Images by John Hook

The first charter school in the United States debuted in Minnesota in 1991. Since then, they have popped up in 43 states around the country, and have left a trail of both elation and criticism. To some educators, these schools represent an opportunity to revitalize an inadequate system; to others, they drain resources from already struggling public schools. They are an opportunity, a curse, an uphill battle, a saving grace. In Hawai‘i, parents are looking to charter schools to tackle the complicated issues of education: standardized learning, large class sizes, the overvaluing of private education, the devaluing of culture. To four mothers, charter schools represented opportunities to make intentional choices for their offspring. These are their reasons for putting them to the test.

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Ke Kula ‘o Samuel M. Kamakau
Pre-K–12, Hawaiian language immersion, choice

Parents: Milika‘a Vierra, volunteer school board member; Mitchell Vierra, hearing instrument specialist at Family Hearing Aid Center
Students: Kamakana Vierra, 3rd grade; Makamae Vierra, 3rd grade; Kala‘ikūmana Vierra, kindergarten; Leihiwa Vierra, kindergarten
Hometown: Kāne‘ohe
Costs: $75 application fee

Why Ke Kula ‘o Samuel M. Kamakau?
I wanted my children to be immersed in another language before the age of 6, and I wanted them to understand their cultural heritage and to have pride in it. I am Hawaiian, Chinese, Haole. My auntie was a mānaleo (native speaker) and both my parents danced hula and taught me to respect cultural protocols, the land, sea, and people, so Hawaiian immersion was something that I gravitated toward. When I looked at schools, Kamakau had a nice sense of ‘ohana and community. Now, my kids will come home, and they’ll be playing superheroes, but they are Hawaiian superheroes.  In their role-playing, there’s Pele, there’s Hi‘iaka, and it ties into mythology. My mom died a few years ago, and my 5-year-old was also born with tumors. I think it all gave me a different perspective on life. What’s more important, that you go to school and learn your ABCs, or that you have wonderful experiences that shape your lives, memories, values, morals, and provide you with the knowledge to help mālama our culture, land, and people?

What is an average day of school like?
The entire school starts at 8 a.m. with piko—connecting with our ancestors and akua through oli (chanting) and mele (song) facing the mountains. We have such a beautiful location back in Ha‘ikū. Next, they do their lessons like reading and math, but in Hawaiian—there’s no English until fifth grade. They play on the playground, and eat lunch outside, catered by Hale Kealoha, and it’s mainly Hawaiian food. ‘Ulu burgers, stews with kalo in it. Then they participate in more structured activities, with arts and science. They work in the māla (garden), have weekly field trips to the lo‘i (taro patch), and they’re creating a hula garden, where they are growing plants traditionally used in hula for adornment or as musical implements or offerings, at Waipao, which is right at the base of our school. The students are learning to be comfortable with the land, to be comfortable in the streams. The day ends at 2:15, where they gather for piko once more to express gratitude for the day.  Then they come home and do homework.  It’s like any other typical school day, but with a foundation in Hawaiian language and culture.

How did your school experience influence your choice?
I graduated from Punahou, where you’re one of 400-plus students in a class. It wasn’t for me. It gave me a good academic foundation, but what I think was most important in my upbringing was parenting, and I didn’t see that so much at Punahou. The environment encouraged class separation and competition. The older kids didn’t talk to the younger kids, and many were mean, and I didn’t feel a sense of support. At Kamakau, there’s so much interaction between the classes that the kids treat each other like siblings. It surprised me to see my 4-year-old fall at school and see a 12-year-old run and scoop him up and ask, “Are you ok? Here, let’s dust it off. Here, I’ll help you.”

