Touting Teamwork And Simple Goals

King Intermediate School principal Sheena Alaiasa is the 2014 National Middle Level Principal of the Year

Here’s a little secret from the 2014 National Middle Level Principal of the Year: Form a great team, work hard and keep to simple goals. Oh yes, and don’t let anything get in your way.

These are the tools Sheena Alaiasa brought to King Intermediate School in 2008, plus a generous dose of stubbornness; and what she’s built there has earned nationwide acclaim and cleared the way to a brighter future for all public school children from Waiahole to Kaneohe.


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Sheena Alaiasa in her office

“I love my job, and I believe in it,” says Alaiasa, 47. “We just want everyone to succeed and to give the kids an opportunity to learn. It’s a simple vision.”

As the feeder campus for eight elementary schools, King has had a checkered past, “a rough patch,” Alaiasa calls it. But no more.

In the past few months, the school and its 600-plus seventh- and eighth-graders have been treated to a parade of awards, surprise assemblies and cash prizes from the state Department of Education, the governor and national organizations, all recognizing its turnaround and the leadership that made it happen. Test scores are way up at the former “King Zoo.” It now boasts full accreditation, and the Alaiasa team has led it successfully out of restructuring (a term for reinventing a failing school).

Three well-publicized milestones have all brought pride and new energy to the King ohana – the $100,000 Strive HI award in March for continuous progress, her selection as a MetLife/National Association of Secondary School Principals finalist in July ($1,500), and as NASSP winner ($3,500) Aug. 29.

Of the latest round of awards, Alaiasa says irreverently: “It cracks me up, this principal thing – it should go to all of them! They (the staff) tell me, ‘It’s not about you, Sheena, it’s about the school.’ ”

But first, about her. Born Sheena Fitzgerald on a New Zealand prison farm (her parents were prison officers), she grew up in an Irish-Maori culture built on character education and family values. Because those values were lacking among the inmates, she says she and her brothers all gravitated into social work. Sean is a prison supervisor, Seamus has worked with at-risk kids (and now manages PCC’s Maori Village). As for sister Sheena, well, being a DOE teacher, vice principal and principal is not so far removed from what her siblings do.

In between Turangi town on New Zealand’s North Island and Hawaii, Alaiasa recalls a long, slow awakening to her own potential. “I was a terrible student,” she admits. “My old high school principal once wrote, ‘Although not an academic scholar, Sheena will find her niche and do well.’ ”

First, she thrived for six years on the Australia stock exchange – until the 1988 market crash with all of its chaos and tragedy. She moved on to a calmer life as a BYU-Hawaii student in 1989, sang and played ukulele (and still does, to give her balance) at Polynesian Cultural Center, and in 1992 married fellow student and musician Norris Alaiasa, from American Samoa. The Laie couple has two daughters, Sheris and Risha, both Kahuku High graduates now on track for college and LDS mission work.

Coach Dave Porter’s teaching fundamentals class at BYUH inspired her to switch course, from outdoor education to the indoor kind. “I loved it so much I changed my major!” Onward to her elementary ed degree from BYUH, master of education administration from UH Manoa, then teaching at Kahaluu, vice principal at Kailua and Heeia, and principal of Heeia.

Castle-Kahuku complex area superintendent Lea Albert then looked to rising DOE administrator Alaiasa to help out at the out-of-control King Intermediate campus. “She said, ‘I need you up here for only six weeks,'” recalls Alaiasa, now in her fifth year there. “There was so much going on: fights, crowds massing around the fights, fights off campus, on the highway, challenges between schools. We had to change a whole lot of things.”

Here’s another secret she’s learned: “You don’t have to be smart, you just have to work hard. I was smart enough to pull people around me who are smart – my staff.” However, she faced a teacher mindset of zero expectations and it-hasn’t-been-done attitudes. From a hometown with more pubs than churches, the Fitzgerald girl summoned her stubborn Irish side to counter this negative vibe.

“‘Just watch me,’ I told them.”

She’s converted some of her 52 teachers and let others move on, to the point where she counts 80 percent believers and 20 percent naysayers. “Even after our huge gains in achievement and discipline,” she admits, “some still don’t believe.” But giving up is not an option. “I’m excited for them to be excited, so the kids can be excited.”

Toward that end, she’s taken the resources at hand and put them to work. The community’s 5Rs motto is no longer lip service at King. They live it, she says. Also reinforced weekly are video clips and student-produced PSAs on the Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teens. The WestEd restructuring team, the Title I and REACH programs, School Turnaround, KEY Project, and the expert on-campus resources of ‘Olelo Community TV studio and Kaneohe Community Family Center all play a part. Sports are big, as are read-aloud nights, Polynesian club and after-school activities.

Her weekly SAM (Student Achievement Matters) staff reports review progress in detail and interpret the latest DOE missives. “Those reports saved our butts for accreditation,” she declares.

And Mrs. A is just a few steps away. “Lea Albert has a courageous, innovative vision beyond her years, and she’s allowed us to do the same. She’s always my biggest cheerleader, telling me ‘You go for it, and I’ll clear the way.'”

A good day for Alaiasa is to chat with the students out front, listen to the morning bulletin together, do classroom walk-throughs to generate teaching tips, regroup about daily issues with her two vice principals, and allow time for professional teacher development. Late afternoon is catch-up time, then meetings and sometimes work until midnight. Other nights, she performs at PCC. Twice she’s taken the faculty to its Ha! show, both for fun and professional development.

Her latest award includes an NASSP learning forum Sept. 18-21 in Washington, D.C., where she’ll meet other leaders and they can meet her, as well as Hawaii nominees John Sosa of Kaiser High and Celia Main-Anakalea of Kaimuki Middle School.