As Superintendent of the Hawaii State Department of Education, Christina Kishimoto (Ed.D. ’02) channels her late TC mentor, psychologist L. Lee Knefelkamp. “She never said ‘no,’” recalls Kishimoto. “She understood cultural contexts and only asked, ‘What do you want and how can I help you get there?’”

Hawaii is separated from the Bronx, where Kishimoto grew up, by 5,000 miles and a world of differences (pineapples, huge waves, active volcanoes), yet Kishimoto sees the similarities, including a highly diverse school system. “I grew up with black kids, kids from the Caribbean and Central America. I visited my grandparents in Puerto Rico and love island cultures. It feels like I’ve come home.”

Christina Kishimoto

Christina Kishimoto (Photo: Courtesy of Christina Kishimoto)

Kishimoto — previously schools chief in Hartford and suburban Phoenix — appreciates one Hawaiian difference: State and local schools operate as one system, meaning “I can promote more cohesive policy decisions, budget allocations and planning.”

Kishimoto doesn’t dictate policy, but can directly shape “funding and flexible policy structures that allow for unique innovation” and help schools change unsuccessful practices and strengthen successful ones. Before and on her watch, the state has embraced STEM learning, achieved “double-digit” gains on the National Assessment for Educational Progress and narrowed performance gaps for at-risk students.

Challenges remain. Teacher attrition is high, reflecting steep living costs and affordable housing shortages. Kishimoto has launched recruitment and retention incentives in high-poverty areas and special education. Meanwhile, she’s visiting all 292 of Hawaii’s public and charter schools. In February, she praised Ala Wai Elementary School for its “Leave a Legacy” Mural.

“Dream big and achieve your goals, so your picture can be on the legacy mural, as well,” she told students. “Your teachers and your great staff are here to help.”

Lee Knefelkamp would undoubtedly say, “i ka mea e ai.”*