Hawaii Zones of School Innovation Committed to Improvement

Four students pose for a photo, holding vegetables they have picked as part of an agriculture project with Makaha Farms.

Hawaii created two Zones of School Innovation to support regions with many of the state’s lowest performing schools. Schools in these zones benefit from greater flexibility and from state investments in curriculum, professional development, technology, teacher recruitment, and wraparound services such as medical care and nutrition education. Photo credit: Hawaii Department of Education

Investing in teachers, time, services and technology to close achievement gaps

Bem is a ninth-grade student who lives with his parents, cousins and grandparents, migrants from the Marshall Islands, in a sparsely populated area of the island of Hawaii, 25 miles away from Kau High School. There are many obstacles Bem faces on a daily basis to receive an education. Just getting to school regularly is a challenge, as it is for many other students in this largely rural part of the State.

But, lately, Bem has been attending school more regularly and has become more engaged in his school work. He even says he wants to get involved in student government. “He’s been coming to school every day, he’s more serious about his studies and he knows that learning is going to take hard work,” said Kau High and Pahala Elementary Principal Sharon Beck.

A comprehensive set of policies and services put in place over the past few years across the sprawling Kau–Keaau–Pahoa Complex Area of schools is starting to make a difference. Unlike every other State, Hawaii has a single, statewide school system. Complex areas function like school districts in other States. In its successful application for a Federal Race to the Top grant, Hawaii said it would make two complexes—Kau–Keaau–Pahoa on the island of Hawaii and Nanakuli–Waianae on the island of Oahu—Zones of School Innovation (ZSIs) because they each had several schools that were among the lowest performing in the State.

That meant additional flexibilities and investments for ZSI schools including:  more instructional time during the school year as well as in the summer; financial incentives to attract effective teachers and leaders to remote schools; a common curriculum; intensive support for early-career as well as experienced teachers; an infusion of technology to expand students’ understanding of the world; giving principals more control over hiring decisions; and arranging for medical care, mental health counseling, nutrition education and other services.

These enormous changes have led to evidence of progress. Eight of the 18 schools in the zones identified as low-performing four years ago have now met performance targets and, in more than half, student growth is outpacing State averages in both reading and mathematics. Statewide, Hawaii public schools have narrowed the achievement gap by 12 percent, and on-time graduation has increased by seven percent.

Addressing Emotional and Behavioral Issues

Kau–Keaau–Pahoa Complex Superintendent Mary Correa said in a video about the zones that principals, teachers and complex leaders worked together to create a comprehensive plan. “We knew we had to focus on poverty [and] we had to address the fact that our students don’t have all the experiences and opportunities that other students do,” she said.

Three young students crowd around a laptop while one student points at something on the screen.

In the last few years, Hawaii public schools have narrowed the achievement gap by 12 percent, and on-time graduation has increased by 7 percent. Photo credit: Hawaii Department of Education

At Nanaikapono Elementary School in the Nanakuli–Waianae Complex Area, where more than 90 percent of the students’ families are low income, 41 percent of the students were frequently absent last year, a side effect of chronic health issues and homelessness. “A lot of times when we see kids melting down, their family member has just been put into jail or they have been continuously moving from one relative’s house to another,” Principal Debra Knight said.

To address these issues, the faculty routinely looks at attendance and behavior data to identify those students most in need of assistance. One-on-one and group counseling are provided to help students cope with emotional trauma and build resilience, while also stressing the importance of regular school attendance. Teachers and counselors also visit parents at home to get them more involved in their children’s learning and to provide them with medical services or substance abuse counseling.

Knight said these wraparound services have contributed to an 11 percent drop in absenteeism and surveys find students feel safer and more connected to teachers.

Focus on Teaching and Teachers

Attracting and retaining effective and experienced teachers has been an ongoing problem in the two complexes. Complex leaders say many young teachers leave after only a few years for jobs in more populated areas, and vacancies are often filled by teachers who are not highly qualified under the State’s definition. To address that issue, principals in ZSIs get a two-week head start over non-zone schools in hiring; they can offer financial incentives to attract qualified applicants, and the State helps them identify and choose teachers who are well-suited to their schools’ needs.

A student at Kau High and Pahala Elementary does school work on a laptop.

