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Posted on Apr 28, 2021 in Latest Department News, Newsroom

NĀNĀKULI — The Hawaii Elementary and Middle School Administrators Association (HEMSAA) today named Principal Lisa Ann Higa from Nānākuli Elementary as Hawaii’s 2021 National Distinguished Principal (NDP). This National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) award annually recognizes elementary and middle school principals from across the nation for their exemplary achievements.

The Nānākuli Elementary principal was surprised with the recognition in front of colleagues during a staff meeting. She received a $1,500 award from sponsors at HawaiiUSA Federal Credit Union. As the selected Hawaii NDP, Principal Higa will be invited to Washington, D.C., where she will be recognized for her outstanding leadership along with other awardees from across the country.

“Principal Higa is an amazing principal who inspires her school community to do their best for their students and families,” Nānākuli-Wai‘anae Complex Area Superintendent Disa Hauge said. “When you spend time at her school you see her hand in everything, her focus on making sure all staff and students receive the individualized support they need, and her joy seeing the achievements of others.”

Higa has been a principal at Nānākuli Elementary for seven years. Under her leadership, the school has seen significant improvements in teacher retention, parent engagement and student academic achievement.

  • To improve academic proficiency among students, Principal Higa implemented new strategies at Nānākuli Elementary, including piloting the Executive Office on Early Learning’s first Pre-K program in the Nānākuli-Wai‘anae Complex Area. The school has since seen a strong correlation between early learning and a reduction in student achievement gaps.
  • From school year 2015-16 to 2018-19, third-grade literacy has seen tremendous growth, with the percentage of students at, near or above grade level increasing to 71% from 8%.
  • Student proficiency in science and math also saw impressive growth. Math proficiency increased from 2% in school year 2013-14 to 45% in school year 2018-19, while science proficiency increased from 30% in school year 2014-15 to 42% in school year 2018-19.

Also contributing to the school’s gains in academic achievement is Principal Higa’s recognized effort to ensure her teachers and staff have professional development opportunities and resources needed to thrive. This includes advancing the careers of current staff through the Nānākuli Education Assistant (EA) program where EAs are able to obtain teaching degrees for free, while employed full-time and being mentored at the school. Principal Higa took the lead in piloting this program at her school to build capacity, and since 2015 has seen a 10-percentage-point increase in teacher retention.

In addition to building a strong foundation for her teachers, Principal Higa was also praised for her initiatives in fostering strong parent and community relations, which include neighborhood community walks, school-wide festivals or celebrations, “Talk Story with Principal Higa” meetings, and monthly parent-teacher meetings. Parent feedback has since been increasingly positive, with more parents reporting feeling safe, satisfied and engaged.

“When you talk about school culture, we’re real strengths-based, we focus on the positives. A positive culture comes from everyone within and believing in your people and always having that internal focus on children,” Principal Higa said. “It’s so touching when you work with great people and it’s all about the people for me. That’s what makes this school shine and that’s why we’re called the Golden Sunshines.”

“Now more than ever our school leaders are critical to ensuring students have the highest quality educational experience, from making sure campuses are safe to providing educators and staff with the tools and resources they need to nurture and teach their students,” Deputy Superintendent Phyllis Unebasami said. “Congratulations to Principal Higa, Vice Principal Wheeler and all of the well-deserving district honorees. Mahalo for your dedication to the Department and Hawaii’s public school students.”

The following group of 2021 NDP district nominees were also recognized for their excellence in leadership:

  • William Grindell, Kalihi Elementary, Honolulu District
  • Uilani Kaitoku, Hauula Elementary, Windward District
  • Chad Okamoto, Puu Kukui Elementary, Maui District
  • Jamie Oshiro, Wahiawa Elementary, Central District
  • James “Tony” Sines, Hanalei Elementary, Kauai District

Vice Principal Marianne Wheeler from Maui Waena Intermediate was honored as Hawaii’s 2021 Outstanding Assistant Principal. In her time at Maui Waena Intermediate, the school has seen a 67% reduction in student misconduct — a result that can be attributed to various programs and initiatives established by Wheeler such as social-emotional learning programs for students, home visits to hard-to-reach families, tutoring support for struggling students, and extra resources and training for teacher. She will be invited to an NAESP conference in Chicago in July, where she will be honored with the other Outstanding Assistant Principals across the nation.