Cover photo by B. Gosset

Cover photo by B. Gosset

Story by Lois Ann Ell

Each morning in Aunty Shelby’s second grade classroom at Kanuikapono Public Charter School, the ‘Alaka’i or student leader of the day enthusiastically chants a series of questions, to which the class happily responds:

Why are we here? To learn, to learn!

Why should we learn? To get a good education!

Why get a good education? So I can get a job that I really like to do!

Why get a job that you really like to do? So I can be happy and support my family!

Why be happy and support your family? So we can live together in peace and harmony!

Why live together in peace and harmony? So we can make this world a better place to be!”

“If you sell them on the ‘why,’ everything else falls into place,” said Shelby Dabin, a teacher who has dedicated her life to nurturing and educating Kaua’i’s children.

Dabin received the “Circle of Teaching Excellence” award last month from the Hawai’i Public Charter Schools Network, an organization that oversees the 34 charter schools statewide with over 10,000 students. Lynn Finnegan, Executive Director of the organization explained that Dabin was selected not only for academic achievement but her efforts beyond the classroom.

“Shelby not only has great test scores but she created all of these community partnerships that have really helped the schools,” Finnegan said. “We recognize that leadership in the school and the community.”

Build a School Playground

What: Kanuikapono Fundraiser

When: 5:30 to 9 p.m. June 9

Where: Hukilau Lanai Restaurant

Tickets: $100; Call 482-3059

Education and service is paramount in Dabin’s family. Her mother, Renee Thronas, taught at Kapa’a High School for 30 years. Her sister, Mendy Thronas-Brown is an educator at St. Anne’s on O’ahu. Dabin’s daughter, Tayler Kanoho, teaches first grade at Kanuikapono, and Dabin’s other daughter Hartley Dabin will soon graduate and will also teach at Kanuikapono.

“My mom had the passion and the joy,” Dabin said. “That’s all I knew growing up, was her commitment to teaching. All throughout her career, I was involved, and all throughout my career, my kids have been involved.”

On Kaua`i, Dabin has taught at public, Catholic, private and now, charter schools. While at all of these schools, she started and successfully facilitated programs that enriched student’s educational experience.

While teaching in public school, music was cut from the curriculum due to funding. In response, Dabin created the summer music program, “Musical Discoveries,” which she ran for five years. The comprehensive six-week program for children grades kindergarten to sixth included instruction on ‘ukulele and recorder, how to read notes and ultimately perform on stage.

“My mother took every child and brought out the best in them through music,” Dabin said, who added that she strongly believes music teaches compassion.

She continues to educate through music at Kanuikapono, which is Hawaiian culture-based. “The Hawaiian culture is an art culture; we express ourselves through song and dance,” she said.

While working at a private school on island, Dabin saw the need for middle school students to participate in activities outside of school, so she started a year-round after-school intramural sports program offering basketball, soccer, volleyball and flag football. The program ran over six years, and was open to all middle school students on island.

“Everything I’ve done, no matter what school I was at, it’s for all kids,” she said. “All kids belong to us; we all have a part of educating every child on this island.”

Since joining the staff at Kanuikapono, Dabin’s organized a fundraising campaign to purchase a new common core Language Arts curriculum. She’s the lead teacher for the elementary school and is one of the Ho`ike directors. Recently she launched a major effort to build a playground for the elementary school. As of now, they only have a small, single-family structure for over 100 students.

Dabin explained that a playground for the growing number of students at the school “is a need not a want.” Students need a safe structure, and it’s an integral part of learning.

“Physical education directly relates to academic success,” Dabin said. “We are solid in academics, but we are lacking in this part, where they can build socially, physically, and emotionally; become happier, healthier kids, and so they get to play.”

She added it’s often on the playground where students open up and discuss what’s going on in their lives, which helps her understand them more holistically.

“It allows us

[teachers] to be out there with them and relate to them without the pressure. Here in the classroom, it’s rigorous,” she said. “There’s pressure to meet standards and raise scores. How do kids release? Where does the fun come in?”

Raising funds to build something as essential as a playground is one of the many challenges charter schools face. Since they are public schools funded by taxpayer dollars and accountable to the same standards they receive no funding for facilities.

As Finnegan explained: “It’s like the difference of one family having to pay rent or mortgage, and one family not,” she said.

Despite the ongoing challenges, Dabin explained how far they have come in a short time:

“When we started, we shared classrooms, we had no curriculum, no state support, no materials; we were bare bones,” she said. “Now we are maxed out at 18 students per classroom, we have desks, classrooms, we are all on one campus, we have curriculum that meets common course standards. At charter schools you don’t necessarily have what you need, so it takes persistent, creative leadership to get what we need, and over that past four years that’s what we did.”

Kanuikapono has raised half the funds for the playground through the fundraising website, The school is hosting a dinner at Hukilau Lanai including entertainment and a silent auction. All proceeds will go to the playground, which, if enough money is raised, will be built this summer and be ready for the new school year in August.


Shelby Dabin’s Teaching Philosophies 

  • Honesty. Be honest with yourself; be your biggest critic. Be honest with the parents. Don’t false praise kids.
  • Raise the bar for yourself before you ask it of any student.
  • Raise the bar for your kids. If they meet the bar, raise it again.
  • Teachers are role models, so model well.
  • Evaluate, improve.
  • You’re nothing without the passion and compassion. Not just anybody can teach.