Beneath the surface

For the first time in her life, Trinity Aenavrahan, a seventh-grader at Pu’ukumu School in Kilauea, laid eyes on a pregnant male seahorse.

It wasn’t printed in a book, or displayed on a Smart Board. It was in her hands, with his tail wrapped around her finger.

Trinity found the seahorse last Friday afternoon at Anini Beach during her snorkeling class.

“I was just going along, really close to the beach, and I thought I saw a sea cucumber,” Trinity said. “It turned out to be a male seahorse and it was pregnant.”

Terry Lilley, class instructor, gathered students around an orange surfboard and gave a lesson on the elusive seahorses.

“I’ve only seen three or four here (at Anini Beach) in all of my dives,” Lilley said. “The kids absolutely loved it. “

Trinity said before that day, she didn’t know that male seahorses carry the babies of the species.

“That’s just really cool and I want to find another one,” Trinity said. “I took the class to find out more about the animals in the ocean, it’s so cool.”

Kirra Value, also in seventh grade, said she took the elective class to learn more about marine life as well.

“I thought maybe if I got to do this class, I’d see really cool animals,” Value said. “Last time we saw a seahorse and I’d never seen that before, so it’s a great opportunity to see awesome critters.”

Catching a glimpse of a mysterious sea creature is thrilling, but it’s only half of what the class is really about. The kids are also part of a new nonprofit dedicated to the preservation of the world’s coral reefs — known as Reef Guardians Hawaii.

Lilley is a marine biologist who founded the nonprofit. He has spent thousands of hours underwater, monitoring reefs around the world. The goal of the nonprofit is to create awareness and provide information on the state of the coral reefs.

“It’s a scientific organization and the info that we gather goes out to universities, and television and the governor,” Lilley said. “I’ve been all around the world doing these coral reef studies and these kids have all been here helping me figure out why the reefs are dying so fast around here.”

Lilley and his student team, which consists of the seventh- and eighth-graders in his snorkel class, all the way up to a variety of Ph.D students, provide their information directly to the Eyes of the Reef website for the University of Hawaii.

“The info that these kids gather is being looked at by scientists all around the planet,” Lilley said. “They’re an actual part of monitoring the entire reef here, it’s really incredible.”

Every Friday, the kids in the elective snorkel class get in the water with Lilley and explore. He videos the entire adventure.

“Then we look at the movies and we identify everything in the classroom,” Lilley said. “And I make DVDs so they can take them home and show their parents.”

Lilley said the idea is to have more eyes in the water, particularly on the North Shore.

“I’ve been doing it for about 10 years now and so now I have these 12-year-olds and they’re out there counting coral with me,” Lilley said. “The idea is that they’ll be out in the water, with their parents and playing and living their lives, but they’ll be monitoring the reefs at the same time.”

Kirra said she loves being part of Reef Guardians Hawaii.

“We learn so much about the corals bleaching and stuff, we didn’t know about that before,” Kirra said. “I think it’s important and interesting.”

Real life learning experiences, like this snorkel class, are an integral part of Pu’ukumu School, according to the school’s co-director Robyn Botkin.

“We use something called blended learning,” Botkin said. “It utilizes three different methods to get kids familiar with material.”

A teacher-led portion of the class introduces the material and then kids move into a more collaborative environment, and finally they do some independent study on the material.

“They have three different opportunities to learn,” Botkin said, “because all kids often have different learning styles.”

Experiential learning comes into play during the collaborative piece of the day, where a class that is studying ratios, for instance, would meet with an architect.

“So in that instance, they’re learning how to scale a building, like the one we’re building for our school,” Botkin said. “We do that in every class, utilizing the unique people we have in this community.”

Pu’ukumu School is a tuition-based, college prep, private school, now in its third year, which focuses on character development, community involvement and academic success.

“We also do a lot of things that emphasize what it is to be a student in Kauai,” Botkin said. “Kids in Philadelphia don’t go snorkeling on Fridays, so we keep them connected to what it means to be a kid living on Kauai.”

It currently houses seventh and eighth grade, as well as one ninth-grade student. The plan is to expand by one grade level every year, aiming for full classes of about 30 students each. The school plans to unveil its plan for the high school curriculum soon.

“We’re building a super cool, super green, amazing building in Kilauea and hopefully that’ll be done in 2017,” Botkin said. “We’re waiting on our last permit, and then we break ground.”

The building site is at Anaina Hou Community Park.

“We’ll have a great opportunity for our kids to get involved in some of the performing arts programs through the pavilion,” Botkin said. “It’ll provide even more cross-educational opportunities.”

Kids in the snorkel class said they had other elective opportunities to choose from, like organic gardening, surfing, and music — a list that is growing every year with student input.

“They know that their voice is heard here,” Botkin said. “We can’t always do the things they ask, but we utilize their ideas if we can.”

One example is a new elective choice for eighth-grade students — Life Skills. It’s a class that touches on money management, cooking, childcare and party planning.

“The kids picked those areas themselves,” Botkin said. “The culmination of it all will be the winter dance that they’re going to put on, using the skills they learned in that class.”

Botkin said the school also offers advanced opportunities for math, science and other classes for students who want to get a jump on their college education.

“Basically, we want to make sure that whatever direction they decide to go, the door is open for them,” he said.

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