Jessica Chang, Aiea High School Class of 2021, could’ve stopped pushing for excellence when her school achieved the National Council of Excellence (NCOE) designation. But she, and advisers from other Hawaii schools, wanted to be sure other schools had the same experience.

“Not a lot of people realize the amount of work that goes into being a council and running a council,” Chang says. “Especially during COVID, when it seemed like everyone was losing that sense of togetherness and school spirit, I thought it was important for everyone to get that recognition for everything that they do.”

In 2021, 20 Hawaii middle level and high schools earned NCOE status in NatStuCo’s program that recognizes achievement in service and leadership. That’s out of about 44 high schools statewide, plus specialty and private schools.

State officials call it a remarkable achievement that, through the rigor needed for adherence to NCOE criteria, helps transform Hawaii’s diverse schools into leadership academies, priming students for lifetimes of service to their state and nation.

NCOE in the Aloha State

Hawaii public schools are uniquely structured as a single-state system, with local districts administered by the state Department of Education.

The Hawaii school superintendent and board of education support and align with the NatStuCo tenets of leadership and service, says Hawaii State Student Council (HSSC) State Adviser Tiffany Frias. In 1973, the Hawaii DOE created HSSC to further solidify the role of student councils in building schools and enhancing communities.

“It really does stem from our state’s belief in leadership, voice, engagement—all those wonderful things that we encourage our students to be able to have as they graduate from school,” Frias says. “It doesn’t matter who our superintendent or board of education [leaders] are at any given time. Over the years, the idea that we should support leadership and student government has always been something we believed.”

From there, Hawaii schools have taken the leap to seek NCOE recognition. The journey began, in part, with Moanalua High School in Honolulu. Like student councils statewide, Moanalua High School student council concentrates its service projects on the outdoors, environmental cleanups, and community needs such as hunger. A fundraiser for local food banks—the pandemic-era substitute for an old-fashioned food drive—broke records for participation, says Sherwin Pang, the student activities coordinator whose duties include advising student council.

The school’s role in sparking Hawaii’s outsized representation on the NCOE rolls began in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Over those years, Moanalua and another powerhouse school, Lahainaluna High School on Maui, had such a lock on the state competition for top council that competition was dwindling to a handful of schools.

Pang, a 29-year veteran student activities coordinator, had a talk with one of his student council officers, who happened to be an HSSC chairperson. They asked each other a question: What’s more important? Us winning this every year, or having more schools participate?

“She bit the bullet,” Pang says. “She made a move to change the procedures. If you do a book documenting your activities, you get a plaque. That’s how it’s been. For us, the winning was nice, but we’d rather see more participation.”

Having no need to prove themselves statewide, Pang and his student leaders wondered how they would stack up nationally. On discovering NCOE, they noticed that the alphabetical-by-state list skipped from Georgia to an “I” state.

Moanalua applied for and won NCOE status. For its first three years, the school was Hawaii’s sole representative on the list, while Pang prodded his student activities coordinator (SAC) colleagues at other schools toward a goal of making Hawaii the national leader.

While SACs and their students took up the challenge, the state DOE did its part. HSSC members and advisers can’t always make the costly and time-consuming trip to NatStuCo conferences on the mainland, so they have staged their own student leadership council conference for more than 30 years. There, NatStuCo schools and their programs are recognized in tandem with the council’s own statewide awards called the OSCAR (Outstanding Student Council Award and Recognition) program.

“We encourage participation in either or both,” Frias says. “OSCAR is probably a springboard for schools to eventually go for their NatStuCo recognition. After they do all the work for the OSCAR, they may as well submit for the national [award].”

Peer-to-Peer Guidance

The pandemic year didn’t slow Hawaii State Student Council’s activities. In fact, via virtual meetings, council members engaged like never before.

Frias says that Chang, as state chairperson, made it her mission to reach out to her peers and guide those with little NCOE experience through the process. “Our schools are the ones that give real-life, in-school, what’s-possible examples on the projects and the things to meet the requirements,” she says.

Chang says she began raising awareness for other schools after she organized her own school’s NCOE portfolio, documenting such student council projects as a Leukemia and Lymphoma Society “penny wars” fundraiser and a leadership camp for the middle level and elementary schools that feed into Aiea High School.

From there, it felt like a natural step to share the NCOE process. For instance, Chang prepared a webinar for fellow student council leaders across Hawaii. She cited application criteria and project requirements for National Council of Excellence recognition. “Evidence is KEY!” she told her peers. Chang and her classmates even collated, in assembly-line fashion, sample binders to demonstrate their approach to OSCAR and NCOE applications.

The training helped other schools achieve NCOE status, Chang believes.

“Having a nationally recognized council makes you feel like you’re a top-notch council,” Chang says. “Every council in Hawaii does the same things, but they don’t all take the extra steps to get recognized. I wanted them to realize how easy it was to get that National Council of Excellence recognition.”

