Chartering a course
Maui's public school system is failing. Is Kihei Charter a beacon of hope?
March 19, 2009
The alarm starts to chirp at 5am. It’s still dark outside and even though every sense inside of John tells him to go back to sleep, he can’t. He stumbles into the shower and starts to mentally organize the day’s tasks, a routine more familiar to him than shampooing his hair. Kids. School. Work. Repeat. He must dress and eat breakfast before his kids wake up because it’s always difficult to get them out of bed, and if he’s late to work one more time it’s his ass.
His kids don’t take the bus because they live 30 miles from school, so he must drive them. On a good day the drive is 45 minutes long. John passes several school buses on his way out of Lahaina towards Kihei. Sure, his two children could easily attend the high school a mere walking distance from their home, but instead he repeats this routine every day, every year because John wants the best education for his kids that the Hawaii public school system can provide.
|There are 150 names on KCS's waiting list. These kids got in.|
“John” is a composite of the many parents who live all over Maui but choose to send their children to Kihei Public Charter School. Maui’s only charter school helps alleviate overcrowding at Maui High School, but it’s also open to all Maui children in kindergarten through 12th grade. Maui (and much of Hawaii) is unique in that parents can choose what school their child attends. This is not done because a parent prefers one school mascot over another; alas, there is a much more sinister reason behind the school swap.
Every high school in Maui County is failing federal standards for public schools.
Maui’s high school students have not met the requirements of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act for at least two years, and some for as many as five or six years. In fact, Hawaii ranks as one of the lowest scoring states in the U.S. when it comes to public education. By just about any measure, Hawaii is failing when it comes to its children’s education.
How does any of this mean parents can handpick their child’s school? Under the NCLB act, when a school fails to meet the federal requirements after two consecutive years, parents are allowed to withdraw their student and place them in a better-performing school. The school district is required to let parents know each year if their child is eligible to transfer to another school served by the district. It must provide at least two transfer schools to choose from, if available, and the district must also pay for transportation costs. If there are not enough funds available to pay for all students, the district must give priority to low-income, low-achieving students. This seemingly harsh law is actually meant to give schools incentive to meet NCLB requirements since the fewer students they have the less federal money they receive.
(It’s important to note that numerous educators don’t like the No Child Left Behind Act. They have been vocal, nationwide, in criticizing the financial burden NCLB creates for testing and data collection, as well as the NCLB goals, saying that they are impossible to meet and that’s why so many schools are “failing.”)
“NCLB says Title 1 schools are supposed to make arrangements for kids to attend schools that are passing,” says Sue Whitney Heath, a member of Wrightslaw, a special education law and advocacy group. “Passing schools are those making their Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) goals.”
This requirement applies even if it means transferring to a school in a different district, Heath says. “NCLB says that all children in a failing school can choose to go to a non-failing school. If there is no other passing school in your district, you may choose a school in another district.”
That all sounds good. But what do you do when you live on an island in the middle of the Pacific and there is no other school district to transfer to?
In high school, it’s all about who’s popular and who’s not. And it seems that Kihei Public Charter School (KCS) is winning the popularity contest in Maui. Not only is the school at its maximum student capacity, but there’s a waiting list to get in. According to Mark Christiano, executive director of KCS, that waiting list currently contains 150 names. That’s like the line outside the boy’s restroom after Molly Ringwald gave up her panties in Sixteen Candles.
“We only exist because people want to come here,” says Christiano. “We are starting an enrollment lottery this year. We are a very successful school.”
Though they have drawn some criticism, charter schools have been gaining popularity nationwide. Proponents say that with a flexible curriculum and room for innovation, they provide a happy medium between traditional public schools and private institutions, and a good alternative for parents. But accountability is key.
KCS, which is housed in a 16,000-square-foot industrial space and just purchased a former nightclub as the site of its new middle school program, measures success not only by its high enrollment numbers but by academic accreditation and the satisfaction surveys turned in by parents, students and teachers. It’s estimated that 80 percent of KCS students have gone on to college. Christiano even went so far as to call his school the “best kept secret on Maui” in a 2007 Honolulu Advertiser article.
Christiano describes the school as having a “high reliance on technology” in that computers are used in the classroom instead of textbooks. KCS’s six-period class schedule follows a theme each term, such as global awareness and civic responsibility.
