We rarely provide support to individual charter schools. After all, the operating conditions in Hawaii are not great – low per pupil reimbursement, no facilities funding and a relatively restrictive master contract. However, we saw a clear investment opportunity in Hawaii’s two newest charter schools and provided each with support prior to opening their doors. At the start of 2015, we are eager to share the progress made by the School for Examining Essential Questions (or SEEQS), a middle school in Kaimuki of 125 students.
As its name implies, the SEEQS experience revolves around students asking essential questions, like “how does water sustain us?” or “how does sharing knowledge on a global scale help Malama Honua?”. Students participate in community-building advisory and town-hall style assemblies, rigorous core academic work and messy project-based activities. Parent conferences are student-led. Grading is based on mastery of academic content and work habits across a four point scale, from starting to soaring. Students brainstorm ways to answer the essential question, research and prototype, and finally draft findings. This work occurs across weeks and sometimes months. And at the end of this process the students present their learning first to the school community and then to the broader public. Eighth graders go one step further and defend a portfolio of their work to a panel of judges.
An instructional model like this demands a lot of staff and students alike. Teachers must be predisposed to work as a guide, knowledgeable about how to develop effective projects and skillful in the constant use of rubrics to determine whether student learning goals are being met. Adults must also create a culture of intellectual safety where students can try, fail, learn, and try again. This approach demands a strong culture and systems that support that culture.
SEEQS offers a promising example of how the push for deeper learning is beginning to manifest in Hawaii. But for us the lesson is this – hard won accomplishments such as these need significant up front investment to set school leaders, staff, the Board and students up for success. SEEQS used their grant funds to pay the principal during the pre-opening year, to pay teachers to work before the start of school and after the school year ended, and for outside experts to coach school leaders and help staff build their expertise in project based learning, use of rubrics, and student defenses. For those that worry about the quality of Hawaii’s charter school sector, this important lesson underscores the benefit of building capacity during just the right moment of a new organization’s development.