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Christina Small, King Liholiho Elementary School, Honolulu, HI

Christina Small HI BellDescribed as a dedicated, compassionate, and hardworking educator, Christina Small believes an effective leader is a model for teachers, staff, and students. After nearly 50 years as an educator, she believes her ability to be an enthusiastic, continuous learner and to listen with care and empathy are the keys to impacting all groups in a school.

Ms. Small began her educational career teaching in a high poverty area of Watts in Los Angeles. After moving to Hawaii, she taught in a school in a remote area, where she participated in a research project promoted by the Kamehameha Schools that focused on student achievement in Native Hawaiian low-income schools. Learning that her students had exceeded the academic achievement of the research groups, she became motivated to become an administrator. After additional education, Ms. Small became a vice principal at a middle school and elementary school.

Principal Small became principal of Liholiho Elementary School in 1994. She has been instrumental in realizing Liholiho Elementary School’s vision of being “A Community of Caring, Competent and Creative Learners.” She has promoted a school-wide focus on educating the whole child, addressing the academic and social-emotional needs of students, creating a nurturing school climate, and the continual professional development of teachers. She has facilitated a school culture where students feel nurtured in a safe, accepting, and challenging learning environment.

Upon entering King Liholiho Elementary, a visitor would quickly recognize symbols in the environment that communicate the vision and values that drive teaching, student learning, and parental support. Posters, murals, student work, quotations, and awards are displayed as evidence of the commitment to achieving not only content knowledge, but also knowledge of how to respond in complex, ambiguous, and uncertain situations where immediate answers are not readily apparent.

Establishing the school-wide implementation of Dr. Art Costa’s Habits of Mind dimensions has been pivotal in developing the school culture. The school’s curriculum and instruction focus on fostering the language, mental dispositions, emotions, and capabilities of thoughtful action and learning. These dispositions include such essential skills as: persisting; questioning and problem-posing; thinking interdependently; striving for accuracy and precision; communicating with clarity; finding humor; metacognition; creating; imagining and innovating; and responding with wonderment and awe. As children progress through the grades, teachers reinforce these dispositions, so that overtime, these habits are practiced repeatedly and internalized in each child’s head, heart, and actions.

Developing the “whole child” epitomizes Principal Small’s vision for educating children. She was instrumental in offering a Wellness program that garnered state attention, and promoted the building of gardens on campus for children to integrate math, science, and nutritional concepts. Teachers and Principal Small are involved in co-constructing events and activities with parents, students, and community members. For example, the school has held very successful Fitness and Wellness days, May Days, and Keiki Runs. The school invites the community to attend the annual Staff/ Students basketball game where the students play with the teachers – not against them.

Seeking and reaching out to the community is a necessity as the school does not qualify for Title I funding. Working with the PTA, the school has installed playground equipment, water filtration stations, reader boards, an enhanced sound system, and high powered ceiling fans in the cafeteria. As a result of Principal Small’s efforts, Liholiho has an excellent volunteer program. The school maintains a core of senior citizens and grandparents who meet weekly to assist teachers and office staff. They have been volunteering for the past twenty years. In addition, Principal Small encouraged eight retired teachers to assist the school with programs, such as the Wellness program, library, gardening, tutoring reading, mindfulness, and counseling. One cornerstone of Ms. Small’s leadership and vision was to connect with the university so that potential teacher candidates work directly with students in the classes. This process has led potential teacher candidates to pursue teaching as a possible career.

Christina Small has been principal of King Liholiho Elementary School for twenty-six years and the school has received multiple accolades and awards under her leadership, including the National Blue Ribbon School Award three times since 2004. As she has ushered in many changes over the years, the students and school community continue to thrive and achieve, creating a community of caring, competent, and creative learners.


Read a transcript HERE.
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