Molokai Middle School has come a long way since its separation from the high school in 2004. Thanks to after-school programs and heavy community involvement, students are excelling in and out of the classroom.
The middle school celebrated its recognition as "the most improved public school in Hawaii," when Board of Education Chairman Donald Horner presented the award to students, staff and faculty late last month in the school's courtyard.
However, the board was most impressed by the middle school's ability to achieve adequate yearly progress, a distinction that less than half of the public and public charter schools in the state can claim.
Office of Hawaiian Affairs Chairwoman Colette Machado speaks at a gathering last month in the courtyard of the Molokai Middle School, which was honored with “the most improved public school in Hawaii” award, presented by Board of Education Chairman Donald Horner.
Criteria for the two achievements are determined by the Hawaii State Assessment Program, which determines whether a school is making adequate progress toward the No Child Left Behind mandate of proficiency in every student by 2014.
Despite tremendous lows in reading and mathematics proficiency in 2011, the middle school passed this year's adequate progress benchmarks. In reading proficiency, the school improved from 45 to 62 percent and in mathematics, it jumped from 37 to 61 percent.
"When you're down at the bottom, year after year, it's hard to make those kinds of gains," said Principal Gary Davidson. "But we came in last year and said, 'Let's focus on the kids and celebrate when they do well.' We can't discipline kids, we have to motivate them."
Davidson came to the school after serving as the vice principal at Hana High and Elementary, and said he found the same situation in Molokai as he did in Hana.
"We had to take down the barriers," said Davidson. "We adults talk about change and how special the students are, but we need the students to believe in themselves, and they're starting to."
Although the school has made substantial progress over the last year, Molokai Drug Store and General Store owner Kimberly Svetin said the recent success was many years in the making.
Svetin said the community and some of its key members have helped the middle school over the years by providing programs for students.
She said Barbara Kalipi, who serves as executive director for Queen Lili'uokalani Children's Center on Molokai, provided a grant for the middle school's chess program.
"Every student, even the autistic ones, are taught chess in the 7th grade," Svetin said. "So by the end of this year, over 200 students will know how to play chess, and it's helped with test scores and problem solving. The children's center has stayed behind the scenes, but they're a huge community partner."
Svetin has two children, one in 3rd grade at Molokai Elementary School and the other in 8th grade at the middle school. Her 3rd-grader plays chess, but her 8th-grader is part of another program called STEM, which stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
"STEM is a national program that started relatively recently in Hawaii," said Svetin, who also served as the chairwoman on the middle school's community council. "For the past five years, the Maui Economic Development Board has helped the school grow the program, which allows students to program robots or learn about structural engineering."
The STEM program was implemented last year, and teacher Kaeo Kawaa served as the program's instructor. Kawaa is the first teacher to be primarily designated for a STEM program in the state.
Last weekend, Molokai Middle School's Golden Eyes robotics team, which came out of the STEM program, took the overall first place Champions Award at the Hawaii FIRST LEGO League Championship on Oahu.
"I think what kick-started the program was in the last school year at the annual STEM conference in March," said Kawaa. "In our first year, we won the Program Impact Assessment award, which was the highest award at the conference. It got everyone excited to pursue this program."
Kawaa said the projects created in the program help students with real-world issues and hands-on experience.
"We go outdoors and do planting, landscaping, building," said Kawaa. "In fact, we just laid 300 feet of waterline. They worked on trenching, cutting the pipes ... STEM has added a new dimension to the school."
Student council President Sydney Adams takes part in the STEM program and enjoys the newfound technology.
"I get to learn things that I never knew how to do," Adams said. "We make videos, public announcements and graphics."
The 8th-grader has seen the progress the school has made, dating back to her 6th-grade year, and said that the parents know that students are capable of doing better.
* Chris Sugidono can be reached at email@example.com.