MyPearlCity Q&A: Doreen Y. Higa, Principal, Momilani Elementary School

On a couple occasions Principal Higa’s administration faced the possibility of the school being shutdown and the students being moved to other Pearl City elementary schools in the district. Momilani Elementary School parents contacted the media to voice their concerns and to show their support for the school. The school remained open. The bond and support between the Momilani Elementary School administration, teachers, students and parents maintains the schools status as one of the top elementary learning institutions in the state.

Counselor Lance Nishihara and Principal Doreen Higa | Photo: Barry Villamil

The caring philosophy has had a positive affect on behavior and has also resulted in a higher level of learning that has produced top scores in both Reading and Math statewide.

In my opinion the key the schools success starts with its leader, Principal Higa. You have to be a caring “leader” to sustain the caring culture.

Parents of Momilani Elementary School students experience it every morning as Principal Higa welcomes their children to a new school day. With a friendly wave goodbye, parents leave the Momilani campus knowing that their children are safe, cared for and are receiving an excellent
public school education.

Momilani Elementary School | Photo: Barry Villamil

As Principal Higa expresses it best, “Our motto is: Quality education and a caring environment.”

I hope you enjoy learning more about the excellence in learning currently being taught at Momilani Elementary School in our hometown of Pearl City.

Q: When did you start your career in the DOE?

A: “In September of 1970 I started teaching at Leilehua High School. I taught there for 15 years and I was basically a business teacher. I taught accounting since that was my specialty. It was very enjoyable being out there. It was the height of the Vietnam War. Leilehua was approximately 3300 students strong.”

Q: Where did your career take you after being at Leilehua?

A: “In 1985 I left to go to work for the District in their Teacher Center. I helped service the teachers with their professional development.”

Q: What made you make the move to the District Teacher Center?

A: “An opportunity came; there was a call for women and minorities in the DOE. At that time the DOE was filled with males and they were looking to balance or add more to be compliant and so at that time I applied. I went through training and it was a very different experience from being a classroom teacher and then thinking about how to manage a school and exert leadership in that fashion.”

Q: Where was your next assignment after serving in the District Teacher Center?

A: “I got placed at Mililani Uka Elementary School where I served as trainee and then I subsequently had a position there. I was there for about three and a half years.”

Q: How big of an enrollment did Mililani Uka have during your years at the school?

A: ‘That school was 1288 students as an elementary school on two campuses. Mililani Uka was a fairly new community at that time.”

Q: When did you get the position at Momilani Elementary School?

A: “In 1989 I got the call up to serve here. In three days I had to open up the school. It was a whirlwind experience. At that time this school was dwindling down because there were two prior attempts to close the school.”

Q: What was the reason behind the attempts to close the school?

A: “At that time enrollment was dropping and there were only about 118 students and there were only
eight teachers. Efforts were made to close and consolidate it to the nearby elementary school.”

Q: Was the objective to bring the enrollment up to a specific level?

A: “I was asked to build the school and about a year or so after I got here there was another talk about closing the school because it was so small.”

Q: How did you save the school from closing?

A: “You know, the parents here in this neighborhood contacted the news media and they were the one’s that prevented the school from closing during my time.”

Q: What did you do to make the enrollment quadruple?

A: “In five years I was able to bring the enrollment up to 400. What we did here, interestingly enough there were people who came because of what we had to offer. For them to know what we had to offer we had to share and get it out there. There were people who came from families that I had met in Wahiawa at Leilehua High School. They drove their children here. We had children from the North Shore, Makaha, and Waimanalo. They were looking for a small elementary school. Those that knew me knew that I would watch over their children.”

Q: Are you comfortable with an enrollment of 400 students?

A: “400 for me was the most perfect size. We could give quality services for the kids. The kids could come a certain amount of times to the library, etc. One Principal, one Librarian.”

Q: You set out from the very beginning to incorporate a “caring” philosophy at Momilani Elementary to bring your teachers, students and parents together as one. Did the hiring of teachers change to fit your philosophy?

A: “I changed from hiring the most skillful teacher to hiring the teacher with the most heart. I felt the skillfulness could be taught to the teacher whereas the heart part is not something that you can teach someone.”

Q: What was the immediate impact?

A: “For us I think it really made a difference in building our school and acquiring the kind of reputation we have which is, “teachers really care about my child” in addition to getting good instruction. At that point it was a shift in what matters most.”

Q: Has modern technology made an impact on communication between teacher and parent?

A: “Our younger teachers who have had a lot of technology during their college years are more prone to setting up blogs and giving their e-mail addresses out for communication. I was surprised the first ones did it. I was kind of like, “Are you sure?” What happens is the communication really flows.”

Q: You mentioned that the schools parents were involved in coming together to prevent attempts to close the school. Are there other examples of their support to the schools success?

A: “Did you know that almost every single text book that our children have is purchased by the parents?
Our textbooks are not older than 5 years old.”

Q: How do the parents pay for the books?

A: “We have a fun run once a year and they get pledges. The students go out and get pledges. We’ll say this is for our reading textbooks. From the fundraiser we are able buy one text book for K-6. Parents have been there to donate money for their child to have a new textbook. Our parents know their kids have the latest that there is to learn from. We’ve also known from our research that when you teach from an old textbook it’s not aligned to what currently is being tested of the student.”

Q: Momilani has posted exceptional Hawaii State Assessment Test scores in both Reading and Math in past years. What do you attribute to your success?

A: “What we look at as a school is their consistency amongst all the grade levels. Except for one grade level this year, all of the grades are consistent. They all hit 90’s. 90% for reading. For the grade level that didn’t make it we always research as to why? Maybe our teaching alignment is not correct so I have to do the necessary adjustments with the teaching. This year our 6th grade scored 98% for Reading and 94% for Math.”

Q: Counselor Lance Nishihara has been with you at Momilani Elementary since you became Principal 21 years ago. How important has his work been in the schools success?

A: “If there’s such a thing as yin & yang in this world, I’m on the dark side and he’s on the bright side. He’s such a good person. He represents the character education part of every child’s need. We really work on that. Mr. Nishihara holds a Masters Degree in Educational Counseling.”

Q: Would you say that through the years you have developed a very special relationship with
Mr. Nishihara?

A: “I think he’s special. Our working together and walking the dream and seeing it come to fruition has been very personally satisfying. Not only that but professionally. We are just constantly thinking of additional things that we can do for our children. It’s always building because we have learned from past experiences.”

Q: Is it safe to say that problems with discipline are not a factor for Mr. Nishihara to face on a daily basis at the school?

A: “In the past 21 years we have had two suspensions. Other than that our discipline problems have been very minor. We take a pro active approach to all behaviors. What he does is he walks through this path of how everything happened or maybe backwards mapping. What turn of events could have happened if they took a different path?”

Q: Overall the schools success depends on the support and bond between your administration, teachers, students and parents?

A: “We’re so fortunate because we’re supported. We support the teachers. The teachers support the kids. The parents support our efforts. The grandparents are welcome here. It’s such a wonderful relationship. I enjoy coming to work everyday, I work with wonderful people.”