This article, written by Susan Essoyan, originally appeared in the Honolulu Star Advertiser.
For David Miyashiro the roots of his position at the helm of HawaiiKidsCAN trace back to his time teaching special-education students at Wahiawa Middle School, a job he loved.
“It was everything I thought it would be, seeing kids blossom and grow when they felt empowered and supported,” said Miyashiro, who was with Teach for America.
Then came Furlough Fridays in 2009, when public schools across Hawaii were shut down one day a week to save the state money.
“I remember being really frustrated,” Miyashiro said. “I realized I could be a teacher, pouring my heart and soul into this work and seeing the kids grow and building these relations with the family members. But ultimately it all comes back to policy.”
As founding executive director of HawaiiKidsCAN, he aims to help ensure that every child in Hawaii gets a great education. Launched in September, it is the 11th state branch of 50CAN: The 50-State Campaign for Achievement Now, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C.
Through research, organizing and advocacy, HawaiiKidsCAN seeks to help policymakers put kids first in educational policy, rather than shortchanging them as happened with Furlough Fridays. It works to inform people about what’s going on in the schools; organize students, parents and educators to give them greater voice; and advocate for policy changes.
After his stint at Wahiawa Middle, Miyashiro went on to earn a master’s degree in educational policy at Harvard and worked in the U.S. Senate before returning to Kailua, where he grew up.
He kicked off HawaiiKidsCAN with the publication of “State of Education in Hawaii 2017” and a forum on educational equity Sept. 16. The report, available online and in print, gives a snapshot of education across the state, with easy-to-digest graphics and summaries of demographics, trends and results.
Miyashiro and his colleague, Peggy Mierzwa, are the only full-time employees at HawaiiKidsCAN. The national office handles much of the “back office” functions and leaves it up to each state’s staff to identify issues and take up local campaigns. To get rolling, Miyashiro went on a “listening tour” across the state, meeting with more than 100 people in education.
“We are looking to move the system from good to great, having that shared, collective sense of responsibility,” he said.
Mierzwa, who spent 10 years as a classroom teacher, manages community outreach and organizing. She is building a student advocacy program, starting with teens and teachers at Farrington, Waipahu and Waianae high schools.
The Educational Equity Symposium staged by HawaiiKidsCAN brought together a diverse group of educators, including Superintendent Christina Kishimoto, and featured sessions on advocacy, special education, multilingualism and Hawaiian-focused charter schools.
Mathieu Williams, a digital media teacher at Kealakehe Intermediate on Hawaii island, found Miyashiro’s talk on advocacy so worthwhile that he invited him to speak to the Hope Street Group fellows, who are teacher-leaders.
“I think both organizations see the importance of how do we collaborate and scale the great things that are happening,” said Williams, statewide engagement coordinator for Hope Street. “I think sometimes we silo our work too much. What was really awesome at the event was there were so many passionate people, and being able to network.”
At 32, Miyashiro still has the boyish looks of a teenager, but the right background and experience for the position, observers say.
“He’s well suited for the job,” Martha Guinan, chairwoman of Hawaii’s Special Education Advisory Council. “He’s young, so he has the energy.
“When you first meet him, you think, this guy’s too young, what can he do?” she added with a chuckle. “But he has already experienced a lot. He’s a pretty smart guy.”