HAAS Charter School…Against All Odds

This evening, August 27th, 2010, a student-produced documentary on charter schools and educational reform will make its debut screening at the Hilo Palace Theater. The film, a year-long project of HAAS Productions, is entitled “Class of 2010”. The production team is based out of Hawaii Academy of Arts & Science public charter school and sponsored by the Pahoa non-profit Arts & Science Center. I encourage everyone who cares about our community, our children, our future, and educational reform in Hawaii to come support the students this evening. For more information click here

Here in the most depressed area of the State of Hawaii, we have a thriving charter school led by current candidate for Lt. Governor, Steve Hirakami. (Check out Steve’s website here.)

What’s amazing is that Steve and his cadre of dedicated parents and educators built this school against all odds, you might say “with one hand tied behind their back”.  Keep in mind that Charter schools get only a fraction of the funding that traditional DOE schools get. But what’s even more amazing is the quality of education kids are getting at HAAS. How do I know? My son graduated from HAAS, my wife teaches Japanese language there, I used to sit on the local school board, and I volunteer when my schedule permits. But don’t believe me. Check out this trailer produced by HAAS students.

And it makes you think: if HAAS can put quality back into education with minimal funding, imagine what the DOE could do with the same kind of leadership.


6 responses to “HAAS Charter School…Against All Odds

  1. I wish HAAS continued success.

    Nonetheless, the following advocacy appears under the issue of education in Mr. Hirakami’s web site:

    Studies show an incredible return on the dollar by investing in early education programs. Early education programs can help to diminish later interventions in special education, jails, mental and physical health issues and can lead to a more productive, sustainable society producing people with higher education degrees, more income production, less health problems (mental and physical), and in general, a better society. Early education programs will also allow more young parents join the workforce.

    Suffice to say that I find the: more money for early childhood education-rap to be worthy of further scrutiny. Particularly when such stances are being made in the name of greater community participation and equity, it seems there is a substantial amount of mendacity (hogwash, if you like) surrounding this issue that begs further discussion. The following post more specifically details some of the things that I take issue with:


    As I say, it just seems deserving of a closer look, especially if a community fostering its ability to learn, and work, with clarity and equity, is the desired outcome of our public schools.

  2. Darren,

    I understand your point of view and welcome the dialogue. No doubt there is money to be made in education (pre-school and beyond)–unfortunately too often at the expense of the children. The whole “eikaiwa” school movement in Japan comes to mind: lots of money being made but very little learning of English. The typical eikaiwa school might as well be printing money, because they’re not adding any value whatsoever.

    That said, I can say with confidence that Steve is not a shill for big business. Understanding the context in which HAAS was built puts Steve’s “advocacy” in perspective: he’s serving a poverty-stricken community where many of the students’ parents are addicted to drugs, in a culture that doesn’t give a whit about education. Some of these poor kids live in tents, and come to school just to eat because there’s no food at home. By the time they hit school age they’ve been thoroughly conditioned to believe they are “dependent” on society. Some of the parents are having babies not because they want children, but because it means more dollars from the government. Imagine coming from a family like that. This is a recipe for disaster and we’re seeing the effects in Puna today. Teachers at HAAS see it everyday.

    When Steve talks of “equity” it means getting more monies to charter schools in these poverty-stricken communities that have been getting the short end of the stick forever. Steve isn’t of the mindset that simply throwing dollars at education will solve the problem, but he understands that if these kids are left to languish at home in an unhealthy environment, the kids’ chances of turning things around diminish as they get older. Hence, pre-school education. (Trust me, as a former board member I know that Steve can squeeze more value out of a dollar than anyone; he runs HAAS like a business.)

    When the HAAS documentary is available, I plan to purchase a copy. It’s worth watching–I’ll lend you my copy. Also, if you’d like a tour of the school to see what they’re doing and how they’re doing it, I’d be happy to arrange it. I think you’ll have a more informed opinion of where Steve’s advocacy is coming from.

    And the next time we get together, let’s talk about “total quality” in education. It’s not at all what you think it is. (While I have a manufacturing background, I’ve also been in education most of my career and apply total quality principles in all my consulting gigs.)

    Thanks for chiming in. Hopefully Steve will comment…

  3. With Steve’s permission, I copied and pasted his response from my email:

    Yes, of course there will be naysayers. The fact is that studies are simply that. They are not action plans. In an action plan, you would set up the assessment of the programs to quantify gains. It would be a longitudinal report that would factor in the improvement in school and higher education and later on with the social, mental and physical health gains. The jury won’t be out for a long time. Miami-Dade County was one of the first to institute this kind of initiative. Sergio Bendixon led the effort to educate the public before taxes were raised. 85% of the people voluntarily agreed to take a chance on improving their community. Got to start somewhere. Everyone has his opinion and obviously some people are calling bullshit.

