Growing up in Hawaii, Alisa Bender always hoped to be a strong leader and to inspire leadership in others. After an early career in journalism, she switched to education, becoming a Special Education teacher, English Language Arts co-teacher, Vice Principal and eventually, Principal. Throughout Principal Bender’s administrative career, she cultivated a leadership style that is values-oriented, innovative, focused on continuous improvement, inspirational, collaborative, and intent on doing whatever it takes to help students succeed. When she arrived at Lt Col Horrace Meek Hickam Elementary School in 2015, a consistently high-performing elementary school, she was determined to introduce new ideas that would not only move an already great school to a world-class educational program, but also to inspire leadership and resourcefulness in teachers and students.
Hickam Elementary is part of a military-base complex that has a highly diverse and transient student population. With 98% of students being a member of a military family, the school sees approximately 150 students come and go each year. Principal Bender recognized that for students and teachers to stay motivated, engaged, and focused, the entire school community would need to cultivate a school culture together. She worked with the faculty and staff to ensure the school’s vision and mission incorporated a set of shared values as an institution of learning that included over-arching concepts such as all children can learn, do whatever it takes for every child, work as a school team, and do the best job possible. From these collective values, she helped articulate four school design pillars: Nurture the Whole Child, Culture of Empowerment and Leadership, World Class Education, and to be Future-Focused. With the four pillars in mind, she created school systems, partnerships, family engagement, and professional development to create an inspirational school model.
Given the uniqueness of the school setting and student population, Principal Bender became actively involved in engaging stakeholders to better understand the military culture and better serve her students. She joined the Joint Venture Education Forum and Military Youth Advisory Council which provided the school with a wide range of resources, but also helped her understand the military-specific concerns related to frequent moving and parent deployment. Building on this knowledge, she was instrumental in the development of the school’s Aloha Transition Center, which aims to ease the transition of new students to the school by providing hands-on and guided strategies to become more resilient and resourceful. She also developed partnerships with military and community groups to help the school support their whole-child approach, such as Military Mentors, Watch D.O.G.S, and Operation Hero.
While always a high-performing school focused on academics and closing achievement gaps, Principal Bender sought to apply the same level of focus on the unique social and emotional needs of the school’s students. She strengthened the school’s intervention model to more comprehensively address students’ social, emotional, and mental health needs. She set up a school-based team focused on social and emotional learning; guided staff through a process to select a social and emotional learning model that would match the school’s values and mission to enhance a culture of trust, engagement, empowerment, and goal-setting; and partnered with the University for Hawaii Center for Cognitive Behavior Therapy.
Principal Bender’s values-driven leadership helped the teaching community at Hickam innovate to address student needs. By setting up school structures to support professional development, coaching and collaborative learning, she helped shift instructional practices to include problem-solving, inquiry and communication and to help teachers think deeply about how and where to embed technology in instruction.
Under Principal Bender’s guidance, students and teachers at Hickam have been inspired to be leaders, active participants in their own learning, and innovators.