Namahana School submits application to state Charter School Commission

  • Contributed

    The site of a proposed free charter school on the North Shore, with Namahana Mountain in the background, is seen.

KILAUEA — Namahana School, planned as a free public charter middle and high school to serve North Shore students from Anahola to Ha‘ena, submitted its application in early February to the State Public Charter School Commission.

It is one of four proposed new charter schools whose applications the commission accepted for processing. How many — if any — of the applications will be approved is unknown.

If Namahana gets preliminary approval from the commission in June, organizers said it could open as early as the 2025-26 school year. The school would occupy a yet-to-be-built, eight-acre campus in Kilauea, and eventually enroll 360 students.

As currently planned, Namahana will open in phases, organizers said, beginning with the seventh and eighth grades, adding grade levels as students progress through their schooling. Temporary buildings would be utilized until construction concludes.

A capital campaign will be organized to raise several million dollars for construction. Realizing that few Kaua‘i families have the financial means to make large donations, the campaign plans to approach wealthy individuals who own property here, live on Kaua‘i part-time or have other connections to the island.

The organizers contracted with Big Picture Learning, a Rhode Island-based international education consulting firm, to develop curriculum, along with Honolulu-based architectural design firm G70, to develop a campus on the school site. The land’s owner, Joan Porter, has offered a 99-year lease for the school property at $1 a year.

Community support for the school is apparently widespread. More than 20 letters of support from North Shore organizations and individuals including Mayor Derek Kawakami, the principals of the Hanalei and Kilauea elementary schools and the chancellor of Kaua‘i Community College accompanied the application.

In his support letter, Kawakami said “student-centered learning that incorporates the values and culture of our community is imperative for the success of our youth and the future of our island.”

But none of those details necessarily guarantees that the school will gain approval from the commission. In a statement, the commission confirmed that Namahana is one of four statewide applicants that have entered the official application process. Failed plans for charter schools litter Hawai‘i’s educational landscape.

The proposed school is the only applicant on Kaua‘i.

“The commission will not make any comments about the applicants” because all are pending, said Sheryl Turberville, communications director for the agency, in an emailed statement.

Namahana has been trying to apply for more than two years, but an order barring “nonessential” government services during the COVID-19 pandemic, signed by Gov. David Ige in 2020, brought the process to a halt. The commission only reopened the cycle on Dec. 16, 2021, Turberville said.

The Namahana Education Foundation, a newly formed, federally designated nonprofit, will raise funds for Namahana’s ongoing operations. Planning and fundraising for the school so far have been organized by the Kaua‘i North Shore Community Foundation, based in Princeville.

“We’ll start with 60 students per grade with seventh and eighth and roll up from there,” eventually reaching a total enrollment of 360, said Dr. Kapua Chandler, the head of school-designate.

Chandler, who was born and raised on the North Shore before she got a doctoral degree in educational organization from the University of California at Los Angeles, said months of community outreach have left no doubt in her mind that the eventual enrollment target can be met.

“I was a math major,” Chandler quipped in an online interview with two other school organizers. “We did a lot of data-sourcing,” she said, and estimated that 80 children graduate from Kilauea and Hanalei schools each year, a total that does not include those who attend private schools like Island School in Puhi, off-island boarding schools and kids who are home-schooled. As a child, Chandler was a gifted student whose parents sent her to Kamehameha School on O‘ahu because no school on Kaua‘i could meet her needs.

Currently, North Shore children go to Kapa‘a Middle School and Kapa‘a High School, which often involves school bus or car travel times of as much as more than an hour in each direction. Island School is even more distant. The limitations mean many students may arrive late or leave so early they cannot participate in sports or other extracurricular activities.

She said North Shore families have been talking about the need for an alternative school on the North Shore since before her first memories as a child. She is 31.

She said the project has so far received donor commitments for $2.9 million, of which $2.3 million is “seed funding.” Actual cash received so far, she said, is about $700,000. Construction alone will account for several million dollars. The campaign goal will be announced once plans for the school are finalized. But with Hawai‘i construction costs so high, it is sure to be several million dollars.

Chandler said 60 students in each grade level is probably an undercount of what actual enrollment would be. “We’re not being naïve, by any means,” she said. Instead of encountering enrollments below projections, she said, “I wouldn’t be surprised if the opposite happens, pushing us into a lottery situation” for incoming students in future years, she said.

Lori Mull, a retired attorney and Princeville resident who chairs the education committee of the North Shore Community Foundation, said she has been trying to establish such a school for more than 30 years.

”I’ve been working on this for longer than Kapua has been alive,” she said “It’s been something that’s been a need for decades.”

“The feedback we’ve been getting from the community has been so supportive,” she said. “The fact that we’re swinging for the fences (in terms of enrollment potential) is popular. There are really great expectations.”

About two years ago, Melanie Parker, another one of the organizers who chairs the Namahana board, said she hoped the school could open in time for her daughter, who is now 11 and currently in sixth grade, to attend.

“I can dream,” Parker said.

She said the project still has several obstacles to overcome. First, because the school site is on land currently zoned for agriculture, the project must receive a special use permit from Kaua‘i County. To address county concerns, Namahana will propose a curriculum partially focused on agriculture. After that, approval by the State Charter School Commission is far from guaranteed, and the application process is notoriously difficult to negotiate.

She said she is confident enough money can be raised for the project to be successful. “It’s putting a lot on the foundation” to assume so much money can be raised in a comparatively short period of time, she said.

For the moment, Chandler said, inquiries about the school and possible donations should be addressed to the Kaua‘i North Shore Community Foundation.

Chandler said few charter-school projects enjoy the benefit of support from established nonprofits. The community foundation, she said, “is the parent. The Namahana Education Foundation is the keiki.”

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Allan Parachini is an Oregon resident, furniture-maker, journalist and retired public-relations executive who writes periodically for The Garden Island.


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