Improving K-5 Education on the Big Island – Kimberly Castro

Kimberly Castro is the President of the Parent, Teacher, and Student Association (PTSA) of Waikoloa in Waikoloa, Hawaii.

Could you provide a snapshot of K-5 education in Hawaii, in general, and on the Big Island specifically?

Like many schools on the mainland, Hawaii has implemented Common Core Standards for English Language Arts and Mathematics using a state adopted curriculum called Wonders and Stepping Stones Math. Students are monitored regularly for progress using STAR Universal screener, as well as annual Smarter Balance Assessments beginning in 3rd grade. Teachers are rated annually using the Effective Educator System which encourages highly qualified teachers in all classrooms.

On the Big Island, we have an ethnically and culturally diverse population. So, our teachers are trained to utilize a variety of strategies to best meet all students’ needs. Almost 15% of our students at the Waikoloa Elementary & Middle School are classified as English-Language Learners. These are students who are unable to communicate and fluently learn in English. 10% of our students are currently classified as Special Education. And another 9% were formerly classified as Special Education and are monitored. To help teachers reach ALL students, our administration therefore requires all teachers to take Guided Language Acquisition Design (GLAD) training, which gives them techniques to use in the classroom to communicate effectively to students with English language barriers. Elementary grade level teacher data teams also meet weekly to assess data and implement intervention strategies to close the achievement gap.

There is a reported shortage of teachers statewide. Why? How does this shortage affect the Big Island verses Oahu?

There are many significant obstacles that affect teacher shortages in Hawaii. The school districts in our state serve 180,000 students at 290 schools. And, Hawaii Department of Education (HIDOE) will need to fill 1000 teacher vacancies for the 2016-17 school year across the state. Our Hawaii Island will have 82 of those vacancies of which 39 are specialized education. There are a limited number of Special Education (SPED) teachers nationwide. How do we recruit those specialized teachers to our island? Where do we even begin?

First, let’s get right to a major issue and discuss the average teacher’s salary. A first year teacher with a Bachelor’s degree and a Hawaii teaching license will have a beginning salary of $46,601. Let’s combine that knowledge with the fact that Hawaii is the priciest state in the nation to buy a home. Throw in salary, cost of living, home prices, electricity, food, gas, and the mix of culture shock plus thousands of miles of ocean between our teachers and their families, and this sets our teachers up for short longevity in their Hawaii teaching careers.

Unfortunately, our local college teacher education programs aren’t able to produce enough graduates for our needs in Hawaii. The remote islands, specifically our Big Island, feels the strain of this shortage more than Oahu. A few years ago our HIDOE was offering $6000 sign-on bonuses for teachers to work on the Big Island, specifically Kau, Keaau, Pahoa areas. These were considered low-performing / high poverty schools.

At Waikoloa Elementary and Middle School our Parent-Teacher-Student Association (PTSA) has chosen to focus on the positive. We know that retention is the key. There is hope. Every teacher matters. We celebrate the amazing and dedicated teachers every day and just had a special week-long celebration May 2-6 for Teacher Appreciation Week.

Overall, what is the state of the facilities? What are there major challenges across the state? And, are there any unique challenges that you face on the Big Island?

While the average age of most school buildings on Hawaii are 65 years old, Waikoloa boasts fairly new facilities, recently celebrating our 20 year anniversary. There have been several expansions over the past 20 years to include adding a Middle School so that we could service K-8 students. Our challenge is adding classroom space quickly enough to meet the growing community needs.

Since we are a single-district jurisdiction, with offices headquartered on Oahu, it can be difficult to get our needs in front of the HIDOE where monthly meetings are held. We are still bursting at the seams. But, a recent letter writing campaign to our Senators and Congressional Representatives, spearheaded by the Waikoloa SCC (School Community Council) and supported by the PTSA, have culminated in an $11M award to expand our Middle School buildings to include two state of the art science classrooms, an art classroom, and other rooms and offices, to be completed during 2017-18 school year. So, even though we are challenged by being “remote,” we know that we can have a voice when we work together toward a common goal.

Air conditioning seems to be a major problem in elementary schools across the state. Is it a problem at your school? How does the lack of air conditioning affect students, and most importantly, does it undermine their test scores?

The heat abatement issue is certainly a ‘hot’ topic across the state. So much so that Gov. David Ige signed a bill last week that would allocate 100 million to cool Hawaii’s public schools. Unfortunately that money can only go so far. The estimated cost for all Hawaii public schools to have complete AC systems is 1.7 billion. 33 schools have been targeted as high priority to decrease classroom temps to 76 degrees. Of the 11,806 public school classrooms, only 38% currently have AC in place.

In the summer months classroom temperatures can reach highs of 84 to 100 degrees. These conditions can cause nausea, vomiting, heat exhaustion, muscle aches and dehydration for students and teachers. Higher temperatures can also influence neurotransmitters in the brain affecting serotonin levels which can lead to aggressive behavior. Heat definitely undermines test scores with solid proof that the brain does not function well in hot weather. Heat significantly impacts cognition and causes lower intellectual skills. Studies show that optimal learning temperatures are 68-74 degrees, with performance in Math and Reading compromised when the learning environment rose above 74 degrees.

At Waikoloa School, only 14 of our 41 classrooms have AC and currently we are not on the priority list set by the HIDOE. The Waikoloa School PTSA has started a ‘Cool Our Keiki’ program to address the heat abatement challenges at our school. The biggest expense we face is upgrading the electrical infrastructure that is needed to avoid blown circuits or potential fire hazards. It is our hope that with fundraising, grants and donations we can get AC into several more classrooms by the end of this calendar year.

Structured and unstructured play is an important part of K-5 education. How are the physical education and recess resources at your school? What improvements are needed?

Hawaii mandates 30 minutes of Physical Education (PE) per week in grades K-6, and requires recess daily. All required PE classes follow the Hawaii Content and Performance Standards. Our students have one PE class per week. As with most schools the PE equipment has been well-loved and the supplies dwindle as the school year comes to a close. There’s no gymnasium location for PE and all the classes are held outside. Fortunately, it rarely rains in Waikoloa.

Right now, our biggest problem is that our playgrounds desperately need updating. Wood chips, steel rebar, and children at play do not make a safe combination. I’ve been told that removing splinters is a daily routine for our health aid. Our PTSA has been working closely with our principal and Monica Kaui Baron from the HIDOE to come to an agreement to update our Kindergarten playground. Cost is an issue and we’re actively fundraising (have been for years) to make this dream a reality. The HIDOE has now informed us that we need to trim another $10,000 off the quote that we obtained if we want the playground updated.


Kimberly Castro is the President of the Parent, Teacher, and Student Association (PTSA) of Waikoloa.

The views expressed represent those of the respective contributors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed. Please send any responses to Our editors will consider any and all responses for future publication.

Image Credit: rosasay via Flickr CC

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