Lessons learned

The third time was the charm for Alakai O Kauai Charter School.

The school was unanimously approved by the Hawaii State Charter School Commission Thursday, following a recommendation for approval in June.

“Our graduates are going to be expected to be thinkers and be prepared for a world that we haven’t been able to imagine yet,” said Kani Blackwell, acting chair. “We want our students, or learners as we call them, to be able to be productive and contribute to a society that will make for a more just world.”

Formerly known as iLEAD Kauai, Alakai O Kauai Charter School will use the same model as other international Leadership Entrepreneurial Development Arts Design schools, which focus on project-based learning.

Alakai O Kauai Charter School will provide keiki with innovative ways to learn, Blackwell said

“We have said from the beginning that our island is filled with knowledgeable and dedicated school staff, but not every child learns the same,” Blackwell said. “We hope to fill the need for learners who require project-based learning to excel in education.”

It is that educational philosophy that compelled Rob Sherrill, school board member, to get involved.

“My wife and I wanted to explore alternative education options, and when we heard about this project-based learning philosophy, it was something that really connected with us,” he said. “They’re bringing the work world into the education system and basing it on individual interest.”

Catering to the individual is important to success in school, Sherrill said.

“It leads to excitement, which leads to passion, which is the fuel to drive kids to do well,” he said.

Maegan Sakai Fontana, another board member, agreed.

“When we challenge ourselves and try new things, we can improve education,” she said. “This charter school is a great way to invigorate and take a leap forward, which is important in education.”

Plans for the school started in 2014. It was denied twice by Charter School Commission, most recently in September.

“We listened intensely to all the recommendations from the Charter Commission and made sure we showed capacity in academic, organization and financial management,” said Blackwell, a 50-year veteran in education. “We made sure we had a strong governing board that had a broad perspective of interests and abilities.”

This year, the seven member governing board includes a businessman and a certified personal accountant. School officials also sought advice from a former charter school principal and a former executive director from the Charter School Network.

Catherine Payne, chair of the Public Charter School Commission, said the commission noted the team’s persistence.

“They took suggestions well, and each year, their plans changed,” she said. “This year, it was really outstanding.”

What impressed Payne the most was that the school was planned with Kauai in mind.

“They moved from looking at a Mainland operator to growing something particular to Kauai that will benefit the children there,” she said. “It’s much better to grow something that meets the community’s needs, rather than bringing something from the outside.”

Alakai O Kauai Charter School will offer grades K-4 and aims to open in the fall of 2017.

Operating costs for that year are estimated to be $1.3 million, Blackwell said. While most of that will come from state funding, the school will have to raise about $250,000.

That includes hiring personnel, refurbishing facilities, construction, possible infrastructure improvements, putting technology infrastructure into a school, marketing, supplies for enrollment and travel, Blackwell said.

The school won’t receive state funding until the first group of students comes in, so officials hope to receive donations.

Alakai O Kauai Charter School hopes to open with 165 students, and grow to 360 students in 10 years. To keep classes to 20 students, officials plan to hire about eight teachers.

The last hurdle is finalizing the school’s location, Blackwell said. Officials are in negotiations with Knudsen Trust for Mount Kahili Park in Koloa. The greatest need for a charter school is in Kapaa, but officials can’t find a space, Blackwell said.

Payne believes great things will come to Alakai O Kauai Charter School.

“We have great confidence it will flourish, and we are pleased they kept trying,” she said. “It’s telling of the quality of people.”

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