    Aloha, Steve

  4. Tim and Steve,
    In an effort to cut through the crap, let me state that my problem with the preschool/early education reform being touted and engineered by political strategists such as Sergio Bendixen and others is that:
    1. I’m not buying the notion that “early education experts” with mandatory college certifications are the ones best suited to intervene in what are ultimately family and community matters. (I’d welcome persuasive argument as to why college degreed “experts” have more business getting public funds than others.)
    2. Quantifiable gain and academic “achievement” is by no means what is crucial to the health of families and their keiki. To say that we must engineer for the creation of better test scores is only valid if school performance is what is gonna secure a peaceful, healthy, and equitable future. In these days of public universities reaming kids with $50k debt for a college degree that is powerless to gain employment in an economy insistent on its retooling for post-peak oil and the rest, the twisted logic of such a premise is all the less funny. (How ’bout we drop this “education” and get back to “learning”?)

    While I respect community members willing to enter into dialog about these things, it is more important than ever to identify where politically popular mantras of “more reading and math and higher test scores” are actually serving the community, and where they are coming from folks looking to legitimize their role as “professional educators”, and as a result, exclude families and sensible (albeit non-pedigreed) people from participating. To be sure, I’m all for the part about parents and community having greater involvement — it’s the more lobbied aspects of the “education industry” that bother me…

    Yes, the devil is in the details of reform. However, when it comes to 3 and 4 year old kids, we’d do well to step back and really assess what will provide them and their family with opportunity for natural human development.

    Indeed this post started out extolling the doings at HAAS, which is a different matter. Here’s hoping you gents will take my criticism in the dialectical tradition that has informed our development for… well, even before preschool!

  5. Darren,

    Points well taken. Looking past the issues of “certification syndrome”, definition of “achievement” and the whole “education industry”, let’s take off our critic hat and get concrete. But first I’d like to clarify my assumptions.

    1. I’m with you on the “certification” thing–I know lots of intelligent, qualified folks who never went to college, or even those who had, ended up mastering a trade or technique that had nothing to do with their college majors. Heck, I was a functional industrial engineer for a good stretch of my career. Yet my degree was in Communications, with a focus on cultural anthropology. As far as charter schools are concerned, here’s the good news: a locally controlled charter school has the leeway to hire non-certified teachers based on their practical abilities and determined by the needs of the community. What comes to mind…a beekeeper, carpenter, organic farmer, guitar teacher, break-dance instructor, surfing instructor, cross-cultural consultant, Japanese language instructor and so on. HAAS has the leeway to consider what THIS community needs and act accordingly. And yes, academics are also available to the kids who choose that path. With the exception of basic core curriculum, the choice is up to the kids and parents, not what HAAS wants them to learn.

    2. And I’m with you on getting back to learning and toning down the academic achievement rhetoric. Maybe our only difference is that I don’t think completely eliminating the academic achievement path is a good idea. Some kids/parents WANT that path. It’s their choice not the DOE’s, not HAAS. Besides, the school can always make available other skill-based, practical learning opportunities so even the “academic” kids are more rounded, informed and flexible. It’s all about choice.

    Okay, time to take off our critic hats now. It’s so easy taking shots at “the system” sitting in our comfy armchairs. Ironically, when we put on our critic hat, we sound like the certified academics we mock, talking in the abstract, totally removed from the real world…at least our world here in lower Puna. So I’m ready to hear your proposed solutions because I know you’re more than a contrarian curmudgeon. 🙂

    Let’s play make-believe:

    You’ve been thrust into the role of building a charter school from the ground up. You are in a poverty-stricken community where many students’ parents are addicted to drugs and alcohol, in a culture that doesn’t value education. Many families don’t even have the transportation means to get their kids to school. Your budget won’t allow hiring school bus service because you’re getting just a third the budget of a traditional DOE school, basically nothing for facilities. The good news is you’re locally governed by a local school board, so lots of freedom to call the shots. The bad news is you are still held to a minimum requirement academic standard on a limited budget, a standard you must “achieve” to avoid losing the little funds you already have. Basically, you have to be practical and satisfy that pesky academic inconvenience just to stay afloat.

    My questions: how would you approach this challenge? What would you do with the limited budget you had? How would you get the community involved, for example how would you “include families and sensible people” to get the kids “learning” again? What would your ideal curriculum entail? Would you eliminate all classes based around academics, technology, film production, etc? In other words, would you be choosing curriculum for the kids and parents? Would you be concerned that some pre-schoolers might not be in good hands at home? Would you try to find a way to help them and their families? If so how?

    I love alternative points of view, but if you stop at the critique it leaves me wanting. I’m looking for solutions! Look forward to continuing the dialogue.

  6. Aloha Tim,

    Hope this finds you well. I penned the following post that perhaps elucidates my concerns with early childhood education. I didn’t address the idea that educators may save small children from dysfunction at home. I think there is a twisted logic in saying the institution must protect us from ourselves. Sometimes we just gotta take care of our homes the best we can, lest we never learn to be more than a consumer of various engineered “fixes”. Anyway, as always, any comments are always welcome. Mahalo.


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