MyPC Q&A: Bryan Loo, Principal, Manana Elementary School

It has been said that success starts at the top, from great leadership. At Manana Elementary School the top and the bottom thrive in the middle. When Principal Bryan Loo arrived at Manana four years ago, he was instantly impressed by the look of the campus. School pride before you hit the front door. That was a good sign. The person in charge of keeping the school neat and tidy just happens to be Raymond Belaski, the 2002 State Employee of the Year.

It doesn’t stop with Raymond and his exceptional custodial crew. It actually manifests itself as you enter the schools administration office. Manana has a very friendly and welcoming administrative office staff. There’s only one catch? You have to get through them to get to Principal Loo.

I have also discovered a common thread from the schools that I have visited so far which includes stops at Pearl City High School, Highlands Intermediate and Manana Elementary. Each school has its own area of expertise but also shares the process of learning through the Pearl City School District network of communication that includes the high tech industry, a set of common values, school programs that are recognized internationally, staff that is dedicated and committed and finally good old fashion community involvement and support.

With regard to Manana Elementary it comes down to the school’s three “We” rules:

We are safe.
We are respectful.
We are responsible.

From the middle, Manana Elementary School benefits and celebrates success together. I hope you enjoy the following MyPC Q&A with Principal Bryan Loo as much as I did while covering the story.

Bryan Loo | photo: Barry Villamil

Q: Students returned to the classroom on August 3rd from summer break. How has the first week of instruction gone so far?

A: “It’s been great. Our enrollment is higher than what we projected from last year but you know with the economy being what it is, we were somewhat anticipating that there might be an increased number of families that had previously sent their kids to private schools. Most of the new students are in our lower grades like first grade so our first grade and second grade is larger than normal.”

Welcome back! | photo: Barry Villamil

Q: How did you prepare your staff to adjust to the recent budget cuts to the DOE?

A: “So far every school made a contingency plan anticipating cuts so as it stands right now we’re in good shape. What we are anticipating that the DOE is going to take back we have the reserve for it. So we are okay.”

Q: Can you share your background and experience in the DOE?

A: “I was a teacher for ten years. My first teaching position right out of college was at Palisades, that was a second semester position and I went from this end of Leeward to the farthest end of Leeward because I couldn’t stay at Palisades as a probationary teacher. I spent a number of years about four years out in Waianae and then I transferred to Waipahu Elementary so my whole career has been in Leeward.”

Q: Where did you start your administrative career?

A: “I started my administration career and went back out to Waianae and that’s where I started working with Amy Martinson, current Principal at Highlands Intermediate. I stayed at Waianae Intermediate about 2 ½ years then she transferred to Highlands and there was an opening that came up so I transferred to Highlands Intermediate. I stayed there for about 3 ½ years and then this position opened up here in 2006. I started on the first day of the 2006-2007 school years.”

photo: Barry Villamil

Q: What makes Manana Elementary School so special?

A: “Well this school has been a small school for a number of years. We’re really well known for our chorus, Na Keiki O’ Manana. We have a long history of the quality of the singing. A lot of schools have singing groups but our teacher Aaron Paragoso is amazing getting the kids to sing those harmonies and different parts. It’s just amazing, the performances, the look, the uniforms, the change of costumes from the aloha wear to the international outfits that they wear. Also the parents support.”

Q: How much support comes from the parents and community?

A: “It’s no easy task that’s for sure because they are a separate entity. They have a parent booster group similar to a band booster group. They don’t receive funding from the state for the activities that they participate in so they do fundraising, a lot of fundraising. They do community service kind of things to get their name out there.”

Q: What about support for their performances?

A: “They do two tours usually, one in the winter where they perform at hotels, banks and what not and thankfully the places that have asked the chorus to come back over the years have at least helped out by offering to pay for buses because that’s a big cost. In those kinds of ways it’s helped us cut down the costs. But primarily it’s through fundraising, consistent ongoing fundraising. They have a big fundraiser where they invite back all the alumni who have gone through the program and still come back and do a little skit and perform.

Q: So you have alumni come back and perform with the chorus?

A: “Yeah, we get all these high school and college kids come back and they perform. Sometimes during our Christmas performance, right before we go on Christmas break our kids will perform and we even get parents up there doing the motions. They do the Hawaiian 12 days of Christmas and they come up with the props.”

Q: Does the chorus have a performance calendar?

A: “We have a schedule that we set up for the winter time when they do their concerts and in the spring we usually go to an outer island and perform but I’m not a 100% sure we are going anywhere this year. Last year we went to Maui, the year before that we went to the mainland. Every fourth year the tradition has been that we go to the mainland. We went to Seattle the year before last and that was pretty cool.”

Q: Are there any other programs being offered to the students?

