Saturday, August 22, 2015

Military Students - Ambassadors for Education in Hawaii

When I became principal of Hale Kula Elementary School in February 2003, I had no idea how long I would stay. I thought I would get some experience under my belt and then perhaps move to another school or a District or State position. Here I am, over 12 years later, and I am still not ready to move on. Why am I so committed to working at Hale Kula? I think it's the military students and families I work with and my desire to make their education at our school a positive one that prepares them to be successful wherever they may move to next. I truly believe that our military students are the best ambassadors for education here in Hawaii.

The perceptions from military families was cause for concern a few years ago. With negative publicity from some schools, changes needed to be made. With support from Senator Daniel K. Inouye, Joint Ventures Education Forum was created in 1999, a partnership between the Department of Education, the military, and the business community here in Hawaii. For several years, Senator Inouye was able to get funding for military-impacted schools in Hawaii to purchase textbooks, upgrade their technology, create Transition Centers, and address other concerns that were identified through parent surveys. Although the funding is no longer available from Congress, JVEF continues to thrive. Discussions at meetings focus on ways to improve our schools through military and business partnerships, positive communication, and the continued sharing of ideas between the military and schools. Recently, JVEF held its 14th Annual Meeting, and it is evident that despite the lack of funding, the vision and mission of this organization remains strong, and good things continue to take place as a result of this partnership.

At our school level, communication is key. Our Facebook and Twitter posts provide an opportunity to share the great things happening at our school and to seek input and engagement from parents. We hold two virtual School Community Meetings each year, and participation at these meetings has provided parents with the opportunity to share ideas that may have worked at other schools their child attended or to bring up concerns that we may not have been aware of.  We seek input through our annual School Community Council survey, and we get a pulse of how parents are feeling about the curriculum, the school culture, and whether they feel their child will be ready for the next grade level. We also solicit comments about their concerns and what they like best about our school. This feedback helps us to focus on areas where we can improve.

Recently, we read about a military parent who extended his tour in Hawaii so his younger daughter could also graduate from the local high school. Another military parent shared how pleased she is with the services her young special needs child receives at her school. These are not isolated stories. Many of our parents share with us (through Facebook or emails) about how well-prepared their children were when they attended schools at their new duty station. I see students excelling academically, athletically, and socially. It really makes me proud to see how well they are doing and to know that we had a small part in their school success. I think of Noah, a fourth grader when he left our school. At the time, he was having some challenges dealing with his father's deployment. However, he had learned to play the ukulele at our school, and his mother sent me a video of him playing in front of his new schoolmates at their talent show. After playing a Jason Mraz song, he confidently stated, "Now I'm going to sing a song from Hale Kula, the best school ever" and proceeded to play the ukulele and sing our school song. (Yes, I had tears in my eyes.) When I see photos of our former students and hear of their successes, I realize that they are our best ambassadors for education in Hawaii. When they do well at their next school, it is a reflection on our schools, that we are doing something right. I recently received a note from a former student who just graduated with honors from high school. "Hale Kula has certainly shaped who I am," she wrote. What a tribute to the experiences she received at our school and how they impacted her as she moves on to do great things in college!

Being a principal at a military-impacted school has its challenges, but our staff is committed to doing our best to give our students the kinds of experiences that will shape who they are and lead them to successful futures.

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