Innovation Academies

Charter schools offer students new ways of learning, but struggle financially and don’t always succeed

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Students of Halau Ku Mana start each day with Hawaiian chants.
Photo: David Croxford

While other students around the state begin their day reciting the Pledge of Allegiance or listening to announcements in traditional classrooms with four walls, the 85 students at Halau Ku Mana charter school chant in Hawaiian under a tree-shaded tent in upper Makiki.

Respectfully, they ask permission to begin a day of classes – math and reading, hula and Hawaiian language, history and maybe work in the loi or repairing the school’s small, double-hulled canoe. The traditional chant “sets a tone for their day,” says vice principal and kumu hula Kawika Mersberg. “It helps them focus.”

Meanwhile, down the mountain in gritty Kakaako, Voyager charter school welcomes 230 students into classes that include two grade levels in each room. The mixing lets children mentor younger pupils and bond with older ones.

In a school where the Golden Rule is part of the mission, parents join teachers in art projects, read to the class or help with math. “This school helps kids have a better opportunity to progress at their own speed,” says Layla Dedrick, a parent also active on the board. “They have pride in being Voyager students.”

Two hundred miles away in Pahoa on the Big Island of Hawaii – an area struggling with poverty – yet another charter is preparing students to care for 2,000 acres of virgin forest or to clear invasive mangrove from ancient fishponds.

At the Hawaii Academy of Arts and Science, endangered and indigenous plants are part of the lessons, along with an understanding of living sustainably. “Our kids are really proud of their campus,” says HAAS director Steve Hirakami of the 460 students from K-12. “There’s no vandalism. If you turn it over to kids, they’re going to take care. If you make it like an institution, they treat it like that.”

These are not your father’s public schools. Or maybe even your own. Launched more than a decade ago, Hawaii’s public charter schools have given families new options, established a safety net for students, and created a pool of flexible centers willing to test ideas. The three highlighted here, along with 28 others throughout the Islands, offer students and families choices based on the idea that children learn in different ways. Advocates say charters create many other benefits by innovating – including a stronger economy.

Deenie Musick, director of Halau Ku Mana
Photo: David Croxford

“If you give kids a great education – and charter schools can – it’s the best path to future economic growth,” says Nelson Smith, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, based in Washington, D.C. “Because of their flexibility and ability to innovate, charters can try out new things hard to accomplish in big systems. They’re kind of an R & D source for education.

“If some of our global economic problems can be traced back to low-performing schools in the U.S., that’s the place to start. There are other direct economic benefits as well – we’ve seen communities revitalized because of bringing in strong new charter schools.”

While charters survive with less money per pupil than regular Hawaii public schools, most have managed to keep children in class during Furlough Fridays by economizing elsewhere.

“I told everyone, ‘If we work hard and stick together and waste no time, we can squeak through,’ ” says Hirakami, of the Big Island’s HAAS. “Our program budgets are cut in half and each teacher gets money for curriculum. But I said, ‘Just because you have it, don’t spend it.’ And our teachers have been real frugal.”

Photo: David Croxford

This year, 11 percent of the state’s 177,800 public school students were enrolled in charters – a proportion that is increasing by about a full percentage point annually. Kamehameha Schools is so enthusiastic about the culturally based charters that it provides an additional $1,500 per student above state funding to those with 40 percent or more students of Native Hawaiian ancestry.

But the picture isn’t all rosy. Like regular public schools, the 31 charters face money and facilities challenges. Many schools worry about their survival, or are pondering further cuts, including turning away students, as funding continues to shrink. Also, because they are all different from each other – sometimes radically different – some are doing better than the average public school on measures such as math and reading tests, and some are doing worse. On average, math scores for charter students are far below those for students in regular schools, and last year, a lower proportion of charters hit their No Child Left Behind standards than regular schools.

“System change is not ‘Cup o’ Noodles,’ where you put in hot water and boom!” declares Rep. Roy Takumi, chairman of the state House Education Committee. “But we’re getting there and we’re going to get there. Charters have to be nurtured and encouraged. Once they get to be mature and you don’t see results, then revoke. But we’re far, far from there. The jury is still out.”

Many of the issues faced by charters are also faced by regular schools: facilities, funding, support from the state, accountability and, of course, scores. Here are areas to consider in weighing the advantages and disadvantages of charters:


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