“Who is our customer? What do they expect from us as a school?” These two critical questions changed the meaning of “education” at Waipahu High School (WHS) in Oahu, Hawai`i. When we identified our students’ future employers as our customer, our mindset of “how to do school” changed, and so did the learning opportunities and experiences we needed to offer our students.
Our Journey to Advance Student Aspirations
The entire school community—faculty, staff, parents, students, industry, businesses—met numerous times to converse and identify the skills and dispositions necessary for our students to be successful employees. This became the blueprint for Waipahu High School’s arduous journey to transform the structure of a large, comprehensive high school to one of wall-to-wall college and career academies operating as six smaller learning communities. The “new” vision required transformative systemic change in mindsets, structures, processes, and procedures. Teachers and leaders were challenged to learn new roles, the master and bell schedules required altering, the learning experiences and opportunities needed to be extended beyond the physical grounds, and the collaborative thinking and work of the community had to be intentional.
Basic to our student learning is their voice—their unique passion and purpose. With that understanding, WHS generated the motto, “My Voice, My Choice, My Future.” The school transitioned from the traditional, comprehensive high school to an academy-based structure. Based on career interest, students are able to partake in one of six career academies: Academy of Arts and Communication, Academy of Industrial and Engineering Technology, Academy of Health and Sciences, Academy of Professional and Public Services, Academy of Natural Resources, and the Ohana of Excellence. Within these academies, Waipahu offers 30 different pathways.
This unique academy structure allows students to follow their desired program of study from grade 9 through 12, all while sharing the same administrator, counselor, and team of teachers.
The academy team works closely together to provide rigorous, relevant, and personalized curriculum. Capitalizing on the traditional high school coursework and curriculum, students are afforded opportunities to gain a variety of real-life experiences and opportunities directly related to their career interest through partnerships with local businesses, industry, and higher educational institutions. Having these partners share their expertise and the desired skills of their profession help provide guidance on how to better prepare high school students for college and/or a career. We prefer that our students graduate with work-based learning, internships, and industry certifications, many of which will give them a leg up for their career and future.
As a learning organization undergoing major systems change, we learned three critical lessons:
Leading adaptive change is complex and challenging. When we changed our mindset of “education,” we realized we were embarking on second-order change, sometimes referred to as adaptive change. Rather than tinkering with parts of our system, we needed to challenge our thinking to create an exceptional learning system. This resulted in working outside our comfort zone—changing teaching structures and learning experiences; opening the school to “outsiders” including industry, business, and higher education institutions; adjusting, eliminating, and creating new roles; expecting everyone to assume greater responsibility; and letting go of unproductive practices and developing new ones.
Change is collaborative and thrives on a diversity of voices. The comprehensive learning system created at WHS is richer because of the many voices contributing to its development. Designing an organization starting with the students’ voices energized us and grounded why we needed to dedicate our work to whole system change. Garnering the voices of parents, community, educators, business, industry, and postsecondary institutions from the beginning of the journey fostered commitment and ownership for this grand endeavor. Each group brings expertise and perspective to impact WHS students’ education and future.
Leadership is learning. People are critical in sustaining our learning organization. As our people take on additional responsibilities and expand their span of work, to create our “new” education system, we need to develop their talent and support them. In addition to the duties of their formal position, our people serve as administrators for various academies; chairman for teams and committees; and, occasionally, they serve as informal, short-term leaders due to their expertise or knowledge to address a specific challenge or issue. We support them with continued learning through opportunities and time for planning, reflecting for improvement; learning new skills and knowledge; and consulting and coaching each another and students.
Are you aware of what the future looks like in the eyes of your students? Why not give them a head start and open the doors to their future?
Meryl Matsumura is an assistant principal at Waipahu High School in Waipahu, Hawai`i. She is the 2019 Hawai`iAssistant Principal of the Year.