Superintendent Q&A: Dr. Christina Kishimoto
Superintendent of the Hawaii State Department of Education
The Hawaiian word hā has over nine translations, one of the most prominent being “breath” or “to breathe.” If you’re having trouble pronouncing the word, exhale slowly, putting sound behind your breath. While many schools on the mainland employ values like “independence” or “success” in their mission statements, the Hawaii State Department of Education (HIDOE) uses “breath.”
Hā grounds HIDOE’s framework for innovation. The framework itself, called Nā Hopena A‘o (HĀ), pushes for a school system celebrating island culture: belonging, responsibility, well-being, excellence, Aloha, and Hawai’i—all centered around the holistic power of breath, of unity.
While the challenges HIDOE faces, like recruitment, communication, and equity, aren’t exclusive to the islands, they’re often exacerbated by the very qualities that make Hawaii unique. Teacher recruitment, for example, is especially pressing due to Hawaii’s high cost of living. A 2019 USA Today analysis found that the state’s lowest paid public school teachers would need to spend 70% of their salary to afford the median rent in Hawaii—and that’s before adjusting for income tax.
The structure of HIDOE also deviates from what’s typical of state DOEs on the mainland. The nation’s 50th state is technically only served by one district. Hawaii’s 256 schools are split into 15 complexes, served by complex area superintendents. These superintendents report to the state superintendent, who is responsible for the welfare of over 180,000 students.
Dr. Christina Kishimoto stepped into the role of state superintendent of Hawaii in 2017. She started her career in the private sector, but “didn’t find it very exciting.” After working for Connecticut’s DOE, Kishimoto eventually took the helm of Hartford Public Schools. There, she earned a reputation as an innovator, which she took with her to Gilbert Public Schools in Arizona in 2014.
Kishimoto is originally from the Bronx. You can hear traces of her upbringing in her voice—she’s strong, assured. It was her own experience in public schools, marked by teacher shortages and low school funding, that pointed Kishimoto toward equity work. And when something matters to her, she wholeheartedly commits. “Decide what is really important to you,” she advised new school leaders in an interview with the Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents. “Then develop Teflon shoulders.”
In Hawaii, Kishimoto focuses her energy toward school design. As described by HIDOE, school design encourages leaders to purposefully think through students’ educational experience in terms of engagement, ensuring that every student receives an innovative, hands-on education.
We recently sat down with the state’s lead educator to talk school design, teacher recruitment, equity, and the promise of public education in Hawaii.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
How have you navigated coming in as an outsider to Hawaii?
I feel like I’m home. That’s because of my own upbringing as part of a very diverse community in the Bronx. My family is also from Puerto Rico, which has an island culture and this history of being treated as an underclass nation. It’s a community whose history is little-understood in terms of its relationship to the United States.
I came into an island culture here in Hawaii, where language, culture, and individuals’ contributions to the community are celebrated. That’s not to say that there aren’t ever questions about whether anyone is treated differently, but this is a community that very purposefully tries to apply that aloha spirit to embrace people and to embrace their individuality. To me, that was really exciting.
Couching our school design work on the concept of place, the concept of Hawaii, and the values of Nā Hopena A‘o (HĀ) has provided this rich, welcoming environment. This is a community that has embraced me in a powerful way, giving me voice to be a successful leader.
What prepared you to step into a role with so much focus on recruitment?
Hartford was the second poorest city per capita in the second richest state per capita. There were 169 school districts in a tiny state, which provided lots of teaching options—so Hartford wasn’t most teachers’ first choice.
In the Hawaii State Department of Education, we market ourselves as an employer of first choice. We ask: What does it mean to be a HIDOE employee? What does ohana [family] look like here when you join the school system? What’s our commitment to you as a valued employee?
Our traditional higher ed preparation programs bring in about 600 new teachers a year. HIDOE needs about 1,300 teachers per year, and that doesn’t include the number that the private and charter schools need. We’re certainly not producing enough teachers in-state.
So we’ve hired a special ed teacher recruiter. We are doing recruitment on the mainland. We’re doing recruitment overseas. We are now doing recruitment of retired military.
But we’re also remarketing ourselves as a work community that you’d want to be a part of—as a place that’s on the cutting edge of innovation and is focused on the purpose and power of public education. That’s creating a momentum that I didn’t see when I came in, and I think we are using approaches now to sell ourselves very differently, as an employer that’s going to impact Hawaii.
What incentives do you offer potential teachers?
We’re trying to change our control over some things that have previously not been in our control. For example, we are advocating for things like increased pay and affordable housing for teachers.
While we’re working on that, we’ve put in place a guaranteed two-year mentoring program for new teachers. We heard they needed more support within their first two years, so we’ve had veteran educators design that program. We also increased the pay for our mentors.
Additionally, we’re also piloting differentiated pay for our most difficult-to-fill positions: special education roles. Special education teachers have additional demands on them. It’s a different role, so I am pushing for differential pay.
That’s difficult in an environment where there’s a union that has been advocating for increased pay for all teachers. While we want that, we also know that we have to produce proof points. By providing significant differential pay for special education teachers, we could show the legislature and our public that increasing pay results in real outcomes.
How do you connect with teachers across islands?
On a weekly basis, I am on the road or on a plane visiting other islands. I am in schools constantly. We have just under 260 schools, and I’ve already gone on visits to about two-thirds of them in less than two years.
