Kihei Charter rated low; student proficiency high

Although its students achieved high reading, math and science proficiency scores, Kihei Charter School’s low 51 percent on-time graduation rate dropped it to the bottom 5 percent of schools statewide under the public schools’ new Strive HI Performance System.

Kihei Charter’s Strive report card shows that it was automatically classified as a “priority” school in need of “very high” levels of state intervention and involvement. Thirteen other public schools are “priority” schools, with none of those in Maui County.

State Department of Education spokesman Alex Da Silva said that any school with a high school graduation rate of less than 70 percent over three consecutive years is classified as a priority school.

Although Da Silva said Kihei Charter did well in its academic measures, the Strive system aims for schools to identify strengths and weaknesses and to make improvements where needed.

“It’s a broader picture of the school,” he said. It’s not to “focus on any one thing, but focus on everything.”

The Strive system replaces the federal education reform’s “No Child Left Behind” system in which schools were rated on whether students met escalating, annual reading and math benchmarks, known as “adequate yearly progress.”

George Winterscheid, executive director of Kihei Public Charter School, acknowledged the school’s low on-time graduation rate Friday, but he said it was because the school has a commitment to academic excellence.

Of the school’s graduating class of 2012, which was the year reviewed for graduation rates, there were more than 70 students who started at the school in the 9th grade, he said. Only 36 graduated on time, he said.

However, in reading, math and science testing last year, the school’s students posted a 91 percent proficiency in reading, 68 percent proficiency in math and 63 percent proficiency in science. (See box for comparison with other Maui County high schools.) Statewide, students achieved 72 percent reading proficiency, 60 percent math proficiency and 34 percent science proficiency.

Winterscheid said that he had reviewed the Strive report cards of half the public schools in the state, and “I have not found another high school that has the level of proficiency scores that we do.

“Our kids are highly successful,” he said. “We feel we are very supportive of students’ individual success.”

Nevertheless, he said that the school aims to improve its percentage of students who graduate on time.

“We want the graduation rate to go up,” he said.

Kihei Charter’s priority status means that school administrators need to formulate a plan and take steps toward improving the graduation rate, he said.

And that’s not a hardship, Winterscheid said. “We’re going to do that no matter what.”

The school’s philosophy has been to stress student achievement, not necessarily on-time graduation, he said.

“We’re interested in education,” he said. “We’re going to focus on what’s best for the individual student.”

Gene Zarro, one of Kihei Charter’s founders and its board vice chairman, said that the school’s goal has always been “about educating the child and not about the deadlines and the timelines of having to get it done in four years.”

“We want them to have earned the diploma,” he said Friday. “It really does show when you give them that diploma, and they put in an extra three months. . . . We have a name for ’em ‘Super Seniors.'”

Sometimes graduation ceremonies are held for those students in January, he said.

Last school year, the school had a graduating class of 46 seniors, but 44 “walked” during the graduation ceremony and received their diplomas and the other two got theirs later, Zarro said.

Also, on average, a couple of students each year get a high school equivalency diploma and then go on to study at the University of Hawaii Maui College, he said. Those students are not included as Kihei Charter graduates, he added.

“That counts against your graduation rate,” he said. “We don’t agree with that. We’re not going to tell a student not to do that.”

Zarro said that he believes Kihei Charter students’ academic proficiency ranks them among the top 5 percent in the state.

Winterscheid said Kihei has a transient population. Last year, 44 Kihei Charter students moved to the Mainland. Another 40 switched to another public school, and 20 went to private schools, he said.

“We lose students,” he said, and they are not necessarily accounted for under the Strive system.

Da Silva said that in determining schools’ graduation rates, the Strive system does not penalize schools for losing students who transfer to other schools.

Kihei Charter has the highest rate on Maui of sending students to the “Running Start” program at the University of Hawaii Maui College, Winterscheid said. That program allows high school juniors and seniors to begin taking college-level classes at the campus in Kahului.

Kihei Charter students are prepared for college, and more than 80 percent of them enroll in universities and colleges, he said.

“We have the most wonderful students and parents out there,” said Winterscheid, who took over as the school’s executive director May 1. “I’m so impressed with our staff.”

Kihei Charter has three programs – high school, middle schools and kindergarten to 8th grade, he said. Students focus on science, technology, engineering and math, and more than half of the classes are set up as computer labs.

Computers are “integrated into everything we do,” he said.

Students are required to have a computer available at home because they need to go online to do much of their homework, Winterscheid said.

Classes are often conducted outdoors, with students piling into 14-passenger vans for field trips and doing community, school and individual projects, he said.

School officials see Kihei Charter school as a “classroom without walls,” he said.

The school’s partners include the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Pacific Whale Foundation and the Maui Economic Development Board, he said.

Kihei Charter school began in 2001. Its overall enrollment this year is about 550 students, with approximately 260 high schoolers.

* Brian Perry can be reached at