Talk Story with Dr. Kani ‘Dr. B’ Blackwell

  • Dennis Fujimoto / The Garden Island

    Dr. Kani “Dr. B” Blackwell, past chair of the Alakai O Kauai school board, enjoys the serenity outside the main school building of the new charter school at Kahili Mountain Park near Omao.

  • Dennis Fujimoto / The Garden Island

    Dr. Kani “Dr. B” Blackwell, past chair of the Alakai O Kauai school board, enjoys the air outside the main school building of the new charter school at Kahili Mountain Park near Omao.

Alakai O Kauai should not be listed as “OK,” said Dr. Kani Blackwell, a past president of the Alakai O Kauai board.

“We will be an amazing school,” she said.

Final preparations are underway as the staff headed by director Denise Trentham and her team of facilitators prepare to open doors to teachers on Aug. 15, and to the students on Aug. 28 at its Kahili Mountain Park site.

What prompted you to start a new charter school, and what kinds of advantages does it offer students?

I didn’t start this new charter school movement for Kauai.

Ms. Deena Moraes, now a vice principal at the Elsie Wilcox Elementary School, approached me to assist her in starting a new charter school for Kauai. She and some iLEAD personnel had actually applied in 2014 to the Hawaii Charter School Commission and had been denied.

Now, if anyone knows Ms. Moraes, one of her strong qualities is persistency because I had told her I wasn’t going to help with this project because I wasn’t completely convinced that ‘charter schools’ were good for public education. I think I told her at least 10 times, ‘no, I didn’t want to be involved.’ And besides, what was this iLEAD?

She explained that iLEAD was a different kind of learning model that existed in California and was making a difference in education — the ‘i’ stood for International, ‘L’ for Leadership, ‘E’ for Entrepreneurship, ‘A’ for the Arts, and ‘D’ for Design thinking.

After visiting two schools — one in Lancaster, and the other in Santa Clarita — I was blown away. I spent a week interviewing the students which are called ‘learners,’ the teachers which are called facilitators, the parents who are viewed as partners, and looking at educational statistics (except for math and reading scores). I took note of their Average Daily Attendance which were in the high 90 percent, of graduation rates of 100 percent, and a full inclusion model for special needs learners.

I honestly said to myself, I didn’t think I would live long enough to see our public education change. I had immediately seen the joy of learning returning as I had witnessed in my classes I taught 30 years ago. I was witnessing the transformation of education and I wanted it desperately for Kauai.

I joined Ms. Moraes, and the iLEAD co-founders, Ms. Dawn Everson whose mother and sister have been longtime residents of Kauai, and Ms. Amber Raskin in the 2015 Charter School appplication. That year, the Hawaii Charter Commission denied all applicants, and specifically stated that iLEAD scores in reading and math were not acceptable — their scores were a little higher than most Hawaii schools, and iLEAD know that test scores did not make the learner.

Ms. Moraes decided she would pursue her administrative degree and not continue with the Kauai charter school application process, but the parents and teachers asked me to take up the charge and submit the application for the third time. We were approved on Aug. 11, 2016, and our community has been connected.

What advantages does Alakai O Kauai offer?

Alakai O Kauai is simply an alternative way of learning — a choice for our Kauai families.

We all know that children do not learn the same way and this alternative way of learning will add to the rest of our educational system here on Kauai. It is still public education, and it is free, although Department of Education schools receive almost twice per student what a charter school receives for educating children. This makes it difficult for charter schools to exist and pay for their facilities.

However, by being a charter school, we are not held to the same structure of traditional schools. We still teach the same subjects and must abide by the Common Core Standards, but the way in which we teach, our methodology, once approved by the Charter Commission, can vary.

For instance, we will not have any desks in a row which is commonly seen in traditional classes. Rather, we will have tables and groupings of learners for collaboration and communication.

The arts will play a dominant role in teaching and learning for creativity needs a place to thrive. There will be no homework for kindergarten through Grade 6 because research has shown that homework is not beneficial in elementary school.

We will strive for more family time, for activities, and for service after school instead of homework.

Alakai will be focused on project-based learning that will integrate social emotional learning as well as academics.

Another difference will be individual learning plans because all educators know that not only do children learn in different ways, they acquire proficiency at different times.

Science, technology, engineering and mathematics will be extremely important, but we will put the arts in STEM to make STEAM!

What hopes do you expect student, I mean learners, to leave Alakai with when they leave the eighth grade?

As an educator, I want them ready to continue their education and be prepared for high school and beyond, to be on-going learners. But at all ages, the main goal at Alakai School will be to prepare them with real-life skills, to instill the desire to be caring responsible members of their family and community, and to become thinkers.

Ten years ago, we had no idea what the workforce was going to require. What will tomorrow require of our youths?

As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “we can not build the future for our youths, but we can prepare our youths for the future”. As the iLEAD learning model states, “Free to Think and Inspired to Lead”.

And I might add “Lead to Inspire”, that’s my DrB motto!

Once Alakai O Kauai starts this fall, what kind of future growth are you looking at?

We want to remain small and personal.

