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HMSA Member News > Board Member ProfileSummer 2011 IS Magazine

One Tough Test After Another

For Kathryn Matayoshi, transforming Hawai‘i’s public schools means the work never ends.

By Chance Gusukuma

Consider the tasks piled on Kathryn Matayoshi’s plate during her first 18 months as Hawai‘i Department of Education superintendent: Stepping up to the top Department of Education (DOE) post after the retirement of her predecessor, coordinating a high-stakes Race to the Top application for federal funding, moving the DOE forward after last year’s Furlough Fridays, and figuring out how to meet schools’ instructional time as mandated by a new state law.

Matayoshi admits that her workload can be “nearly overwhelming,” but she remains determined to move the state’s public school system forward. “Every day, you just do the next right thing,” she says of the mantra she adopted after hearing actor and Parkinson’s disease activist Michael J. Fox mention it in a radio interview.

Matayoshi belongs to an accomplished and community-minded family. Her paternal grandfather was a physician who treated plantation workers in Lahaina – free of charge when they couldn’t afford care – before establishing himself in Hilo; her maternal grandfather was a dentist. Matayoshi’s father, Herbert, was Hawai‘i Island mayor from 1974 to 1984, and her mother, Mary, was a public school teacher and headed Peace Corps training in Hilo.

Trained as a lawyer, the Hilo High graduate has worked in government service for most of her career. Matayoshi credits the late federal judge Samuel P. King for nudging her toward the public sector. “[State government] needs people like you,” she recalls King telling her after she finished a clerkship for him.

So Matayoshi agreed when then-Gov. Ben Cayetano asked her to head up the state Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs. (Her mother also served in the Cayetano cabinet as director of volunteer services.) Later, she was chief of staff at the Board of Water Supply. Though her portfolio for each post was different, the goal for all was to help people.

“Part of the work in government is allowing people who have chosen government as a career to see the value that their service has for people,” she says. “The best people who come to government don’t come for the money, the benefits, or the vacation days. They come because they see something that they do betters other people’s lives. That’s what teachers do. That’s what principals come into the system to do – to help kids achieve all the things they can achieve. So my job is getting us back in touch with that value.”

Matayoshi says the schools’ primary responsibility is to prepare students to thrive as 21st century citizens and professionals. “It’s really about teaching them how to work in this new world out there,” she says. “We’re making a promise to parents about something that’s so important to them. So we have to be very committed to delivering college- and career-ready graduates.”

Matayoshi understands that teachers, principals, and other school personnel are “disenchanted” with budget cuts and public criticism. “But the work still needs to get done,” she says. “Children still need to go to school. So how do we get people to stay in the game? To do what they have to do every day, and then to take on that little bit extra to really reform the system.” Ultimately, that’s what will determine the outcome of the ambitious $75 million reform agenda detailed in Hawai‘i’s Race to the Top application. (Learn more about the DOE’s efforts at

Despite Matayoshi’s unenviable to-do list, she could not say no when she was nominated to join the HMSA board of directors last summer. “You want to work with people who are always thinking and challenging your thought process,” she says. “You look at the group that’s on the HMSA board, and it’s a great, great group of people.”

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