Community effort produces new charter school
by Cynthia Matsuoka – Special to THE GARDEN ISLAND
PUHI — Kawaikini, a new charter school, opened for students Tuesday on the Eastside.
The kindergarten through grade 12 school will be the piece that links Punana Leo, a Hawaiian immersion preschool, to Kaua‘i Community College.
“(The school) creates that immersion environment where everybody is together and speaking Hawaiian in the classrooms and on the playground,” said interim Executive Director Kimo Perry.
The idea started with teachers who wanted to have a place where all students could be together as opposed to being on different campuses. The school sits on land leased from KCC, just behind Punana Leo.
For Alohilani Rogers, formerly a teacher with the Hawaiian immersion program at Kapa‘a Middle and Kapa‘a Elementary schools, it has been 10 years in the making.
She said she would see Punana Leo students learn to speak fluent Hawaiian, but if they were unable to attend the program at Kapa‘a, they would exit and by the end of the following year they would have forgotten the language.
“Last year’s Punana Leo’s graduates are all here,” Rogers said.
Following the immersion philosophy, the lower elementary grade students will build their foundation in the Hawaiian language in preparation for formal English training in the upper grade levels.
Rogers said it was a blessing to have started thinking about creating their special school early on.
There is a cap on the number of charter schools in Hawai‘i. When three openings became available, they were ready, she said.
A core group of parents and educators came together about two years ago to explore options for a stronger educational model for Hawaiian language instruction.
Upon receiving a planning grant under the federal Department of Education’s Charter Schools Program in 2006, a nonprofit parent organization called “Supporting the Language of Kaua‘i, Inc.” established an interim local school board.
Perry was selected as the interim executive director to lead the “long” charter school process.
“Punana Leo is a strong supporter,” Perry said. “Kaua‘i Community College has been amazing in helping us to establish the school.”
Rogers credits the support of then Chancellor Peggy Cha and Head of Facilities Gary Nitta for being able to accomplish so much in so little time.
“They were able to see what we were seeing for the long range and the partnerships and the educational foundation for the students,” Rogers said. “They really went above and beyond.”
Rogers said they hope to see their junior and senior students taking KCC courses.
For now, the partnership has a student teacher from the cohort program working with a master teacher at Kawaikini. One of the Kawaikini teachers is enrolled in a Hawaiian language course at KCC.
Rogers worked last year next door to Debra Gochros, a science teacher. She said Gochros asked if she could apply to teach at Kawaikini because she was very interested in project-based learning, but she couldn’t speak Hawaiian.
Gochros has enrolled in Hawaiian 101 at KCC held during the last hour of the school day. She will be able to attend because Rogers, as a resource teacher, will be able to take over Gochros’ class.
“There’s all kinds of potential for partnerships,” Perry said.
He has been thinking of one day giving students an option to take an extra year at Kawaikini and receive an Associate Degree.
The first day of school for the students was the last day as interim executive director for Perry. The parent group approached Anake (Aunty) Leialoha Kauahi and Chris Town in March to serve as co-directors.
“They are both well-respected, both former principals and both have their hearts in it,” Perry said.
Town said his grandchildren attend Punana Leo and he wants to “blaze the trail” for them so they can attend Kawaikini. He said he worked with Kauahi for 13 years at Kalaheo Elementary, which was community-based.
“It’s a normal fit,” Town said. “Kawaikini is very community-based.”
Town served as Kaua‘i District’s deputy superintendent.
For the first day, Kauahi drove to Hanalei so she could ride the bus with the children into Lihu‘e.
The co-directors this year are working with 80 students, six lead teachers, three educational assistants, a school administrative services assistant and an account clerk/finance director.
The students are divided into three pae (groups), K-2, 3-5, 6-12. The multi-age groupings enable students to work at their own pace and allow teachers to create heterogeneous and homogenous smaller groups.
They are housed by pae in temporary classrooms while permanent structures are being built.
Nolan Rapozo is the head of the facilities committee. He said he had two months to get the site ready.
“It was definitely a group effort,” Rapozo said. They were able to secure grants from Kamehameha Schools and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and relied on parent volunteers to be ready on time.
“There’s no way this would have happened without all of the community partnerships and support,” Rogers said.
“I’m really happy,” Perry said as the students prepared for their piko (opening) ceremony. “We start with an idea; the idea becomes a dream; the dream becomes work; work becomes reality. It’s a long process. To actually see the kids here after all the theory …”
The school takes its name from Kawaikini, the tallest peak on Mt. Wai‘ale‘ale.
“Even though you think you’ve done well, there’s always a little better you can do,” Rogers said. “Even the top of Wai‘ale‘ale isn’t tall enough.”
• Cynthia Matsuoka is a freelance writer for The Garden Island and former principal of Chiefess Kamakahelei Middle School. She can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.