Maya Soetoro-Ng: Schools are pillars in the community, we’ve all got to pitch in

Beth-Ann Kozlovich

with Beth-Ann Kozlovich

They aren’t waiting on the world to change. They aren’t even Waiting for Superman, although clips from the Davis Guggenheim film detailing the failure of American public schools will punctuate the evening. What they do want is you to take action now to change public education in Hawaii.

To that end, four local organizations are sponsoring “New Beginnings: Community Engagement in Public Education Town Hall” this Wednesday, May 4 from 6:00 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at the Kapiolani Community College Cafeteria, 4303 Diamond Head Road. Gov. Neil Abercrombie and Dr. Maya Soetoro-Ng are expected to speak prior to the panel discussion. Town Hall events similar to the Hawaii version are taking place in 15 cities nationwide.

Our Public School, Hawaii Education Matters, Hui for Excellence in Education, and Kanu Hawaii, with support from Participant Foundation, say the point of the evening is to build a coalition of parents, students, educators, businesses, and policymakers to take on the task of rebuilding Hawaii’s schools. It’s a lofty goal and certainly one that has been attempted before.

Gathering stakeholders is the easier part; getting them to actively engage and successfully manage an educational overhaul has been trickier.

Over a decade ago, the School Community Based Management movement in Hawaii and elsewhere throughout the Pacific tried and failed. Perhaps it depended too much on the style of the school principal in creating an open, trusting, and respectfully collaborative environment. Or perhaps it was that it was an educational movement directed by the school system itself. In this latest effort, that’s where the groups hoping to make substantive change in Hawaii schools part company with what has happened in past.

Soetoro-Ng is the co-founder of Our Public School and says now is the right time for parents to become especially active. The shared experience of Furlough Fridays was the game changer.

“The furloughs really had a positive side effect of getting people energized and they felt outraged enough to take action,” Soetoro-Ng says. “Groups like Hawaii Education Matters were formed and the Hui for Excellence in Education also really emerged from that time. But this idea of a collation that could be empowered at this juncture to effectively make a change emerged from that period as well.”

There is quite a bit of segregation between the public and the private schools.

What has continued to be missing in our public school system is still solid community-wide support for systemic change. Soetoro-Ng agrees there is quite a bit of segregation between the public and the private schools. The groups are calling on all members of the community to drive educational reform, regardless of whether someone is attached to a private school or even has a family.

“It doesn’t matter if you have children,” Soetoro-Ng explains. “What matters is that you understand that these schools are pillars in the community and we’ve got to make an investment and each of us can make a contribution.”

Soetoro-Ng really does mean everyone and that may be a tougher sell for those who have been trained to function in an individual and not aggregated mode. She says she and the other groups believe that in order to improve public schools, there must be “a multi-faceted and relatively synchronized approach” that allows for independent action.

“Every person’s point of entry is going to be different and what matters is that everybody act with an understanding of the big picture in mind,” she says.

So okay, moving down one path with allowances for variables sounds practical in theory. Still, getting everyone to see the picture these groups do and sign on with the same clarity of purpose—including the economic and emotional understanding of why strengthening the public school system is important to everyone—will be more than challenging. Much as it would be heartening to believe the furlough situation has galvanized parents enough to stand up for public education for the long haul, most of what we have experienced in past says we’re good at short term but find long term tenacity daunting.

Soetoro-Ng looks to partner group Kanu Hawaii to help out. The organization has a reputation for being good at getting people to take action and keep promises.

“This is a time when social media is much more effective in rallying and bringing voices and people in the community together,” Soetoro-Ng says. “It’s also a time when because we’ve had high stakes testing for a while, we can begin to think about the other things at the local level that are imperative. That matter to us. That we can build in order to develop young people who are real leaders who are familiar with inquiry, who have spent some time to think about how they can be of service to the community.”

The newly appointed Board of Education is the wildcard.

“I am wary a little bit but I hope and trust that what we will see is a Board that has a very healthy understanding of the importance of asking questions of the community, of parents of teachers, of administrators, superintendents, and of students themselves,” Soetoro-Ng says, “that they are a group who will do their research in the full sense of the word that will act without arrogance but with tremendous energy and that will really think about the experience of the classroom and the school in a holistic way.”

And where should BOE members get schooled to ask those cogent questions?

“It really is as simple as spending time in the classroom, having fairly lengthy and substantive round table discussions with teachers and with people in the business of educating teachers—people in the College of Education,” Soetoro-Ng says. “It would be good to understand the pressures that teachers face and to speak with both veteran and new teachers about how they are struggling to balance fed and local mandates and well as the desire to have creative and interesting classroom curriculum.”

Yes, that would be good. The question remains whether each new member of the BOE will take the considerable time to do it. And, with all the pressures on individual lives, will those who will attend the Wednesday forum start with high energy, devoted focus, and unwavering drive only to have it wane and be eclipsed by shifting priorities?

It will still be a numbers game of how many community members will continue to advance a directed, strategic plan—if in fact these groups and individuals they attract can create one to fundamentally improve Hawaii’s schools—and not get later stonewalled by other groups who like the status quo.

All that said, Soetoro-Ng remains optimistic: “I have high, high hopes that a great deal will emerge from a single evening and even if this is just the beginning, that what we’ll see unfurl in the years to come will be truly impactful.”

Let’s hope she’s right.

The interview with Dr. Maya Soetoro-Ng is on The Conversation from Monday May 2. Acccess the archive through Beth-Ann Kozlovich at [email protected].