UH Hilo alumna nominated for 2022 National Teacher of the Year

Waiākea High School teacher Whitney Aragaki, the 2022 Hawai’i Teacher of the Year, teaches high school science using cultural and place-based activities to engage students.

Whitney Aragaki sits at desk with computers.
High school math and science teacher Whitney Aragaki, right, sits with Peter Forshay, a remote observer from the Canada-France-Hawai‘i Telescope, in 2016. (File photo/UH Hilo Stories)

By Susan Enright.

An alumna of the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo graduate program in conservation biology and environmental science is a finalist for the 2022 National Teacher of the Year.

Whitney Aragaki, who teaches at Waiākea High School, Hilo, was chosen as one of four finalists by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO).

Aragaki, the 2022 Hawai’i Teacher of the Year, teaches high school science using cultural and place-based activities to engage students. She also works to provide equitable access to environmental science and computer science courses statewide.

“Whitney’s innovative approach to teaching offers students meaningful cultural and place-based learning opportunities that are both rigorous and relevant to our young learners,” says Keith Hayashi, interim superintendent at the Hawai‘i Department of Education. “Science can be an intimidating subject for students, but Whitney successfully engages her students in exciting and empowering ways.

Aragaki began her teaching career with support from the Woodrow Wilson-Rockefeller Brothers Fund Aspiring Teachers of Color Fellowship and the National Science Foundation’s GK12 Fellowship. She has been teaching at her high school alma mater Waiākea High for 10 years and currently serves as a 10th-grade biology and advanced placement environmental science teacher.

She’s known for offering her students opportunities to elevate their leadership and civic responsibility within the community.

In 2018, the Hawai‘i DOE awarded the UH Hilo alumna an innovation grant to support her proposal for Science Buddies, a program where advanced placement science students could make an impact on the next generation of science learners in their own community by creating lessons for elementary classrooms. What resulted from the program were hands-on, locally based, and academically rigorous activities for over 250 students in grades 3-5.

A former student says Aragaki’s methods of teaching are highly successful at inviting students to explore the world of science.

“Mrs. Aragaki perseveres on a daily basis to provide her students with the proper experience, knowledge and environment they need to open up to being willing to engage in [science, technology, engineering and math],” says Lela DeVine, a Waiākea High alumna. “The honesty and transparency throughout the classroom that allows her students to feel safe and inclusive is what sets Mrs. Aragaki apart from any teacher I have ever had.”

Aragaki also works to improve her school community through the creation of the peer-to-peer Warrior Professional Learning Community program, where teachers mentor colleagues new to the profession. Through the program, new teachers receive training on career academies, how to support first-generation college students, classroom technology, and other professional development topics.

“Mrs. Aragaki’s commitment to excellence goes far beyond her teaching and the four corners of her classroom,” says Kelcy Koga, principal at Waiākea High. “She sees the benefits that a sound education can provide, and is willing to go above and beyond the call of duty to not only serve her students but her colleagues and school community as well.”

Since 2016, Aragaki also teaches advanced placement environmental science, statistics, and computer science principles for the statewide Hawaiʻi Virtual Learning Network. She is the lead teacher of the Waiākea High Public Services Academy, which was recognized as a National Model Academy under the National Career Academy Coalition in 2018.

A National Board Certified Teacher, Aragaki was a 2019 and 2021 state finalist for the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.

By Susan Enright, a public information specialist for the Office of the Chancellor and editor of UH Hilo Stories. She received her bachelor of arts in English and certificate in women’s studies from UH Hilo.

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