As part of their initiative to attract and retain effective teachers, the two zones provide new teachers with research-based training and pair them with a mentor. Photo credit: Hawaii Department of Education

Every new teacher is mentored by an experienced colleague for two years and is provided with research-based training created in partnership with the New Teacher Center, a nationally recognized teacher-training organization based in California. All teachers also receive help developing individualized professional growth plans and are trained to use data to inform their instruction (see PROGRESS’ Delaware and Hawaii Putting Student Data and Teacher Collaboration at the Heart of Instructional Improvement for more details).

“One of our focuses has been on consistent data collection to inform educator support,” said Kelli Uyeda, who oversees the induction and mentoring program for the Nanakuli-Waianae Zone of School Innovation. “We’re surveying first- and second-year teachers five times a year about how well they feel supported around classroom management, parent communication and use of data and other critical areas of their instructional practice.” Area superintendents and other instructional leaders also conduct regular classroom walkthroughs to identify effective teaching practices that can be shared with other schools. In addition, teachers participate in monthly professional learning communities, where they engage in collaborative problem-solving around common challenges.

“What we’ve started here is about effective teaching and effective leading,” said Hawaii Deputy Superintendent Ronn Nozoe. “It’s not about fancy tools. It’s not something that we bought. There’s a lot of pain and suffering. It’s a heavy lift, and that’s hard.”

Identifying and Meeting Needs

In school year 2012-13, students who were falling behind got an additional hour of instruction four days per week and attended summer sessions. This school year, students received additional tutorial supports both during and after school time, and will attend summer sessions as well.

Two young girls walk outside, with one girl's arm draped around her friend's shoulders.

As its Race to the Top grant comes to a close, the State is developing a strategic plan to continue progress in ZSI schools. Photo credit: Hawaii Department of Education

Schools in the two zones also meet students’ needs by personalizing instruction. In school, students spend part of the time working in small groups on projects and part of the time studying individually at their own pace. While some students are engaged in those activities, teachers have more time to work with others one-on-one.

Keaau Elementary School was the first in the Kau–Keaau–Pahoa Complex Area to integrate technology as a tool to create a more personalized learning experience. “There is much greater engagement because teachers are able to customize each lesson to meet each student’s needs and learning styles,” said Principal Chad Farias.

The increased level of personalization has resulted in much higher levels of student engagement. “Overall engagement has improved dramatically,” Farias reflected. Keaau has seen steady growth in both reading and mathematics proficiency and now has the highest mathematics proficiency rates of all schools in the complex area.

Opening up the World

Computers also are being used to “open up access to a world [our students] have never been exposed to before,” said Nanakuli–Waianae Complex Area Superintendent Ann Mahi. Mahi provided a computer to every student in her complex area and is training teachers to use the technology to deepen student engagement.

A third-grade class at Keaau Elementary recently took advantage of this new technology to participate in a virtual field trip with students from the University Lab School, a local public-charter school, to study the animals in the Honolulu Zoo. By effectively using technology, Keaau students did not need to take the 45-minute plane ride to the zoo because they attended virtually, alongside their University Lab School peers.  Students from both schools wrote about their observations and shared them online. Experiences like this have provided Keaau students, most of whom have never traveled outside of their immediate surroundings, with a much broader sense of the outside world. “Our kids who live in poverty don’t have the experiences to put their learning in context. By incorporating technology, their understanding of content becomes much more real,” Farias said.

Technology has not only created opportunities to learn beyond their island borders, but has also created collaborative learning opportunities with students across the globe.  Keaau Elementary School fifth graders reciprocated by leading a virtual field trip at the local Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.  With the use of Google Glass, students were able to take a school from Mexico and several other Hawaii schools on the three mile hike through Kilauea Iki crater.  Students from all sites collaborated on writing pieces about their journey.

With the State’s four-year Race to the Top grant coming to a close at the end of 2014, State officials are intently focused on developing plans to continue progress in the schools. State Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi’s push to turn Hawaii’s Race to the Top proposal into a strategic plan is one clear signal of this commitment. The plan, which is tightly aligned to its Race to the Top commitments, was adopted by the State Board of Education and will serve as the State’s roadmap for ongoing implementation of reform efforts currently underway.

Nozoe said in a video about the zones that they are the “showcase for educational reform in the State of Hawaii.”

