Photo courtesy of Lorene Park
Mililani Uka Elementary School has recently been designated a Blue Ribbon School for the 2018 school year. The Blue Ribbon Schools Program is meant to recognize public and private elementary, middle and high schools for academic excellence and progress in closing achievement gaps in students subgroups — needing to be in the top 15 percent of schools in the state in both categories in order to be eligible for nomination by Chief State School Officers (CSSO) — as well as looking at other factors of the school.
“Blue Ribbon is not just academic. It actually looks at other criteria. It looks at whether a school is doing well with other kinds of factors like safety, like ethical issues, special education kinds of things. And if your school does well there, now academically do you meet the criteria. So that to me is even more special than just whether a school can meet the academic piece, because (with) our school philosophy, you need to do both,” said former principal of Mililani Uka Heather Wilhelm, who recently retired in December 2018.
This past year’s recent win marks the second time Mililani Uka has won the Blue Ribbon Award, with the first being in 1992. Since then, the school has seen drastic changes. “I think our demographic has changed really tremendously. I think that we have now close to 30 percent free and reduced lunch, whereas before when I came (in 2005) it was 12 percent. So the needs of the students have changed. And so our response to how to help them and teach them has changed. We just want to be current to meet the needs of the children who come to our school, and the children that are coming are different from the children that were in the 1990s,” said Wilhelm. Student Services Coordinator and counselor Lorene Park, who was with the school in 1992, added “Our school is very different, the community demographics has changed, the majority of staff has changed, and the State Assessment the students participate in requires short and extended responses, unlike multiple choice in the past.”
Park attributes Uka’s success to the willingness of staff, students and parents. Teachers make supplemental videos, and parents attend activities with their kids. “Mililani Uka is comprised of a school community who are lifelong learners who strive for excellence. Not only do our students study, but our teachers and parents do too. Our teachers continually look forward to learning and improving their teaching craft and instructional strategies so they can meet the needs of each student. Parents are provided with learning opportunities through workshops and parent or student activities,” said Park. Wilhelm added, “I think we believe in that lifelong learning. We really believe in that. And so it’s not only our students, but our teachers. So at our school, our teachers are actually learners too, and so whatever they learn, they actually implement. And because of that culture of supportive learning, I think that our teachers and our students have become risk takers, and that they are more open to trying different kinds of things because they know that they’re going to get support from other teachers, from our coaches, or even their own grade levels sit and discuss. So its a community of learners, everybody is trying to learn together.”
Wilhelm also capitalizes on the eagerness of the Uka community to help the students. She ensures teachers have necessary materials to meet the needs of students, and teachers in turn make sure they maintain contact with parents. “I think that we’re a team. We’ve always felt like if we help our teachers be the best that they can be, and teach them with the best instructional practices and those kinds of things, then all children will do better. And so we’ve been doing that for many, many years,” said Wilhelm. “And so, now (what) I’ve asked all the teachers is that every teacher must have a way to be able to communicate with your parents on a regular basis. So now most of them are doing ClassDojo, or class websites, or they do this texting kinds of things. Some still do hard copy, that they’ll send home at least once a week, but a lot of them now are moving into more of those kinds of technology based things, because our parents have. And so immediately, if something happens, then teachers can text out to our parents — say ‘okay this is happening’ — or you can remind your children that this is what needs to be done.”
To ensure better practices, the staff at Uka are always looking for ways to improve. Recently, they’ve been focusing on upgrading learning tools and increasing parent involvement. “There are curriculum programs for the students, and so right now we’re using the state curriculum, which is Wonders and Stepping Stones. But what we’ve found is that if you’re using Common Core curriculum, that they need to be supplemented pretty drastically. And so we’re looking more into online, we’re looking into Lexia, iReady, a lot of different programs that we feel would help our students. So maybe moving away from KidBiz and IXL and some of the programs that our children have done before, into ones that are a little more thought-provoking and can move them to that next level,” said Wilhelm.
In regards to parent involvement, the school has made an effort to help parents learn the curriculum as well, to be able to better help their child. Parent classes include math and language arts, in addition to activities they can engage in with their child that focus on specific standards based areas. “One of the goals when I first came is to really bring our parents in as members of our team. We started what we call parent activities. So it’s a way for our parents to come and learn what the children are learning in the classroom, and learn alongside with them. So the children begin to see their parents as partners and the parents begin to understand what’s happening in the classroom, how different math is now than how they learned it before,” said Wilhelm. “So in those ways, we’ve been trying to reach out to our parents and help them understand what we’re doing so that they can be our partners. Really, a partner is what we’re striving for.”
Aside from academics, students are also taught how to behave properly through setting examples. This is meant to help them past elementary school years, and also contributes to a healthy school atmosphere required to be a Blue Ribbon School. “Mililani Uka students embrace Uka Egret pride and spirit. They internalize the Character Counts Pillars in school and in the community. Character pillars are reinforced with students by all staff members, including the office and custodial staff,” said Park.
In working towards meeting school goals that helped them win the Blue Ribbon Award, Wilhelm focuses on reflection. In taking a step back and looking at what is being done, the staff works to constantly improve what is being done. “We do the programs with fidelity and then we’ll always look to see if it meets the needs of what we want to do, and if not, we will change it or we will add to it to make it a program that is going be useful to our students. So we just don’t take a program, and what you see in one school is going to be exactly the same at our school. More likely not. Because the demographics at every school is different, and so the needs of the different schools are different. So we always have to take in mind—okay these are our students now, what do they need now, and do we need to supplement what we have? So our thinking is the first year we do it with fidelity, because then we’ll know if it works or not,” said Wilhelm.
Park, who has been with the school for over 26 years, has seen many of the changes that have taken place and ultimately helped the school win the Blue Ribbon Award again in 2018. “I am proud of the students for their perseverance to work hard, the parents or guardians for their support of the teachers and school, and the teachers for their tireless dedication to their students. Our school focuses on student growth, socially, emotionally, and academically,” said Park.
Mililani Uka is one of only three schools in the state who received the 2018 Blue Ribbon Award.