A: “The up and coming thing that is popular now is the Robotics. We had a little bit of a slow start getting into that but we’ve done pretty well with volunteer teachers and we’ve got some outside community members and parents helping us by coming down and giving up their time. There is definitely interest at this school in Robotics so we have a Robotics Club that goes down as low as third grade thru sixth grade.

We also have a math team, we have Enrichment, and we have a track team for the 5th and 6Th graders. We’re really trying to commit to the whole child. It’s not just lip service over here. It’s my dedication to continuing to keep the music because I see it, the kids cannot just do only book work. We’re looking at other ways we can expand and stretch the learning’s in other areas.”

Q: How do you achieve the 3 We’s in your Vision and Mission statement?

A: “For now it’s what we do for our children and how we allocate our resources. The kind of extra services that we can and do provide. We’re looking at the needs of our students, all of them not just the ones who might benefit the most but everybody. That comes down to the priorities that we set, the activities that we do, the parent activities that we do…”

Q: Would you say that your school has a strong PTA base?

A: “For such a small school we have a strong and active base. We’ve changed just recently from PTA to PTO”

Q: What is the PTO?

A: “The PTO is similar it’s called Parent Teacher Organization and there are a number of schools that are PTO’s. The difference is mainly in the affiliation. The PTA is something where you pay dues to join and then a lot of the dues go off to the National Organization whereas with the PTO the dues you pay goes to the school.”

Q: What other differences are there between the two?

A: “There are a number of differences in terms of the services that the PTA provides like a program that we heavily participated in called the Reflections Program. It’s a good program to showcase the talents and skills that might not be recognized on an every day level like art, photography, poem writing and essays. Those things we encourage of all of our students to enter into the Reflections Program and some of our students have made it to the state level and even beyond in the past.”

Q: Is there communication and coordination between the schools in the Pearl City District?

A: “Definitely. Pearl City under Keith Hayashi who is our Complex Superintendent is in charge of the Pearl City and Waipahu complex areas. Pearl City Complex is one of the largest because we have 10 total schools. Our elementary schools are I guess what people would consider on the small side. Most of the elementary schools are either at 400 or less. We do communicate very closely as Principals and with our Complex Superintendant.”

Q: Where do you see Manana Elementary within the next 3-5 years?

A: “These are very exciting times for us right now. We are on a pilot project that is going to involve the High School. We are working with the Cisco Company to have our own pipeline directly through Oceanic Cable. The main hubs or the end points are Waipahu High School and Pearl City High School. Once that main line has been established and I think it has been established, Pearl City High School will be able to drop lines to some of the elementary schools as part of the first phase. There’s digital technology capabilities and conferencing using i-net to have conferences in real time. Capabilities of communicating within our complex and throughout the state or whoever has it or with the mainland is going to be amazing.”

Q: Does modern technology play a part in improving learning?

A: “Where really trying to use devices that are already out like iPods and Nanos. We’re trying to use them to help students either with recorded books so they can take it home and read or even have headphones with microphones so they can practice reading with their fluency. We’re already using a couple of online programs that have really helped our kids get more interested in reading. Our most recent test scores (HSA) had some amazing gains from this past year. There is a 15% increase over the year before. This is the disadvantage sub group which is the free reduced lunch. We had almost a 20% increase on the reading side.”

Q: So access to online programs is a key element to the improved student test scores?

A: “Its reluctant readers, struggling readers getting on the computer. The program has stories that are at their level. As the teachers help them become better readers, better comprehend, better thinkers as they read they progress and they do better and they move up. We’re trying to accelerate not go slower. I’m very proud of the work we’ve done.”

Q: How about staff members that make a difference at the school?

A: “I have some truly exceptional people. My head custodian, Raymond Belaski was the 2002 State Employee of the Year and it’s so rare that you find a person who has so much pride in his job, in his work and the way the school looks. Look at the floor, where have you seen a floor you can eat off of it. That was one of the things that struck me when I came here. Everyday he’s asking me, “what else can I do?” That’s his attitude. He’s more than just a custodian. He’s a mentor; he’s a teacher, the kids all know who he is as well as the community.”

Q: If you could take your staff on a field trip to anywhere you choose where would you go?

A: “There are a couple of places that I have been fortunate to go to that I think that any person whether they are an educator or not would like to see and one of them is Washington, D.C. The Smithsonian, the White House, our National Museums and the feeling of being there, it’s so different from Hawaii. That would be one place that I wish I could take everybody to see.

The other place that I just went to the other year was Disney World. That was the coolest place. That would be the fun part. The learning part would be D.C. We would try to have fun. It’s not all about cracking the whip and work, work, work. We would try and have fun and try to celebrate our achievements and our accomplishments.”