This infographic is titled “Strong Growth in Zones.” Under the title, the text reads: “More than three-fourths of schools in the Hawaii Zones of School Innovation outpaced growth in either reading or mathematics when compared to other schools in the State.” Below that text is a subheader that reads: “Schools above State median growth percentile” and there are three arrows pointing up to indicate that there are schools in the Hawaii Zones of School Innovation that are above the Stated median growth percentile. The first arrow says “11 of 18 Reading,” indicating that 11 of the 18 schools in the Hawaii Zones of School Innovation are above the State median growth percentile in reading. The second arrow says “12 of 18 Mathematics,” indicating that 12 of the 18 schools in the Hawaii Zones of School Innovation are above the State median growth percentile in mathematics. The third arrow says “15 of 18 Reading or Mathematics,” indicating that 15 of the 18 schools in the Hawaii Zones of School Innovation are above the State median growth percentile in either reading or mathematics. Below the arrows is a map of the State of Hawaii. The map includes seven islands. Two of the islands are highlighted and enlarged to show the two school zones. The third island from the left, Oahu, is highlighted and enlarged to show the Nanakuli –Waianae Zone on the left side of the island. School locations are shown using circles and stars. Stars indicate that the school has a student growth rate higher than State median. There are nine school locations shown in the Nanakuli-Waianae Zone; seven are shown as stars and two are shown as circles. The island all the way on the right, Hawaii, is highlighted and enlarged to show the Kau-Keaau-Pahoa Zone on the right side of the island. School locations are shown using circles and stars. Stars indicate that the school has a growth rate higher than State median. There are nine school locations shown in the Kau-Keaau-Pahoa Zone; eight are stars and one is a circle. There is text next to the map that says: “More than three-quarters of the schools (highlighted on map) had student growth rates higher than the State median (50th percentile) in 2013 in reading or mathematics or both. That’s a notable accomplishment given that more than 80 percent of their students are impoverished compared to the statewide average of 53 percent. ‘Four years ago, these schools were struggling and many students in them were falling behind. Now, amazingly, the growth data show that a typical student in these schools is learning faster than her peers around the State,’ said Dave Moyer, Hawaii Department of Education, Office of Strategic Reform. The source listed at the bottom of the infographic is Hawaii Department of Education.


  • Focus on Data: Building zone schools’ capacity to collect, analyze and act on data has resulted in more targeted instruction and improved educational outcomes.
  • Promote Collaboration: Bringing principals, teachers and State leaders together to plan and problem-solve has resulted in increased buy-in and greater alignment around improvement strategies.
  • Get Families Engaged as Partners: Building relationships with families has helped reduce behavioral issues and increase students’ readiness to learn.
  • Harness Technology to Make Learning Personal: Strategic use of digital learning tools to personalize learning can dramatically increase student engagement and achievement

Q&A with Keaau Elementary School Principal Chad Farias

Q: What reform strategies are having the biggest impact on student achievement?

A: The digital learning work has had a tremendous impact.  At my school and other Zones of School Innovation (ZSI) schools, educators are becoming much more intentional about how to use technology to make learning more effective and engaging.  For example, we’ve begun using Google Apps for Education such as Google Glass to enable students to collaborate with other students in their school, or other schools in the State.  Teachers and administrators are also able to share lesson plans, student data, and best practices much more efficiently through online collaboration tools.

The Expanded Learning Time initiative has also been a central part of our turnaround work. There’s a very intentional approach to expanded learning. Last school year, we expanded the day by one hour four days a week, and it wasn’t part of the teacher contract.  Because of this, teachers and administrators could collaborate in whatever ways we thought would be most effective for advancing student learning.  We used the additional time for things like targeted literacy instruction, or refining our response to intervention strategies.

The adoption of our educator effectiveness system has also been key. It has helped administrators have courageous conversations using a rich set of data. It has brought new meaning to our professional learning communities (PLCs). Sixty to 70 percent of schools now have professional learning communities focused on data. This has made a huge difference.

Q: What advice would you offer other States?

A: You have to allow for an honest assessment of your programs. You need to take a true look at what is working for your students. You have to have courageous conversations with your faculty and staff. If the principal is the person in the way, you need to tell them they’re in the way and why they’re in the way. We can’t stay in the comfort of our grade level teams if it’s getting in the way of our kids learning.

Create very strong relationships with your teachers, your community, and your support staff in and around the school. We’ve been open and collaborative and accepting of input. You’ve got to have a strong center. Because we constantly search to improve, people want to invest in us.  Keep your eye on the rate and pace of change. You want to push as hard as you can, but you also need to recognize when teachers need more time. That relationship piece is key.