Fulfilling a Dream

Fulfilling a Dream

Young, Sandy J

The 2005 MetLife/NASSP National High School Principal of the Year shows how hard work and caring can turn a school around.

From the beginning, Gail Awakuni had a dream for the students of James Campbell High School in Ewa Beach, HI. She knew that they had untapped potential, despite the fact that the school had the lowest graduation rate in the state and serious discipline problems that made headline news in the local newspaper. So in July 2000, Awakuni arrived at James Campbell and started changing people’s lives. Four years into her tenure, the 2,000 students at Campbell have made significant gains that cannot be ignored. Post-high school scholarships have increased from $700,000 in 1999 to $4.8 million in 2003. Daily attendance rose from 87% in 1999 to 94% in 2003. The discipline and retention rates have decreased, and the number of honor roll students has increased.

On September 24, 2004, Awakuni walked into her school gymnasium prepared to do her usual supervision routine during a special assembly. Walkie-talkie in hand, she began surveying the crowd of students. It took a few minutes for her to notice that there were dignitaries in the crowd: legislators; board of education members; and Pat Hamamoto, the state superintendent of education. Much to her surprise, she was escorted to the front of the gym, where she was told that she was the 2005 MetLife/ NASSP National High School Principal of the Year. The congratulations that followed were well-earned.

Visionary Leader

Awakuni started her first year at James Campbell with the difficult task of sharing dismal data regarding student achievement. Awakuni believed that once the teachers saw the data, they would give much-needed attention to improving student programs and increasing parent and community involvement. The school community responded by collaborating on four design principles that would guide their reform work:

* Creating a professional learning community in which professional collaboration focuses on reflecting and implementing best practices in teaching and learning

* Fostering personalization that ensures that every student is known, fits in, and develops marketable skills

* Teaching citizenship to ensure that every student is responsible and contributes to society

* Modeling rigor, relevance, and demonstrated mastery so curricula and instruction challenge learners, reflect real-life situations and applications, and promote quality through public exhibitions of multifaceted projects.

To get the desired results, the school community took its design principles to the next level: program design. The work focused on creating a structure that supported staff members and students; monitoring progress for accountability and continuous improvement; and generating the time, patience, and resources to pursue the school’s goals.

One example of this successful approach is the change to a block schedule, which took nearly three years of planning and development to adopt. The resulting schedule-which was created through research, debate, lobbying, and collaboration with staff members-has something for everyone and was entirely organized around student achievement. Ninth graders join one of five teams that follow the Talent Development Model from Johns Hopkins University. All ninthgrade teachers in English, social studies, and math who are on the same team share common planning time, and all ninth-grade science and P.E. teachers share a common planning time as well. In addition, all teachers have a common preparation time at the beginning or end of the workday that can be used for planning or staff development.

James Campbell’s schedule also supports the teachers’ professionalism and growth. Staff development for teachers is embedded in the schedule; teachers teach three periods a day and have one period of staff development for collaborative inquiry, modeling, observation, and team planning. Consultants, in the role of coaches, observe teachers, give feedback, model targeted instructional strategies, and facilitate reflection and analysis.

To ensure attention to the oftentimes least-served students-those in the middle of the spectrum-the school implemented Advancement via Individualized Determination (AVID). The program emphasizes academic achievement, school involvement, and civic engagement that leads to responsible citizenship. Students are challenged to complete a college preparatory path through a rigorous curriculum and to participate in mainstream school activities. The Gifted and Talented and Honors programs have both open enrollment and safety nets to encourage students to aim higher. Course offerings are diversified to provide opportunities for remediation and acceleration. “School operations and procedures need to be flexible to accommodate the diverse needs of students,” Awakuni said. “No child should be left behind or fall between the cracks.”

Community Collaborator

James Campbell serves seven rural and two military communities on the Ewa plains. The school includes 11 major buildings and an athletic complex on 38 acres. It offers comprehensive programs in vocational, technical, academic and special education. The student population is ethnically diverse and includes Filipinos, Whites, part-Hawaiians, Japanese, Hispanics, Indo-Chinese, Samoans, and Blacks. The Western Association of Schools and Colleges accredited James Campbell in 2002 for a period of six years with a mid-term review.

