Home Local News Eric Stinton: Hawaii’s Public Schools Are More Innovative Than You Think

Eric Stinton: Hawaii’s Public Schools Are More Innovative Than You Think


It’s hard to say whether the origin story of Josh Reppun is counterintuitive or obvious.

It might seem strange that one of Hawaii’s boldest voices for education reform didn’t get his bachelor’s degree until he was in his mid-30s, or that he started his professional career as a chef. On the other hand, his journey reflects an interaction with the education system that informs how he thinks about it today — what it is, and what it could be.

“After high school I went to college for a year in Oregon. That was a waste,” Reppun said. “I drank a lot of beer, played a lot of rugby. Didn’t study a lick.”

He moved to California and went to culinary school, and after eight years as a chef, he moved back home to Hawaii, where he worked in hotel management for another four years.

“At that point I wanted to go back and finish my undergrad,” he said. “I followed a friend to the University of Iowa, and wow, was I ready to study. I went from a very mediocre high school student to a high-achieving college student. That’s because I was hugely motivated as a 34-year-old.”

Reppun graduated with a degree in history 17 years after graduating from Punahou.

He made an attempt in a teaching credential program and hated it, so he returned home without the necessary certification to teach in the state Department of Education. Instead, he spent the better part of the next 20 years teaching at Punahou, La Pietra and Iolani, finally stepping out of the classroom in 2014.

“That was a tough time for me,” he said. “I was worn out. I took some time away from teaching, and I didn’t want to go back. Then I saw Ted Dintersmith’s film “Most Likely To Succeed,” and it blew me out of the water. I knew right away that I had found a vehicle by which I could be involved in reimagining education.”

The film highlights High Tech High, a public charter school in San Diego where teachers have complete control over what they teach and how they teach it. Learning is student-driven, designed around collaboration, exhibition and creative problem-solving – broadly transferable skills that aren’t easily automated into obsolescence.

Ted Dintersmith produced the film and took it on a 50-state tour, where he talked with teachers, students, administrators, parents and policymakers across the country, including Reppun. Dintersmith wrote a book based on those cross-country conversations entitled “What School Could Be.” The final chapter focuses mostly on innovative practices taking place in Hawaii.

“I kept thinking of how that chapter could be longer,” said Reppun. “Then I landed on the idea of a podcast. If I start telling the stories of education leaders in Hawaii, I can make that chapter longer and longer, one episode at a time.”

With Dintersmith’s blessing, Reppun launched “The What School Could Be Podcast.” It started out solely telling the stories of Hawaii teachers and education leaders, but has since grown to include national and international educators, too.

“About 70% of the episodes were public school teachers. I started to gain evidence that innovation comes from the grassroots,” Reppun said. “Very rarely do these big-dollar, top-down efforts succeed. Real innovation and education is happening with individual teachers who are working toward student-driven learning and real-world challenges for their kids, who are moving toward authentic, deep-learning assessments and away from standardized metrics, who are really developing caring and connected learning communities.”

A lot of local people will roll their eyes at the idea of quality public education in Hawaii. News stories about underfunded facilities, magazine rankings based on standardized test scores and bad local op-eds have hammered into us the notion that Hawaii’s public schools are perpetual dark clouds hovering over the islands.

Josh Reppun believes Hawaii schools have gotten a bad reputation because they are often portrayed negatively in the media. He’s hoping to change that image by highlighting innovation and excellence in the public schools. Screenshot/joshreppun.com

“Our media outlets have covered education in relentlessly negative terms,” Reppun said. “Many of the things they’re covering are legit and super important: teacher retention, AC in classrooms, teacher pay and teacher housing.

“But it felt like the record was not balanced. I started to realize that I was on a mission to correct the record. I was going to put out these stories about what these educators are doing, and people would see how incredibly hard these educators are working, how deeply they think about their practice.”

Before the pandemic started, Reppun partnered with Waianae High School’s Searider Productions to make a documentary that would show audiences exactly what he had been seeing and hearing: passionate, creative teachers who have created dynamic learning environments that motivate kids in ways that Reppun didn’t experience until he went back to school in his 30s.

Education reform in Hawaii is at a pivotal moment, with a lot of groundswell energy in classrooms and communities pushing new, better ideas about teaching and learning.

The film, titled “The Innovation Playlist,” was edited during lockdown and released in January of last year.

While on Maui, Reppun and Dintersmith were struck by Pomaikai Elementary School, which infuses all subject areas with the arts.

“In a science class we observed, the topic was the table of elements,” Reppun said. “Usually that’s boring and not connected to anything, but in this classroom they were developing a theater production in which each kid was an element. Through movement and song and spoken word, they had to become the element itself. The theater production was the interplay of the elements. It was mind blowing.”

In another example, Reppun notes the Ma Ka Hana Ka ‘Ike program at Hana High and Elementary School, which presents academic learning through hands-on building projects and community involvement. The name of the program translates to “in working, one learns.”

“Are these one-offs? No. Go to Molokai High School and see what Katina Soares is doing. Go to Kanoelani Elementary where ‘Choose Love’ has grown like a banyan tree, where everyone is treating each other with compassion and kindness. If you don’t know what you’re looking at or looking for, you’ll miss what’s actually happening.”

There’s a lot of exciting things happening in local classrooms, and Reppun has worked admirably to bring them to the public. The next step is finding a way to take all these individual innovative practices and plant them in more and more schools across the islands, until the entire education system is transformed.

It’s an ambitious goal, and one that won’t happen overnight, but Reppun is hopeful.

“In Hawaii, all parents care about all kids to a considerable degree. It gives us a way forward, so we’re not distracted fighting each other too much,” he said. “I’m very hopeful about how many educators are on the move, finding ways to connect to communities, take learning outside the four walls, and often they’re bringing their principals and vice principals along with them, because it’s hard to resist that kind of energy. That gives me tremendous hope.”

Education reform in Hawaii is at a pivotal moment, with a lot of groundswell energy in classrooms and communities pushing new, better ideas about teaching and learning. We should be thinking about what schools could be in the future, and that starts with an accurate and honest account of what it is now.

Odds are, it’s a lot better than you think.

Civil Beat’s education reporting is supported by a grant from Chamberlin Family Philanthropy.

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