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Despite The Pandemic, A Molokaʻi Charter School Improves Curriculum

Cory Lum
Civil Beat

Back in 2017, the Kualapuʻu Charter School was underperforming in student literacy.

School leaders launched a curriculum overhaul for the roughly 350 students in pre-kindergarten through sixth grade.

"We wanted our kids to do more reading and writing," said Vice Principal Loretta Sherwood. "So we found a program that really emphasized what kids were doing, rather than the teacher being the focal point of the lesson, you know, talking or demonstrating most of the lesson."

Sherwood says they wanted a program that gave students more hands-on learning opportunities, while also giving teachers the time to observe student performance and plan lessons to help students and the class grow.

While improving test scores was a priority, Sherwood says the school was focused on improving student engagement when it came to literacy.

Administrators eventually found a program from Columbia University, that focused on student engagement and teacher development.

"Our premise was if students are engaged in learning, and if they're excited about reading, writing and literacy, then they will show that in whatever assessment," Sherwood said. "So we were really careful to not put too much emphasis on these big, overarching data points like state testing."

But then came the pandemic.

Like all schools, Kualapuʻu Charter went to remote learning in the spring of 2020, with its challenges ranging from internet and technology issues to support at home.

"The challenges that our kids had in that spring of 2020 revealed that school is really important to their academic success," Sherwood said. "Technology issues were a big challenge for many of our kids, having access to WiFi [or] having internet access, having a computer. We were able to remedy some of that, but it was still proving to be a real challenge."

Administrators didn't want to lose the progress students had made and felt the school needed to get back to in-person learning. With low case counts on the island, school administrators left the decision up to teachers and parents on whether they would return to in-person learning for the 2020-2021 school year.

Principal Lydia Trinidad says the options they presented were full days, half days or virtual.

"Molokaʻi was very unique in that we managed to keep our numbers low. People were concerned, but it was also low that it's like, why were we [remote] in some respects. We had months at a time where we had no cases," said Principal Lydia Trinidad.

"By giving parents the choice of full day, half day or virtual, they got to control what degree they were comfortable exposing their children to the public. And I think that was key. We made ourselves available for the choice."

Trinidad says roughly 95% of students returned to in-person learning either for full days or half days.

In-person learning was done inside the classroom, with health guidelines being observed. With that, school administrators saw improvement in student literacy.

"A seven and eight percent increase from two years ago is huge," Trinidad said.

An official with the state Department of Education told HPR they have seen preliminary data from Kualapuʻu Charter, and it appears there was improvement. But the department is unable to confirm the school's student scores at this time, and hopes to get them finalized by this fall.

Trinidad and Sherwood say they are going to maintain some of the things they found very helpful during the pandemic. That includes maintaining parent involvement and communication, encouraging teacher development, and having smaller class sizes.

Trinidad says she hopes they can resume field trips this year, saying students and parents enjoy learning about their community and the island's history.

Both say they are excited for the next school year, which starts on Aug. 2.

Casey Harlow was an HPR reporter and occasionally filled in as local host of Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
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