Shooting for the Moon
by Anne E. O’Malley
Editor’s Note: Debbie Lindsey became principal of Kaua`i High School on August 13 after six successful years working with the Koloa Elementary School team.
“Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.” That’s Koloa Elementary School’s adopted motto and mindset.
And that’s the short version of how a school tagged as being in a disadvantaged community, a school where 65 percent of the students get a free lunch, managed also to become a school with a 45 percentage points gain in reading and a 65 percentage points gain in math scores in 2012, scores that began rising with the appointment of Debbie Lindsey as the Koloa School principal in Fall 2006.
Lindsey, raised on O`ahu in tenement housing, says, “I don’t buy the idea of socioeconomics being the factor of who can and who can’t. I, along with other of my colleagues who grew up the same, can prove that disadvantaged kids aren’t stupid.”
“When I came to Koloa School, I had no preconceived notions, no conditions, no idea the school had the lowest scores on the island. I always believed that we have a potential to do better and set the goal as being the best in the state or on Kaua`i, just set the goal to better and better and better — and as a result, we’ve become the best in Kaua`i and one of the best in the state.”
Koloa Elementary School was founded in 1877 and is the oldest public school on Kaua`i. In its early years, there was no such thing as ranking an educational institution as having a disadvantaged population.
But over the past decade, as the demographics shifted in this community that once made sugar king and put Koloa on the map, what occurred at Koloa School resembled the results of white flight from inner city schools on the mainland. Koloa’s reading and math scores tumbled — and seemed in freefall.
When Lindsey came onboard in Fall 2006, Koloa School enrollment was at an all-time low of 185 students. The federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 had mandated standardized testing with a bar to be met — Adequate Yearly Progress standards, or AYP.
Koloa School’s score had been hit or miss. Within one school year, Team Lindsey turned it around.
The school has met the AYP since 2007 and is In Good Standing, Unconditional.
Three years into her term, Lindsey says the school ranked as disadvantaged. Nonetheless, the AYP held steady, scores rose, and so did the student population, now at 329, a rise of 78 percent since her assignment to the school.
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No way is she taking the credit, with a team of 21, all seeking to raise the bar.
“Our vision is to max the potential of our students,” says Lindsey. “We perceive our potential here, the tests show it, and we always want to find a way to go beyond that.
“We did quite a few things to make that happen, but mainly, we improved our classroom instruction, the how of teaching. In Spring 2007, I brought in a consultant.
“I have teachers who are coaches. We observe our teachers teaching and coach how to do better.”
“Our fifth graders read 10 novels a year above and beyond their curriculum — that’s a big push,” says Lindsey. “Many schools may do the same, I can’t speak for them, but our kids get large exposure to text and many genre because they read a lot.”
Sometimes raising the bar is about pacing, and making bold curriculum choices. Teachers investigate curriculum choices and look for what allows them to assist students to go deeper.
Raising the bar can bring with it recognition and reward. In 2012, Lindsey added to her accomplishments winning the eighth annual Masayuki Tokioka Excellence in School Leadership Award of $25,000, an honor presented annually to a public school principal who is visionary, community-minded and has an entrepreneurial spirit.
She’s moved on from Koloa, and at least part of her reason for accepting the Kaua`i High School principal position has to do with going full circle — high school was her first teaching assignment.
If there’s one thing she feels is left undone at Koloa School, she’s confident the team will see to it.
“I’d hoped to see Koloa School be recognized as a National Blue Ribbon School,” she says. “I believe we have the capacity to do that, and I still think it can be done.”