In her first year at James Campbell, Awakuni worked with the school’s college and career counselor to set a goal of generating $1 million in scholarships for students. They received further assistance from University of Hawaii counselor interns and from a college counselor from Kamehameha School, a private school in Oahu for two years. They exceeded their goal and generated $1.2 million.

“Many of the students attending college are of first generation and from an underserved population with 44% identified in the free and reduced-price lunch program with many more choosing not to participate in the program,” said Awakuni. “We doubled the number of students in AP courses and exams. Sixty more students took the SAT I from 1999-2003. Of the students taking the COMPASS Test from 1999-2000, the results indicate a 66% passing rate on the community college placement and 11% improvement. There is a 7% increase in college attendance from 1999-2003 or 57% to 64%. We believed that we needed to change the culture of the school by focusing on high expectations and high achievement. Increasing the numbers of students attending postsecondary schooling was an example of consciously changing the culture and the result of setting high expectations and high achievement.”

Awakuni also sought the support of the local university to hire counseling interns to help students make postsecondary choices. James Campbell instituted schoolwide testing in PSAT for students in grades 9-12 and offers SAT prep to 12th graders. In addition, the school provides after-school SAT prep through a grant from the James and Abigail Campbell Foundation, named after the developer and landowner of the Ewa plains.

Before these changes, students from James Campbell who were interested in college had to travel 30 miles to take the SAT. For this reason, Awakuni successfully petitioned the College Board to become a testing site. Now, more than 350 students from James Campbell and nearby schools on the leeward coast benefit from this community testing site. According to Awakuni, “The benefits were twofold: It brought the test site of the College Board exams closer to the students, thereby making it accessible, and it sent a resounding message to the community that we were serious about ‘Upping Student Achievement’ [USA].”

In support of this focus on postsecondaiy education, the students participate in schoolwide writing days twice a year. Awakuni explained, “Our schoolwide testing day occurs twice a year, like a pre- and posttest. Students respond in writing to a prompt, using the writing process. Teachers have devised a schoolwide writing rubric, which they use to rate the writing pieces. During the nonteaching period, teachers read and rate the writing responses in teams. They collaborate and come to consensus on the overall score of each student’s response. The rating of the responses then becomes a professional development session on writing.”

Awakuni explained the importance that writing plays in the curriculum, “Writing, reading, and thinking are life skills that can be taught. Writing and thinking are symbiotic, and writing helps to clarify thinking. Our Ewa Writing Project was a complexwide Title II grant in which teachers were trained on how to teach writing as a process. Writing Across the Curriculum was an ambitious project that was implemented in the late 1980s and through the 1990s. Several teachers were trained in the Hawaii Writing Project, which was a national initiative. The art of teaching writing has continued both on the school and complex levels. Through the professional discussion of reading and scoring the papers, teachers supported their own improvement in teaching practices that translated into classroom improvement. Writing scores show a steady progression of improvement among students from the 9th through 12th grade, with the seniors scoring the highest in the preand postwriting responses.”

Awakuni has collaborated with community leaders to make James Campbell an important part of the community. The students now have pride in their school and their personal achievements and are key players in building a healthier and enriched community. Part of that pride comes from celebrating success. Awakuni explained, “In the Agri-Business Learning Center, students have won state and national recognition in Future Farmers of America competitions, have earned paid and volunteer internships with businesses in the community, have developed mentorship, and have made public presentations and exhibitions. Likewise, other departments, such as science, have encouraged students to apply for summer internships at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and universities on the mainland as well as from the National Science Foundation. Students competed in the Math Bowl and won first place in the state of Hawaii for 2003.

“A class entered a statewide boat contest and won first place last school year (2003-2004). They constructed a boat from milk cartons, raced it, and explained their process on a presentation board. They were rated on their scientific method for building the boat, its speed, and its display board. The CISCO class won first, second, and third place in the Internet Division of the VICA Skills Competition. Our first-place winner competed nationally in Missouri. Our Junior Navy ROTC is a distinguished unit and is in the upper one-third in the nation. As part of their evaluation, they put forth an assembly for the student body, highlighting their units with marches and drills.