So how does Maui’s only charter school measure up by federal standards? The bad news is they are also failing the NCLB requirement. The good news is this is the first year they’ve failed. In fact, Kihei Public Charter School was the only Maui high school in good standing until 2008. The charter school got a failing grade this past year because only 31 percent of students passed the math test, with 46 percent the required threshold.
“I’m not thrilled with it,” Christiano says when asked about his school’s recent rating. “We killed on reading, but math is one we are struggling with. I’m not only concerned with passing the (NCLB) tests, but improving the math education of all our students.”
But still, as the best-performing high school on Maui, Christiano and his staff must be showered with all kinds of government gifts and Department of Education funding and Willy Wonka-like field trips for teachers to celebrate the obvious success of the school. Right?
For the 2008-09 school year, Kihei Public Charter School received $7,588 per pupil from the DOE while other public schools received $8,247 per pupil. Why the discrepancy?
“That’s a good question,” says Bob Roberts, Chief Financial Officer of the Charter School Administrative Office, which operates under the DOE’s umbrella. “I don’t have an answer. That’s the case we’ve been trying to make to anyone that will listen. [Charter schools] should be getting the same [funding]. The main issue we face is funding for facilities is not provided for in our operations allocations. Charter schools have to use their operation funds, which is not the case for DOE schools.”
That’s not milk money Bob’s talking about either. KCS is projecting a $750,000 expenditure on facilities this year, which is 23 percent of their per-pupil money.
“Our plan for next year involves the consolidation of our middle school facilities into one facility in Lipoa Center in the heart of Kihei,” says Christiano. “This new lease will allow us access to more space for about the same amount of money.” Christiano says that putting so much of their funding into facilities “puts a tremendous strain on our ability to implement all of the innovative programs that we would like to start for our students. We are very proud of what we currently offer, but with facility funding we could be doing a lot more for the kids.”
The funding discrepancy is not being ignored by state officials. “They’re trying to work on it,” says DOE spokesperson Sandra Goya. “The fact is that the funding is based on a formula that is legislative. [The issue has] even gone to the state auditor and it’s definitely something they’re trying to address.”
Apparently the charter school issue is stuck in limbo until a bill is presented that makes everyone happy, and that’s where Senate Bill 496 comes in. If this bill can make it through all the red tape and be put to a vote and passed, it will finally declare that all public schools are created equal when it comes to doling out dollars.
But that’s no guarantee.
“Several bills have been presented on this issue and they have all failed,” says Roberts. “This is a different version of those bills, so we hope it goes through this time.”
Christiano seems optimistic. “The conversation is definitely changing. I guess the right people weren’t supporting us before.”
The problem isn’t necessarily a lack of funding on the DOE’s part. Even though the department fights tooth and nail each year for a larger budget, Hawaii is ranked 16th in the nation for per-pupil expenditures. The Department of Education’s operating budget has grown from about $972 million in 2000 to about $2.4 billion in 2008. Yet, despite the high ranking in student spending, Hawaii still teeters on the bottom rung for student success on tests when compared nationally.
As Maui’s population continues to swell, the need for more schools follows. Despite Kihei Public Charter School’s dreams of expanding to accommodate more students, the Department of Education sees a better way to handle South Maui’s student overcrowdinganother school. Recently, the DOE announced plans to move forward with the purchase of 77 acres from Kaonoulu and Haleakala ranches to build Kihei High School. They haven’t revealed how much this acquisition will cost and are foregoing an environmental assessment while asking the state Board of Land and Natural Resources to approve the deal “based on principle.”
In the submittal to the land board, which can be accessed by the public, the DOE acknowledges that Kihei Charter does exist and does cater to students in kindergarten through 12th grade, as well as homeschool students. However, it says, “Kihei Charter School is not intended to meet Maui’s south regional need for a DOE complex-based high school. Currently, these needs are serviced by Maui High School [in Kahului].” The DOE goes on to say that “the establishment of a new high school campus in the south region of Maui is a high priority DOE project. The proposed school will initially accommodate up to 1,000 students and provide for future expansion.”
It’s certainly possible that building another public school will benefit Maui. But with funding already spread thin and test scores bottomed out, to undermine the progress of a successful and popular “alternative” school facing the same challenges (with less funding) as its counterparts brings to mind a famous quote: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” MTW
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