I visit with teachers, and I work with principals to pull out a team of students that represent a cross section of each school. We talk about what they want to see in school design, what they want to see on their specific campus, and what they are aspiring toward in the future.
I take that, and I do a weekly brief to my internal community. I write a newsletter once a week, basically a one-pager, highlighting either a school visit or a best practice that I’ve seen. Basically, it’s my communication to my employees saying, “This is what I’m thinking or seeing or finding,” and asking them to continue their good work or to help me address an area of concern.
Can you tell us more about Hawaii’s focus on school design?
We’ve created a school design matrix that’s organized into four quadrants. The first one is around school mission, vision, and culture. The second is around the instructional design of that school model, the third one is the infrastructure that’s needed to deliver that model successfully, and the fourth area is around student voice.
Those four quadrants define school design. Principals are using these indicators to self-evaluate their schools. They’re looking to see whether they are delivering a model that they’ve inherited, or whether they are, in fact, leading a model that they’ve designed with their school community. The best models show real impact and alignment to student interests, community interests, and teacher engagement.
So we’ve empowered schools to revisit their designs with a specific set of indicators. We are working now on publishing about a quarter of those school design models to allow other schools to see this work.
How do you empower individual schools and teachers?
I moved more than three-quarters of professional development funds from the hands of my state team to the hands of principals. That’s about $13 million pushed from the state to the school level in order to empower schools to provide teacher capacity building based on their school models.
We also rolled out an innovation grant where teachers, rather than schools, could directly apply to a million-dollar fund, allowing them as teacher teams to try some innovation pilots in their classrooms, in their schools, or in partnership with their communities. That grant only has two requirements: It has to have at least two or more teachers working within or across schools, and it has to have a component that includes student voice proactively, meaning students are either designing that innovation themselves or with teachers. So the idea is really to create more voice and power between teachers and students working together around that teaching and learning design.
How do you communicate this innovation to the community?
As we’re rolling out new innovations, we’re trying to change the narrative around how public education is discussed or blamed. There are amazing things happening in our schools, so we have grown our communications team. Our team initiated a communications plan that really supports this tri-level voice: what’s happening at the state level, what the complex teams are doing, and then what’s happening in terms of best practices at our schools. We also have a team that does video work for us, so we do a lot of visuals and short videos. A good amount of my time is spent with community business leaders in particular, with the legislature, and with the governor talking about our strategic approach.
We’ve been very focused on three strategies. What that helps us do is structure all of our conversations around those three themes. One is school design, the second is student voice, and the third is teacher collaboration.
Soon we’re going to be going into our new 10-year strategic plan, and the approach we’re using is to create a toolkit on our webpage. We’ve been announcing that toolkit, letting anyone in the community engage with it and provide us feedback on this new strategic plan. That’s engaging the community in a very proactive way.
How do you make communication a priority across the state?
We want to get everyone in the school system to own communications. It’s been very hands-on, very much about modeling how to get messaging out. We need every school doing that work; we need every school owning their website; we need every school owning their communication with their community.
What we did at the state level is provide some of the common language to talk about equity, excellence, access, and innovation. So they’re constantly hearing me say it; they’re hearing it at board meetings. When I visit schools, my questions to teachers and students use that common language. I meet with our complex area superintendents every other week, and we’re renorming and identifying the ways we’re getting our message out.
I also make myself available to the media, whether it’s to address a difficult issue or to take advantage of a marketing opportunity. It’s important for superintendents to be available to the media with strong messaging around the non-negotiables like equity, access, and the need to close achievement gaps. At the same time, a superintendent needs to have talking points about a forward-moving vision. We’ve couched everything under the theme of the power and promise of public education in Hawaii.
Now, when I go to meetings with the local media, they’re using that common language. I have business leaders using that language; I have the governor using that language. The superintendent has to be a very visible leader in his or her community and a mouthpiece both for our challenges and for our vision of excellence.
How are you seeing this work impact students?
I was recently at an event organized by a student leadership organization. One young lady stood up and, in her speech, said that someone needed to let the superintendent of education know that she was going to be taking her job.
She didn’t realize I was in the audience, and they introduced her to me. It was really touching—having that young lady respond awestruck, a little embarrassed, like she had met some famous person. Here I am constantly thinking: How do we market ourselves differently? How do we change the narrative? How do we get the respect that public education deserves? And here’s this young lady just admiring the position and feeling like she’s met a difference maker.
There’s a lot of hope in our community around these future leaders. And we hear it all the time. We hear young people share their stories and aspirations—and the teachers that made a difference in their lives.
One of my favorite quotes is, “People pass casually through our lives, when trumpets should blast.” And I’m constantly telling teachers, “You pass casually through a lot of students’ lives, and you don’t realize that trumpets are blasting for them. You’re having a tremendous impact on them in ways that you might never see. You’re doing tremendous, life-changing work.”
That’s what I’m touched by when I visit classrooms: kids so proudly talking about the teachers that make a difference in their lives, that bring hope to them. Especially in a world right now where there’s so much chaos for our young people—so much stress and so much stuff happening in terms of the public discourse.
It’s certainly confusing for us as adults, but for our young people, I do worry if they have enough places where they can talk about what they’re understanding, what they’re seeing, what their fears are. And when they talk about it from a place of hope and a place of change that they want to lead, that’s absolutely moving, and that’s what gets us to work everyday. That’s certainly what gets me excited about this work.
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