It is projected in 10 years, we will have grown to a maximum of 350 learners. We will add a grade each year after starting this fall with kindergarten through Grade 5. Our goal is being a K-8 school with two classes for each grade level.

One of the problems in education, in my opinion, is that our elementary schools are too large, and too impersonal.

With 165 learners starting this fall, we will be one big ‘ohana, or family. Everyone will know each other, will have been taught respect, given respect, and practice it. We want to eliminate all bullying, and to establish that there is a ‘Leader in Me’ for each learner and facilitator.

Prior to your involvement with Alakai O Kauai, you were involved with Growing Our Own Teachers. How does that program work?

I was a co-founder of Growing Our Own Teachers on Kauai (GOOT-OK) after being a speaker in November, 2006 at the Rotary Club of Hanalei Bay.

I spoke about the need for our Kauai community to support future teachers who were local residents in Hawaii, or those committed to stay and teach for a minimum of three years. I explained how important the cultural aspect of teaching our diverse population would impact the retention of teachers for Kauai, stressing that financial support is needed for teacher candidates who would have to give up their jobs in order to be in the classroom fulltime for student teaching.

When Sally Motta became president of the Hanalei Rotary Club in 2007, she adopted GOOT-OK as the club’s project for that year. The strength and growth of GOOT-OK stemmed from two primary Rotary Clubs — the Rotary Club of Hanalei Bay, and the Rotary Club of Poipu Beach — and a dedicated board of directors.

I was privileged to be a part of the board of directors from its beginnings in 2007 until I resigned in February, 2018 to spend more time assisting Alakai O Kauai Charter School to open.

Of the original 12 board of directors members, only one person remains — Nancy Kanna. Nancy and an outstanding board of directors continue the legay of GOOT-OK, led by Len Tyler and a board that includes Helen Cox, Chancellor of the Kauai Community College, and two teachers — Monique Kan-Souza, a teacher at Wilcox Elementary School, and Susan Perez, a teacher at the Kapaa Elementary School — who graduated from the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Both of these teachers have been recipients of GOOT-OK, financially, and are now giving back to help future teachers.

GOOT-OK has produced 75 teachers, most of whom are still teaching today in our public, private, and charter schools here on Kauai. I want to stress that besides the dedicated board of directors, Bill Arakaki, the Kauai Complex Area superintendent, and the principals of each of Kauai’s schools have kept GOOT-OK a successful organization serving our Kauai community.

How did you end up on Kauai?

I am starting my 52nd year as an educator after having started my teaching career in August, 1966 at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Over the years, as I have taught, I have learned — mostly from my students.

I have been a professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa since 2003, teaching prospective teachers. I ‘retired’ from fulltime teaching in 2010, mostly because of bursting my eardrums in a scuba diving accident in Tahiti. Today, I teach part time each semester and in the summers, all online.

My doctorate is in cognitive psychology, or basically, how do we learn and specifically, how do children learn.

It has taken many years for researchers to confirm what experienced teachers have known — that project-based learning, social-emotional learning, the arts, and individual learning plans are necessary for the success of our youth. In higher education, we often refer to this as Constructivist Teaching. Hands-on learning, relationships, and truly caring brings out the potential of each child, and this is what motivated me to become involved with the team of educators, administrators, and parents in starting the new charter school for Kauai.

I ended up on Kauai after being a speaker at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in 1999 for the Japanese United States Teacher Education Consortium conference where I spoke of equity in alternative ways of learning, specifically making teacher education accessible in different modalities and locations for those who might not be able to access education that most universities offer.

I had begun teaching online and specifically referred to Oahu’s ethnocentricity of not serving the neighboring islands.

The dean of education was intrigued and wanted to know more about how the neighboring islands could be better served. I was more than willing to lay out a plan whereby teacher candidates could stay on their own island, be placed in their own local schools without having to relocate to Oahu. The program would be led by a university faculty member that lived on that island. This happened in 2003, and is still thriving as the Statewide Education Program.

The dean wanted to know if I would be interested in starting up such a program. At that time, I was up for tenure for full professor at California State University Monterey Bay. I knew we would never leave Monterey Bay for Oahu, and the other islands were just OK.

But we arrived at Kauai’s airport for our every-five-year big vacation, and 10 minutes later we were going through the Tree Tunnel on our way to Poipu. My husband, Paul, now with 47 years of marriage, turned to me and said, ‘Oh-oh, I feel you have found home.’

He knew that I had been raised in an orphanage, didn’t have a real family except for my sister and our own two boys, and had never considered any place to be ‘home.’

But Kauai had called me, and although it was years before I answered, there is no place like Kauai. I felt it in my skin, my whole body, but mostly in my heart, that I needed to be here. Meeting people here on Kauai confirmed that an aloha spirit does exist. If we came to this magical place with a pure heart and honored the host people that have been here, that we as visitors might be privileged to call this home.

I felt the calling to come and make a difference with whatever talent or expertise I had — I needed to ‘give to this community’ and not just ‘take’ as I viewed many tourists doing.

That fall, I went back to Monterey Bay, received tenure and full professor, and said, ‘Aloha!’

I had found my home.


Dennis Fujimoto, staff writer and photographer, can be reached at 245-0453 or


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