Momilani Elementary “Gratitude Drive Through Celebration” for retiring Principal Doreen Higa

Last Friday, December 18m, 2020 was a very special and memorable day as the Momilani Elementary School ohana and community bid farewell to retiring Principal Doreen Higa with a heartfelt and overwhelming expression of Aloha for their beloved leader and friend.

Momilani Elementary School hosted the “Gratitude Drive Through Celebration” from 11:30am to 1:30pm with hundreds of cars decked out with farewell signs that displayed special messages of congratulations and mahalo from her adoring Momilani ohana.

It was an amazing outpour of appreciation and gratitude for Principal Higa’s iconic career accomplishments and leadership that spanned over 50 years in the DOE with 31 of those years nurturing, guiding, and inspiring students and staff at Momilani Elementary.

“I’m very moved by the visits from former students and parents and grandparents, but you know, for me, the biggest banner in my forehead right now going across is that it’s been a privilege and it’s been an honor to serve public education and to serve the community of Momilani,” said Principal Higa. “I am truly, truly blessed to have been afforded a wonderful staff, and a wonderful school community. The people really follow what we believe a quality education in a caring environment is the best that we can offer and we’ve done that. In my thirty-one and a half years here we have been able to maintain that year after year, and it’s because we all believe. We all walk together and we believe.”

I had a wonderful opportunity to sit down with Principal Higa on Friday to chat about her career at Momilani Elementary School. I also learned more about her experiences and thoughts from the past 50 years working in the DOE, as well as her future ambitions and goals in life after Momilani Elementary.

Survival Mode – The Challenges Avoiding School Closure

“When they first brought me over here it was to keep the school open and we survived several attempts for school closure. Truthfully, when I first came here there were only 188 students, but in 5 years we got the number up to 400 which is a perfect number for excellence small schools. From 5 years ago, the sixth year our first Blue Ribbon and so on, all the way through.  We’ve had a great run over here and we will continue to have a great run over here.”

Success, 3-Time National Blue Ribbon Award Recognition

“It speaks to the quality, but more greatly, the belief that comes from the teachers about wanting to do their best. For the kids we always held that we should try new things and keep those things that work real well. We wanted to have a school where if your child came here, what would you like your child’s teacher to be like? So we held those things close to our heart and after winning the first Blue Ribbon, second Blue Ribbon, third Blue Ribbon,  you know different honors and it’s because of the whole family here from the office, to the custodians,  to the teachers here, we are all one family.”

Hui ‘O Momilani PTSO

“There are times when we can have membership in the 90’s, 90%. The families belong, because one of things that we make very clear from the get-go is the school is all about us. We make for the kids. I think parents just need to be invited to participate and those that can are here quite often, and those that can’t do other things when they finish work. Look at our distance learning, I can’t tell you that we have had so many days of 100%. Can you believe that? On a regular school day our school for the last two years we have had only 1% of absenteeism. So making school  and learning important and this the place to be where it’s safe has carried through.”

Grandparents Step-up in Support of Students and School

“Majority of people today rely on the grandparents for providing safety and care for their grandchildren. They make wonderful friends. It’s really sad to not be here on a regular basis, but we all agreed that we’ll see each other and go to lunch because I’ll be free and enjoy the old gang. The success of the school is if the parents can’t, the grandparents step in.”

Gratitude and the Community

“We try and instill in the children, like for this month, the whole essence of what Gratitude means is very important to teach our children. It’s not about giving or receiving, but it’s about being grateful for all the things that are around us. We take those life lessons, those important things that should be taught to the kids, or modeled to the kids, we know that it’s the schools responsibility to do that so this month they’ve been working on Gratitude. Different times of the year we have different focuses and we use that as a reason to make our students even more community contributors.”

Fond and Much Appreciated Farewell

“It’s been my honor to have served this community, to serve public education, but to serve the school and community of Momilani has really been a blessing. I have enjoyed every day coming to work. There never a day that I said I don’t want to come to work. But, on the other hand, my one wish on the first day that I’m retired is to sleep until I wake up.”

Giving Back by Advancing Reading

“Being a school leader is a responsible one and your mind always continually work on what could I do better, what lesson could I have learned from this dark cloud. What exciting thing can we bring forward to the teachers, and how do we take the pandemic and all the lessons learned from life’s false feelings for the kids. So, you know I spoke to someone yesterday and I said we really need to promote reading and she was talking to me about going to talk about reading and I said yes. But, the old way of having a parent group come to the cafeteria and you speak to them is no longer. If you take a look at how were going to be safe and our economy is grow and Hawaii is going to come back, those infomercials that started with the CEO’s of companies, and now you see the workers of the companies going on the infomercials, and then you see families, and children. I said that what we need to do to promote reading. We should start to doing infomercials through our technology line through the school’s classroom blogs and therefore about the importance of reading. The pandemic brought about infomercials. The kids are very visual and auditory. It’s a new way of leading forward and thinking forward. It’s what works.”

Retirement Wake-up Call

“Like I said, I sleep until I wake up. You just don’t know what is like to sleep until 8:30 in the morning. Usually I wake up about 1, 2,or 3 o’clock and think about the day’s challenges and what I’m going to do when I get to school.”

Self Improvement Goals to Benefit Others

“One of the things that for a long time ago, what I always wanted to do,  and I don’t know if it’s going to be possible, but I always wanted to work in the prisons. I don’t know why, but I always wanted to because I was a high school teacher. There are some people who come from broken homes or whatever, and you lend them some sort of caring to them. When I was a high school teacher I would bring home kids for Thanksgiving  or we would go to concerts together. It’s taking care of those that kind of need care, but I thought of teaching reading because I’ve been here in elementary school for so long that it might help prepare and the reading really key because many of them didn’t succeed.”

Back To School

“I also want to go back to school. I always wanted to be an educational lawyer.  Not to go against the Department of Education, but it’s just my interest in law. It’s what should I go back to the university and study? I love studying and I love challenges about how to make things better. I like to see visual graphics and things and how it interest people today. It’s so different.


Thoughts from Momilani Elementary Vice Principal Garrett Arakawa

School Spirit of Gratitude

Today’s drive through is actually a “Gratitude” drive through because Mrs. Higa found about it and decided she didn’t want to be the spotlight and would rather have it cancelled then be the only person being celebrated. So, it turned into a drive through celebration for all our staff to celebrate the completion of this semester’s distance learning which is a really, really tough endeavor for both our students and our staff. The highlight of course is Mrs. Higa. She’s meant the world to a lot of the people in this community and in our school.

Every single person that’s working on this campus was hired by her. Some of them were actually hired and retired during her tenure. She’s meant so much to this school and taking the school from possible closure to what it is today. It’s an amazing place to be.”

Life after Mrs. Higa, Future success of Momilani Elementary

”We hope that the school will continue to be what it is. Anytime there is a change in Principal there are a lot of different things that could happen. There will be a process to hire a new Principal and once that happens, we’ll help that transition as best as we can and hope to continue the good work that Momilani is known for. Today is a testament on both how our teachers have worked and inspired kids this school year, but also how much Mrs. Higa has meant to this school community>”

Vice Principal Garrett Arakawa

Photo by Barry Villamil | [email protected]


"Aloha to a truly amazing friend who will forever live her life

through a unique spirit of giving, caring, and compassion for

those she touches with her Heart and Soul"…Barry


Photo by Masaru Uchino

Photo by Barry Villamil | [email protected]

Photo by Barry Villamil | [email protected]