Hawaii’s more seasoned schools know that they can repurpose their OSCAR documentation for NCOE applications. Student leaders collaborate—sometimes pulling overnighters—to compile binders holding all of the documentation, “so it becomes a fun team-energizer for them,” Frias says.

Awards ceremonies during the Hawaii State Student Council conference and a social media blitz organized by volunteers help encourage participation by making NCOE recognition “a big deal,” Frias says.

“We have students teaching students, peers teaching peers,” she says. Middle level student councils have sought state OSCAR recognition, and some have tried for—and achieved—NCOE status. Those efforts, plus the spotlight put on high-achieving councils, generate interest.

“The awareness is there,” Frias says. “Everybody pushes for everybody to be a part of this. We always tell them that people don’t necessarily know the wonderful things that student council does for schools and communities. They are the quiet, behind-the-scenes support for schools. It’s so vital that they operate and they function well.”

SACs 101

In every Hawaii high school, an SAC such as Pang is employed year-round to organize and advise student activities, including student council.

The SACs call themselves an “ohana”—the Hawaiian term for “family.” Most are experienced educators, and turnover is rare. “The unit is very cohesive,” Frias says. “It’s very tight.”

The SACs have created their own dues-paying organization and, with the purchase of a Zoom account, connected every week through the pandemic. They share problems, solutions, and ideas.

Pang’s Moanalua High School—so close to Honolulu Airport that “we can actually see planes coming in and out”—hosts one of the SACs’ quarterly meetings every year.

“When we meet as a state, we have a lot of networking time,” Pang says. “We sit down and talk about things like how you do your homecoming dance. We also have formal sessions on hot topics like transgender issues.”

Conversations continue informally across the SACs’ email network. At least once a week, someone will send out a question and “get a flood of suggestions,” Pang says.

Many Hawaiian students are from rural islands or low-income families. They juggle academics and leadership with family duties—perhaps holding down jobs or caring for siblings. Recognizing the responsibilities their students have, the SACs are attuned to their needs. They are mindful of scheduled meeting times. Some are known to cook meals and provide transportation if that’s what it takes to keep students involved.

In these circumstances, SACs build enthusiasm for excellence by infusing the “ohana” concept into their own student councils.

“They hold a lot of camps and opportunities, so councils become their own little group, their own little family,” Frias says. “When you are family, it’s a different level of responsibility. You will do for each other. You will take the time for each other.”

At Pang’s ethnically and economically mixed school of 2,000 students, the 112-person student council meets every two weeks. With more than 10 years of NCOE status at his school, Pang admits to keeping the streak alive by laying a bit of a “guilt trip” on his student leaders. Pointing to the consecutive plaques arrayed on the wall, he says, “You don’t want to be the council that doesn’t get the award.”

More importantly, he says that NCOE recognition has become “part of our culture. It’s not like we ask if we should do NCOE this year. We don’t even ask that question. It’s just something we do.”

The team effort to seek NCOE recognition helps instill the leadership skills needed for life, Pang says. “They get the confidence in knowing that they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing.”

Economic Vitality

The Hawaii Board of Education supports student government within its mission to boost the state economy and create opportunities for young adults. Many student leaders leave the Aloha State for college but return to conduct state council leadership camps for younger students. Along the way, they forge strong ties and build peer networks. Those connections can lure them back later in their careers.

“It is a pay-it-forward, pay-it-back kind of philosophy,” Frias says. “Often they find that this is still their home, still their place. They’ll come back because they want to live and work at home. They want to lead our state.”

Chang is the perfect example. She will leave Hawaii for Cornell University in New York (yes, there is coat shopping in her future). Her leadership experience made her realize that she enjoys making people feel welcome, so she will study hospitality—but not in her home state where tourism drives the economy.

“I didn’t want to stay here and relearn everything we already knew,” she says. “I wanted to go out and bring something back that’s new into our industry.”

Road Maps to Success

The NCOE requirements actually help Frias’ office share with student councils the efforts needed for properly functioning student council bodies.

“Do you hold elections?” she says. “Do you have a constitution? Do you have bylaws? How do you engage with and serve the community? How do you support leadership learning? We can say it, but the fact that NatStuCo has them down as their benchmarks and their requirements really helps us as well.”

Pang’s Moanalua High School doesn’t make a big deal of NCOE recognition, preferring to put its plaque on the wall, “and then we move on.

“For us, it’s not so much about winning the award as much as it is making sure we follow all the criteria to make sure we’re up to par with all other schools in the United States.”

Still, since he was an initiator of the statewide drive to increase NCOE representation, he has been pleased to see it grow to 20 schools, “and obviously, we want to get more people on board.”

Although Hawaiians say they don’t like to brag, a tiny note of Hawaiian pride sneaks into their voices when they talk about the number of schools reaching the National Council of Excellence pinnacle.

“We’re a tiny state, and we have all of these NCOE schools,” Frias notes.

The effort motivates student councils to reach for achievement, agrees Chang, saying, “It makes a lot of students think, ‘Even though we’re such a small state, we’ve got the best councils out there.’ ” —

M. Diane McCormick is a writer based in Harrisburg, PA.