KOLOA — Kauai has a new school.
Alakai O Kauai Public Charter School continues enrollment today for a grand total of 165 students.
“Kauai keiki and families need a choice,” said Kani “Dr. B” Blackwell, principal coordinator of the school. “They are going to be challenged to meet those 21st century skills of creativity, collaboration, communications, critical thinking, problem-solving and caring.”
The school will be at Kahili Mountain Park, located mauka of the highway past Maluhia Road, ending a lengthy search.
“We looked at so many places over the last couple years,” Blackwell said. “We’ve got children out there, waiting for this school. This is a school for the community that will put Kauai ahead of education transformation.”
When the school was unanimously approved by the Hawaii State Charter School Commission in 2016, school board members were working to open in August 2017.
But in April, the school still didn’t have a home. Blackwell felt green space was a must for its students to be in nature, explore and grow a garden.
The school’s governing board of eight sought agriculture land, but free or reduced-priced property proved hard to find.
Brittany Steinbeck, who moved here 10 months ago, joined the school’s board to help the charter school open the following year.
“We’re the change the world needs to make this happen,” she said. “I came from two public charter schools in California, and we always had to raise $250,000 every year. I’m used to putting that energy out, and I feel that we can receive that.”
During their eight-month search, the school board tried over 20 locations, including leasing empty land on Kawaihau Road near Mahelona Medical Center and renting spaces in churches, offices and halls.
Every site required approval from the Planning Department and adherence to fire, health and safety codes, and if the school wanted to take over an empty retail space, officials would have to apply for a variance, according to Indy Reeves, vice chair of the board.
“For my children to have a school where they’re encouraged to think for themselves, to be free to be themselves, express themselves creatively, I’m really looking forward to that,” said Reeves, who has two sons ages 9 and 10 planning to attend fourth and fifth grades.
The past couple of months have been a waiting game as representatives and lawyers have been busy securing a home for the school and negotiating details of a lease.
Finally, a new site was secured at Kahili Mountain Park. The lush site encompasses several acres, an orchard with gardening space, a school building, gymnasium, and other multi-functional buildings.
“This is just the beginning of a school that will be here for generations to come and what that means to the community,” Reeves said.
They tried for nearly four years to find an east side property before securing the new site. The school accepts and encourages students from all parts of the island, forming a task force to focus on busing and/or carpooling to ease the burden of traveling distance.
Over 100 students have already enrolled, and Dan Knudsen wants his daughter to benefit from the free, project-based learning for kids in kindergarten through fifth grade.
“All children do not learn the same and we hope to meet the children with our project-based learning, social-emotional learning, and individual learning plans,” Blackwell said. “There won’t be any desks, only tables for collaborative work, and no homework. Research shows that homework in early grades K-5 is not beneficial.”
“We want our learners to go home and be with the family, dance, surf, play soccer or do some community service,” she added. “They will be busy during those school hours, engaged in their academics and learning to think, question, and be ready to be leaders of tomorrow.”
Alakai O Kauai hired iLEAD Schools Development for support in bookkeeping, business, computer programs, marketing, curriculum development and implementation, program and student assessment support, plus year-round workshops and training for the teachers, board and staff.
The supporting organization offers an array of services with 10 years of success to build upon. As a 501c3, iLead will also act as the school’s nonprofit until they can get the Friends of Alakai O Kauai nonprofit off the ground.
School director for its opening year, Denise Trentham, specializes in starting up and improving struggling schools. She has a lengthy and respected career in public school administration and was inspired after retirement by the program.
The school will employ seven full-time learning facilitators, or teachers, and its opening costs will total approximately $200,000.
Further financial and volunteer support is needed to help get the school set up. Fortunately, Walmart provided $32,500 in grant money with the help of Diane Keeler, manager of the Lihue store. The project, “A Sound Investment for the Future,” will provide iPads and tablets for students.
After review and approval by the State Charter Commission, the school’s policies and applications will be available online. Applications may be submitted through Jan. 12, while a lottery date is planned for Jan. 16. On Feb. 7, the school will begin enrollment on a first-apply, first-served basis according to available space.