Hanalei school dispute heats up

LIHUE — Protesters were back outside of Hanalei Elementary School Friday and the number of students present in the combined kindergarten and first grade class has dwindled, according to parents.

Students missing from school have one thing in common — they’re in the combined class that has been a point of contention between the school’s principal, Lisa McDonald, and a group of parents, teachers, and community members who want McDonald to resign.

“It’s been a mess,” said Julie Mai, who has a daughter in the combined class but kept her home from school. “There’s been no communication between Principal McDonald and all of us parents and no plan for moving forward.”

That group is accusing McDonald of mismanagement, making unethical choices, and not following through with federally mandated requirements.

They are also accusing Superintendent Bill Arakaki of ignoring more than a year’s worth of requests to look into the situation at Hanalei Elementary School.

There were two community meetings on the situation this week and a rally of about 100 people in front of the school Thursday.

As of Friday, parents reported 17 kids had been pulled out of the class.

Office staff at Hanalei school declined to provide The Garden Island with attendance information and McDonald said she can’t confirm how many students have been out of the class, either.

“I can tell you that there is a class, but I can’t tell you the attendance,” McDonald said.

Deborah Stryker, whose child is a kindergartner in the combined class, said she went to the classroom Friday to get some of his possessions and noticed there were no first-graders present.

“There were seven kindergartners in a class that should have been 24 kids,” Stryker said.

Stryker has kept her grandson home from school since Tuesday.

“I will keep him home until Principal McDonald is out of that school,” Stryker said. “She’s robbing kids of their kindergarten — their first educational experience.”

The combo class was created to accommodate the kindergartners who were late to register at the beginning of the school year.

Sarah Purcell, who has taught at Hanalei Elementary for the past five years, was asked to teach the class. Purcell was last year’s teacher representative for the parent teacher student association, as well as the school community council.

“I didn’t ask to teach the class, I was told to do it. I didn’t have enough time to prepare and I didn’t have adequate resources,” Purcell said.

Purcell turned in her resignation on Tuesday because she wasn’t given adequate time to plan for a combined classroom.

“The conditions for a K/1 [combined class] were untenable for many reasons,” Purcell said in a text message to The Garden Island on Friday. “(McDonald) was demanding it with no consideration of logistics, or the children.”

Parents said that they were excited about having their kids in Purcell’s first grade class, but none of them thought the combo class would work out.

“I was really excited when I found out that my grandson was going to be in Sarah’s class,” Stryker said. “She’s got a master’s degree, but the combination class is a bad idea.”

Parent Missy Hedstrom said the kids involved in the combination class are having a hard time understanding the situation.

“Their teacher is gone and they’re all hoping that she’s going to come back,” Hedstrom said, “plus there’s nothing on the walls of the classroom, nothing warm or inviting, nothing decorative or cheerful.”

Some parents said they are homeschooling their kids and won’t be sending them back to Hanalei Elementary under the current conditions.

“I haven’t considered transferring my grandson to another school,” Stryker said, “and I won’t take my grandson back to school until (McDonald) is gone. My goal is to have him back in school, though.”

Mai said she’s decided to keep her daughter out of the class until she sees evidence of a solid plan to move forward.

“What we want is for (McDonald) to leave and for Sarah to come back and teach our kids,” Mai said. “Right now it’s a confusing place for our kids, it’s an unsafe place for our kids, and there isn’t enough room for all of them. I won’t be sending my daughter back in the state that the classroom is in right now.”

McDonald has said she is willing to meet with parents and further discuss the situation.

Arakaki told TGI he is gathering information before deciding what to do.

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