“Our college-bound students have been competing for scholarships the past four years with significant increases each year. Last year’s graduation class [2004] collectively garnered $4.88 million in college scholarships, which was a substantial increase from $700,000 four years ago. Students are recognized at graduation in an audience of over 7,000. Also, successes in athletics and extracurricular activities are celebrated immediately. Through the Renaissance Program, honor roll students are recognized quarterly, and in the Freshmen Academy, students are presented with certificates to celebrate significant improvement.

“A committee composed of stakeholders from the school and the community met for a year to hold focused interviews with students, parents, alumni, and community members and develop a needs assessment and gap analysis. As a result of the data, an action plan included a community forum to gather input from the community in assisting the schools in the Campbell Complex. The result was strengthening pride in our community and in our schools. These activities were funded by the W. K. Kellogg Foundation through the National Network for Educational Renewal, developing networks of responsibility to educate our youths, and the partnership with the College of Education at the University of Hawaii [the Hawaii Institute for Educational Partnership].”

Lifelong Learner

A high school principal’s schedule is busy; however, the obligation to increase her ability to provide the most up-to-date knowledge about high school reform drives Awakuni to spend time learning, which has paid off for her school. Through her participation in professional development, Awakuni learned about the AVID program and nova.net, an online program for students. As a result, her students can accelerate their high school education and take college courses for credit during their junior and senior years. Last year, more than 30 juniors graduated.

Because of Awakuni’s drive to meet student interests and needs, the school conducted student surveys. The results reflected the students’ desire for a career pathway in the health, technology, and fine arts professions. Since the start of her tenure, five small learning academies have been developed: Ninth Grade Success Academy; Arts and Communications; Business and Health Services; Industrial, Engineering, and Technology (IET); and Public and Human Services and Natural Resources have become available for students. Her vision is to open a fine and performing arts academy at James Campbell.

Three community college courses are taught on campus: World Civilization 151, Drama 101 and Introduction to Theatre 101. Next session, Introduction to Acting and Speech 151 will be added. Also, the University of Hawaii will offer a course in speech communication, if an instructor is available. When Awakuni failed to find a qualified drama teacher for the high school program, she convinced Leeward Community College to offer a drama course at James Campbell. Students who take this course not only earn high school credit but also may begin their work at the community college level.

In Loco Parentis

Awakuni attributes her passion for supporting her students to her own personal experiences as a parent. More than a decade ago, Awakuni’s youngest child was battling childhood leukemia. When faced with the prospect of losing one of her children, she realized the enormity of such a loss and the treasure of being a parent. As an educator, Awakuni reminds herself everyday that parents are sending her their most precious treasures and that she has a moral, professional, and personal obligation to do her best for every one of them.

During the school day, after school, and often in the evenings and on weekends, her students are in her thoughts. She has been known to check up on students who she believes may need attention beyond the school boundaries or school day. Upon hearing that one of her students had been taken directly from campus to a. treatment facility, Awakuni purchased a set of clothing for him and dropped it off. Concerned that the outfit was not enough, she took her athletic jacket (a memento from a previous school) and gave it to the student. On another occasion, after suspending a student and worrying about the family’s reaction to the disciplinary action, Awakuni made an early evening visit to the home to make herself available to the family.


Working with teachers and staff members, Awakuni has set her focus on reculturing the school of 2,100 students to instill a schoolwide sense of responsibility, trust, pride, and high achievement. Her reform efforts have centered on proven best practices, such as professional learning communities, personalization through small communities of learning, and a rigorous curriculum. And the students have benefited.

Awakuni believes in the benefits of providing her students a quality public education: “We must regain public trust in our schools in order to sustain our democracy. We must continue to invest and believe in public education because therein lies the source of our democratic principles. Democracy is the heartbeat of America. In a democracy, every individual has opportunities. We need to ensure that each child has access and equity to opportunities. Democracy requires our collective effort in bringing forth opportunities that were unimaginable. For me, education is the greatest work in the world. It is through the collective efforts of everyone that we can strengthen our future and our country.”

Sandy J. Young (sayoung@ksbe.edu) is principal of Kamehameha Middle School in Honolulu, HI, and a member of the NASSP Board of Directors. Phyttis Unebasami (phyllis_unebasami@notes.kl2.hi.us) is the administrator of the Professional Development and Educational Research Institute, State of Hawaii Department of Education.

Copyright National Association of Secondary School Principals Jan 2005

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