Suppose the governor’s office asked you to be part of a team to help transform public education in Hawai‘i. There would be no pay, you’d have to go to dozens of meetings and give up a large chunk of your free time to talk to people across the state about improving our schools. Would you do it?
Last June, 20 people from major stakeholder groups said yes, and they’ve been meeting ever since to produce a “blueprint” vision for what Hawai‘i schools could be. This team includes current Department of Education (DOE) officials, students, teachers, principals, parents, legislators and community members.
At a recent Saturday work session, team members gathered at Aiea High School to fine-tune the latest draft of the blueprint that will go to the Board of Education (BOE) for discussion this month. The draft is based on feedback from hundreds of people who came to 20 town hall meetings on six islands and an Education Summit in July that drew more than a thousand people.
“We’ve been amazed at the response from the community. It’s been so inspiring,” said team chair and award-winning retired principal Darrel Galera.“This is grassroots democracy — a blueprint by the people, for the people. It’s an affirmation of who we are and what we believe in for our children.”
Why was the team needed? “The new federal law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), gave the states more control over their own school systems. The team is focusing on more school empowerment rather than a ‘one size fits all’ approach,” he explained. “We needed a group willing to dedicate itself to a community-wide conversation about how to prepare students for the 21st century.”
Galera praised the commitment of the team as well as the governor for seizing the opportunity to launch the ESSA efforts. “It’s a big deal, and it required a lot of courage. The governor’s leadership and vision is what made the difference,” he said. Over the next few months, the focus will be on aligning the DOE strategic plan and the Hawaii State ESSA Plan. “The goal is for alignment of the educational plans to make the blueprint vision a reality,”Galera explained.
Armed with feedback from the community meetings, the ESSA team has crafted a blueprint about future-focused goals and “design ideas” to move from vision to action. It focuses on three priorities that set the bar high for public education:
So what will it take for Hawai‘i to develop the best public education system in the nation? “I think it comes down to two things: visionary leadership and teacher support,” said Galera.“If teachers and leaders aren’t supported and empowered, then it will be an average system. That means trusting educators as professionals. You cannot get to excellence if you don’t have a culture that’s positive, visionary, supportive, empowering and risk-taking.”
Galera said the ESSA blueprint should be considered a dynamic work in progress. “These are guiding documents to help provide direction, but what’s essential is that we continue to stay engaged as a community. We cannot say that every 15 years we’ll get engaged or every 10 years we’ll be empowered. Education is important. Empowerment requires being open, listening and collaborating as a community.”