Hawaii schools, teachers, students scramble with thousands of seniors off-track to graduate

Always Investigating

HONOLULU (KHON2) — Missed sports, missed proms and missed graduation diplomas.

That is the reality facing thousands of Hawaii public high school seniors who have been severely affected by the pandemic.

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Always Investigating wanted to know what is being done to make sure at-risk seniors can catch up and graduate on time after facing nothing but hurdles since the end of their junior year when the COVID-19 emergency began.

The State Department of Education is tracking a huge range of frightening pandemic metrics, among the data: High school students on- or off-track for graduation. An astounding 26% of seniors are considered “off-track” — that is 2,856 students.

“The data is fearful for parents, and they should be scared,” said Chad Farias, Kau-Keaau-Pahoa complex area superintendent. “That’s why we put out these metrics and that’s why we do constant checks, because we need to approach this from all angles, and we need all our partners involved, not just the teachers and counselors and students.”

Some complex areas fare worse than others, with 67% of seniors off-track in the Hana-Lahainaluna-Lanai-Molokai; 40% in Kau-Keaau-Pahoa; 37% in Honokaa-Kealakehe-Kohala-Konawaena and 36% in both the Castle-Kahuku and Kailua-Kalaheo complexes.

“As a long-term teacher that taught seniors, there’s always this last-minute crunch,” said Corey Rosenlee, president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association. “Before we start pushing the panic button, we want to give our teachers, especially those teachers that work with seniors, the chance to make sure that they can get these kids to pass.”

Much of the graduation gap can be attributed to missing assignments, missing attendance or missing online school grading, but a lot is from outstanding personal transition plans (PTP) — a half-credit required for graduation.

“The difficulty when we don’t have kids face-to-face every day, there’s usually a counselor hounding them like, ‘finish that’ because it’s their personal statement,” said Esther Kanehailua, Hilo-Waiakea complex area superintendent. “It’s their resume, what colleges have you applied for, or what tests have you taken.”

The tally of off-track 12th graders statewide also includes thousands who opted to go fully online with third-party vendors.

“There’s no way for us to really check up on them,” Farias said. “The counselors do call and the kids say, ‘Yeah, yeah, I get ’em. I’m goin’ do it.’ And we remind them of the date: Graduation is May 21st, so we need those credits in our system a week before that so we can plan for that. We’ll know a week before, which is really scary.”

Educators are doing everything they can, including bringing education to the areas farthest from their usual high school campus.

“We’re making it so much easier to go to one of our learning hubs; we have mobile hubs that go out into the community to give wi-fi access to kids, social emotional supports, and even dropping off their meals,” Farias said, “and so it’s much closer. They’re going there and getting it done. I would say for the kids that really struggled down the finish line, this year has been a little easier.”

They are also tracking and coaching kids one by one, day by day, to get assignments and personal graduation plan portfolios in before May 21 to graduate with their class, or June 30 after summer school, or credit-recovery in order to prevent being held back a whole extra school year — or worse, dropping out entirely.

“It is a game changer for these kids that give up and don’t have a high school diploma,” Farias said, “and then they wake up at 27 and go, ‘Oh, shucks, I really should have completed that.’”

Some education reform advocates say there are more serious gaps and recommend extending the school year for all.

“What we’ve done to our kids, especially our graduating seniors, is unconscionable,” said Ray L’Heureux, Education Institute of Hawaii, “so get over yourselves, come up with a plan, extend the school year, scrap this testing thing, and get these kids graduated.”

Rosenlee says the state should be seizing the opportunity — with hundreds of millions in federal COVID-19 relief — to create full-service school programs that help prevent kids from slipping through the cracks.

“What has happened on the mainland is they’ve done something called community schools,” Rosenlee said. “They have wraparound services to provide all the needs of a child, and this will get us long term to higher graduation rates. Rather than just wondering about a few percent, what can we do long term to fix the problem?”

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