LIHU‘E — A newly adopted distance-learning program used at Alaka‘i O Kaua‘i has put the school in violation of its charter school contract, the State Charter School Commission ruled Monday.
Official enrollment counts will decrease because of the violation, causing numbers to drop back to those counted in August and exclude additional students that were enrolled for the online program put on by Utah-based subcontractor Harmony in October. Kamalani Academy on O‘ahu faced a similar ruling.
According to Alaka‘i O Kaua‘i School Director DJ Adams, work on implementing a distance-learning program began in July, after families voiced safety concerns for in-person learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
While the program went through its own board approval, the decision to partner with Harmony was not submitted to the State Public Charter School Commission (‘Aha Kula Ho‘amana) for approval.
Both Alaka‘i O Kaua‘i and Kamalani representatives referenced a temporary authorization granted on May 13 that gave schools flexibility to move to distance learning in response to COVID-19 infection rates.
The commission’s Interim Executive Director Yvonne Lau reiterated that when the body learned of Alaka‘i O Kaua‘i plans to enter into a contract with Harmony back in August, staff warned Adams that “the May 13 Permission Action allowed charter schools to have flexibility to move their educational program to distance learning if necessitated by the increase in routine infections in our county, not to create a brand new program and to enroll additional students for that purpose.”
The program raised concerns that distance learning was being used to boost student enrollment just before the official enrollment count on Oct. 15.
Student enrollment has a big impact on funding with per-pupil funding for state charters equaling around $7,000 (the number is adjusted each year to align with funding levels for the Department of Education). The Harmony program costs Alaka‘i O Kaua‘i just $2,800 per pupil. Commissioners also voiced concern that it was unclear whether or not Harmony gave students access to licensed teachers and quality content.
Adams rebuffed these concerns.
“It’s not a cash grab moneymaker on our side, there is some risk involved,” Adams said. “But the whole thought about it was, ‘Hey, you know, let’s try a project pilot for this year. At the end of this year, we can sit down and do some evaluations about it.’”
While the primary purpose of the program was to address pandemic safety concerns, Adams pointed out that the small pilot program could support former homeschool families.
“There are quite a few students on our island in homeschool, and they’re looking for an opportunity for connection to an actual school,” Adams said.
A state-funded distance-learning program would provide more than just a connection for Kaua‘i homeschoolers.
In Hawai‘i, public education funding cannot be used to refund families for costs associated with homeschooling, such as curriculum and access to supplementary programs, like Harmony. The program at Alaka‘i O Kaua‘i, as it was structured, would have provided families access to the Harmony resources and give students an opportunity to receive additional help with a licensed teacher on campus once a week. Two hours of attendance per week for social, emotional and project-based learning instruction would have been required.
The distance-learning program mostly appealed to students who were not enrolled at Alaka‘i O Kaua‘i.
Of the 24 students originally enrolled in the program, only two were current students of Alaka‘i O Kaua‘i. Nine of the enrolled students were not living on Kaua‘i and were later removed from the program.
Adams took responsibility for the violation of the school’s contract, which was granted to respond directly to the needs of the Kaua‘i community.
“I apologize to everyone because I do feel that taking students off island was an overreach, and we shouldn’t have done it,” Adams said.
The in-person component of the distance learning program was scheduled to begin today, but was canceled after the decision came down from the commissioners. Students still have access to the Harmony program online for the time being.
“We have full respect and trust in the commissioners. We respect what their decision is,” said Adams. “We just want to continue to be a top-quality educational provider within the state.”
As for the 15 students enrolled in the program, the future is unknown. According to Adams, eventually expanding the charter could be an option in the future.