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In 32-year career, schools superintendent Keith Hayashi emphasizes importance of giving back

Hawaiʻi Department of Education Superintendent Keith Hayashi at Hawaiʻi Public Radio on July 22, 2022.
Hawaiʻi Public Radio
Hawaiʻi Department of Education Superintendent Keith Hayashi at Hawaiʻi Public Radio on July 22, 2022.

Keith Hayashi's office sits on the third floor of the Queen Liliʻuokalani Building overlooking Punchbowl Street. Sirens from ambulances going in and out of the nearby Queen's Medical Center can be heard in the office.

The spacious office is the result of his 32-year career at the Hawaiʻi Department of Education.

"I was an average student," said Hayashi. "By no means top of the class or anything."

Hayashi graduated from Kaimukī High School. He tells HPR that while he gravitated toward science classes, he struggled in some areas.

"I was fortunate, I had great, great teachers. I remember them, because of the belief and willingness to help support me. ... I struggled in some areas, and I might have excelled in others."

Then-interim Superintendent Keith Hayashi at Mililani Middle School on Dec. 7, 2021.
Hawaiʻi Department of Education
Then-interim Superintendent Keith Hayashi at Mililani Middle School on Dec. 7, 2021.

Teaching may not have been the career Hayashi would have chosen when he was a child. But the importance of sharing knowledge and teaching was imprinted on him at a very young age, with his participation in judo.

"It's important to give back," he said. "How do you help the younger kids coming up? So intermediate school, I was really fortunate my instructors gave me that opportunity to work with the youngsters and to help them."

After graduating, he attended the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. It wasn't until his junior year when the university sent a letter saying he needed to declare a major that he considered going into education.

"One of my friends who was in education. She said 'Hey, Keith. You're in judo, what do you like about it?'

"I said, 'Well, what is really great is working with the younger kids, and helping them.' And she says well, you should think about going into teaching because I enjoy working with kids, like to see them improve and grow," Hayashi said. "So I did, and I just loved it."

Hayashi trained at Kahala Elementary School as a teaching assistant. After graduating from UH, he taught first grade at Lehua Elementary in Pearl City. It wasn't long after that he started teaching sixth graders.

While at Lehua Elementary, he was encouraged to join a DOE program working with other schools to boost student literacy in the Pearl City-Waipahu district. Hayashi tells HPR the experience inspired him to go into school administration.

"Classroom was great, definitely can make a difference there," Hayashi said. "But as a school administrator, how might I be able to work with others to perhaps support more students."

Hayashi rose from teacher to vice principal and principal. Eventually, he became a principal at Waipahu High School — a post he held for more than a decade. While principal, he also took on the responsibilities of complex area superintendent of Pearl City and Waipahu.

Keith Hayashi at Waipahu High School with First Lady Jill Biden, left, on July 25, 2021.
Office of Gov. David Ige
Keith Hayashi at Waipahu High School with First Lady Jill Biden, left, on July 25, 2021.

As Waipahu High principal, he was credited for starting the Early College Program at the school. The program partners with Leeward Community College and UH to teach college-level courses to high school students to help them get a head start on higher education and career opportunities.

"We want kids who can succeed and do well, and have a plan and a purpose," he said. "It's not just about getting a good education, making a lot of money and buying things for myself. But getting a good education, getting a living wage job, getting something. And how do I then give back to my family, to my community."

Hayashi was tapped in August 2021 to be the interim superintendent when Christina Kishimoto's contract expired.

In May, the state Board of Education selected Hayashi over two other candidates after a 13-hour meeting. Dozens of testifiers supported Hayashi, citing his experience as an educator and administrator, and the support and resources he provided for staff and students.

However, Hayashi entered the interim superintendent position when the state was still dealing with the impacts of the pandemic. At the time, the state was dealing with the Delta variant surge, and COVID vaccines were not available for those under age 12.

Hayashi maintained the department's decision to hold in-person learning, with some caveats — such as mandatory mask wearing indoors, and, at the time, outdoors.

"Keeping our schools open, it was really important for kids — to be able to ensure that they're in school, that they're able to be with their peers, that they're able to access the kinds of services that schools provide," he said.

But dozens of parents and residents testified against Hayashi during the BOE's May special meeting. They cited his decision to extend the mask mandate in schools, and criticized his lack of communication with parents.

"I definitely understand that they have their opinions, and their thoughts and their beliefs. And I respect that," he said. "I would also hope that they also understand, whether we agree or agree to disagree, that [the] number one priority for me is the safety of our kids and our employees. And no decision is easy to make when you're making a decision on behalf of 160,000 kids and 40,000 employees."

Hayashi tells HPR when it comes to communication, he and his staff are always working to improve. And while staff tried their best to communicate with principals and parents, he acknowledged not everyone may have gotten a response.

While this will be Hayashi's second school year overseeing the DOE, it will be his first fully steering the course of Hawaiʻi's public education system.

"There's definitely an urgency for us to address needs that our students have coming off of a pandemic, Hayashi said. "I think there's many areas that we need to work in, but how do we collect that data, providing those opportunities for students to improve, and support our teachers in the classroom, and our school leaders to be able to the important work that they need to do."

While there's a lot he wants to accomplish during his tenure, such as expanding career development opportunities or providing the resources to allow schools to expand programs for student growth, he knows he will not be alone.

"What keeps me up at night I think is, am I doing all I can to make a difference to support our system? But I think the great thing is that it's not just me, we have a lot of hands working together."

On the other hand, Hayashi says interacting with students and school administrators is what drives him in the morning.

"It's especially easy to get up in the morning when I'm going to visit a school," he said. "Watching kids come off the bus, early in the morning, just seeing them excited about being in school — whether it's elementary, middle or high school. ... You can feel that energy. You know, that doesn't just happen. It comes with a lot of hard work and intention by the employees.

"And if I'm not visiting a school, to come to work and I get to work with professionals that are very committed to making the difference, Hayashi said. "That's what it's all about."

No matter how difficult a job the superintendent position may be, Hayashi says there's nothing else he'd rather be doing other than being an educator.

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