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Homegrown Principal Lifts Up Kahaluu Keiki

Naomi Matsuzaki is on a roll.

As Hawaii’s 2013 Distinguished Principal (and a finalist for Island Insurance’s leadership excellence award), the veteran educator and product of Castle High and Ben Parker Elementary herself came “down” from an administrative post to tackle struggling Kahaluu Elementary School a few years ago, and she has been harvesting crops of healthier scholars ever since.


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Principal Naomi Matsuzaki is surrounded by her family at the April 28 Distinguished Principal awards luncheon: (front, from left) daughter Wendy Matsuzaki, granddaughter Kami Wong, husband Bill Matsuzaki, grandson Kasen Wong, (back) Auntie Edith Oba, and parents Ray and Louise Shiratori. She and other state winners will be honored in October at the nation's capitol. Photo from the family.

“We call them Kahaluu scholars, not students,” explained Matsuzaki, a former Ben Parker principal. And they’re edging closer to that name all the time. In federal restructuring five years ago, Kahaluu scored at 46 percent in reading proficiency and 37 percent in math. Now in “unconditional good standing,” her scholars’ 2013 scores at are an impressive 86 percent in reading, 82 percent in math.

“Making the difference are the part-time teachers, small groups, dialogue, vocabulary study and online practice for two hours each day,” she said. Still counting on her fingers, she lists other partners who support the school: Punahou’s Pueo program that brings 10 new Kahaluu scholars each year to its summer school, following up until they all graduate from Castle High; KEY Project and the adjacent city park for integrated academics, wellness and cultural programs; and a group of five area churches that donate supplies and extras whenever asked.

Then there’s her enthusiastic parent resource teacher Melanie Asualo, who makes parents comfortable coming to campus; Eldean Kukahiko, who directs the ukulele band for pride and good music; her outstanding faculty. The list goes on.

“It’s a great place to learn,” Matsuzaki said, “and I wanted to finish my career in a school where I love to be. It has everything here I need: My two grandchildren are being taught well, the positive climate, children caring for each other, acceptance of all backgrounds – it’s been a wonderful journey.”

Leadership must be in her genes, as daughter (and Kahaluu school parent) Wendy is principal at Waiahole Elementary.

Is she retiring? “No! There’s still a lot of work to be done. My biggest challenge now is helping the parents understand the importance of attendance. We have the lowest attendance rate in the state. They (the scholars) are dropped off late, or are pulled out early for parents’ convenience. But it really disadvantages the kids and they cannot get that time back.”

As the choice of a panel of Hawaii school administrators, the distinguished Mrs. Matsuzaki will attend the National Association of Elementary School Principals’ conference in October in Washington, D.C., where a U.S. Department of State reception is planned, as well as a black-tie awards dinner and dance.

“When I told my husband about the awards dinner, he said: ‘Do I have to wear a tuxedo?’ ” (The principal answered yes.)

One more plug for the ukulele band: Buy the May Day video for $5 at the school by Friday, and you can help fund their trip to Disneyland and California Adventure with King Intermediate School’s band. While there, the scholars also will visit two area schools to share poi pounding, leis and island culture.