other schools in the DOE, was not immune to declining students’ skills in core math, reading, and science subjects during the annual test, which is given to students. Hawaii from Grades 3 to 8 and 11. But because his scores were high. for starters, the bottom numbers still far exceeded the state average – almost twice as high in the case of math.

And the school, which welcomes 357 children, has not only experienced academic setbacks in the midst of the pandemic. Student performance in phonetics has actually increased by a few percentage points in 2021 compared to 2019, a testament to the long-term efforts that are now paying off.

Just before the pandemic, in 2019, the DOE recognized the school’s success in a special one-day meeting to discuss the achievement gap, as well as other low-socioeconomic but high-performing schools like Laie. Elementary and Kalihi Uka Elementary.

Pauoa relies heavily on data collection, small group instruction and an ‘action plan’ for each student that sets goals for the year and identifies their strengths and weaknesses.

Dale Arakaki, Principal of Pauoa Primary School.
Dale Arakaki, Principal of Pauoa Primary School. Cory Lum / Civil Beat / 2021

“It’s almost like an individualized IEP for each student,” says Arakaki, referring to the individual education program developed for students with special needs that is the model of the services they need to receive free public education and appropriate.

Arakaki said he has shared presentations and that other schools and complex fields have contacted since then, but it is not clear whether the DOE is broadening its approach to encourage similar practices.

The Pauoa Elementary arc demonstrates that with a few basic strategies, even a historically challenged school can make a difference.

Recovering What Has Been Lost in Online Education

On a recent Thursday morning, 18 students, most of whom were wearing red school-themed T-shirts for the school’s “Spirit Week”, sat in Kristin Tatemichi’s third grade classroom. , learning new words by discussing their meaning through “context clues” in a sentence.

She read a passage to the students that included the word “comfort”. “What do you think ‘comfort’ means? The teacher asked the students. “When you are sick, what kind of comfort can your parents offer you? “

As Tatemichi strolled around the classroom with an iPad in hand, the students’ hands eagerly rose in the air.

The answers came in a continuous stream: “medicine”, “soup”, “saimin”.

Kristin Tatemichi, grade 3 teacher at Pauoa Primary School, works with her students during class.
Kristin Tatemichi, grade 3 teacher at Pauoa Primary School, works with her students during class. Cory Lum / Civil Beat / 2021

All wearing masks, the third-graders seemed comfortable and engaged in the discussion, sometimes breaking into pairs to discuss the issue before a rhythm of three applause from the teacher brought their attention back to the whole class.

“These are the things that got lost online,” Arakaki observed of student engagement. “It’s really hard to replicate that online. “

Arakaki, who came to Pauoa from Waipahu Elementary, a school with a high concentration of English learners and a large number of Micronesian students, said that although Pauoa’s demographics are different, his children face challenges. similar challenges such as low socioeconomic status and lack of educational opportunities that can better prepare students for traditional education.

“DOE schools do not have a level playing field like most private schools,” he said. “In a Title I school, the rules of the game are even more unequal compared to non-Title I schools.”

Her school therefore tries to foster an inclusive culture.

“The diversity of this community brings such richness to the school,” said Jeanne Oliveira, fifth grade teacher, who has been working at Pauoa elementary school since 2004. “We talk a lot about our different origins and ethnicities. “

There are a growing number of Chinese students who are learning English. One third of the students are from Hawaii and the school has had many Marshallese students in the recent past.

Pauoa Primary School Grade 5 teacher Jeanne Oliveira gestures while giving her lesson.
Jeanne Oliveira, a fifth year primary school teacher in Pauoa, said the diversity of the student body “brings such richness to the school”. Cory Lum / Civil Beat / 2021

Even the children seemed happy to be in school.

“It’s fun,” said Jaren Arcano, 11, a fifth-grader, of returning to the classroom after distance learning. “Everyone here and all of my classmates are very cooperative. “

Among the smarter balanced assessments, Arakaki thinks like the main veteran that he is, acknowledging what he can’t control and what he can.

“It’s just a number,” he said. “It’s extra pressure, yes, but that’s what the DOE is measuring and I can’t change that. So I have to comply and respond to them, ”he said.

“I can’t fight what I can’t control, but what I can control is the learning of my students and the teaching my teachers provide in the classroom. Once all of this positive culture is established, then yes, you have intentional teaching. “

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