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UNDERSTANDING CHARTER SCHOOLS

What are charter schools, anyway? That depends on the state. In Hawai‘i, they are public schools operated by independent boards. These schools are free to attend, but most require applications for enrollment, and some have long waiting lists. The schools’ teachers are bound by the same Department of Education contracts, but their roles vary, from leading project-based learning to helming rigorous online courses. Charter schools in the islands receive only $6,846 per pupil from the state, compared to the $11,823 that a district school receives. They are responsible for the cost of acquiring and maintaining their own facilities, which is why many such schools operate out of temporary classrooms or unexpected home bases. Covering such costs requires donations and enthusiastic fundraising.

Conversion: A district public school that became a charter school.

Start-up: A school that started independently.

Core: A charter school that also serves as a default district school.

Choice: A charter school that students must apply to, and opt into attending.

Hawaiian language immersion: A school at which all classes are taught in the Hawaiian language through fifth grade.

Hawaiian-focused: While classes are taught in English, they may include Hawaiian topics or focuses.

Project-based learning: An extended period of time is dedicated to investigating and addressing a complex topic. This may be the main method of learning, or a secondary aspect alongside standard classes.

Virtual: A school at which most if not all educating is done via online teaching.


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Myron B. Thompson Academy
K–12, virtual, choice

Parents: Ashlee Valeros, hairstylist; “Tiny” Valeros, miscellaneous work
Student: Azrielle Valeros, 10th grade
Hometown: Kāne‘ohe
Costs: $45 for Google Chromebook

Why Myron B. Thompson Academy?
We looked into Hawaii Technology Academy, and then two weeks before school was ending, we found out that her boyfriend was going to be there as well, and that they have an hour lunch break every day where they can leave campus. I was like, “That’s not going to happen.” I want her to get a really good education. Once you get into high school, that GPA runs on through, and I felt like this was the best choice for college prep, especially with the online aspect of it. I have a friend who’s in college, and she’s taking four online classes. You have to have direction and self-discipline.

What is an average day at school like?
My daughter has ADD, so if I don’t set expectations, she will be all over the place. She gets up every day at 7 a.m., takes a shower, eats breakfast—and she’ll take a very leisurely shower if she’s not feeling the day—but she has to be going with school by 8:30. She’ll usually work laying in her bed, or she has a little desk area at home. Right now, she’s in algebra, democracy, journalistic writing, and science. Every day, she starts with 90 minutes of algebra. Teachers usually post assignments for the day or week around 9:30 a.m. Virtual class begins at 10:30. On their Google Chromebooks, the kids can either choose to video chat and participate in the conversations, or they can just type. The teachers ask for between two to three hours of work on a subject every day, so if she has something she wants to do that week, like go to the beach, she’ll work ahead and get it done. Usually she’ll work until she’s hungry, like noon or 1, then she takes a 45-minute lunch. Sometimes she works until I get home at like 7 p.m. Every other week for the science portion, they go to their home base at the YWCA, and they’ll do science labs for an hour and a half. That’s great for the kids as far as interacting with the teacher, but it’s also good because they’re interacting with each other.

How did your school experience influence your choice?
My husband went to Castle, and he was kind of naughty. It was a different time, but there was a lot of physical fighting, and that’s something I don’t want her involved in. At Myron B. Thompson, they’re all kind of lovey-dovey. Also, when she was younger, my husband and I would talk about skipping school and how easy it was, and that terrified me. He is still like, “Send her to Castle, it’s fine.” I’ve heard that it has come a long way since then, and I know they have AP classes, so I made a deal with her that if she gets straight A’s her sophomore year, then she can go. She really wants to be back in brick-and-mortar. She misses the interaction. But she has to get straight A’s, because she has to get into the AP classes. So we’ll see if she wants it bad enough.

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Kamaile Academy
Pre-K–12, conversion, Hawaiian-focused, core elementary school, choice middle and high school

Parents: Shar Corpuz, Kamaile Store manager, A-Plus group leader, volunteer on school’s local advisory panel; Jake Corpuz, journeyman carpenter
Students: Daniel Corpuz, graduated; Shania Aki, graduated; Jason Corpuz, senior; Justin Corpuz, sophomore; Colt Aki, sophomore; Juliann Corpuz, 8th grade; Nathan Corpuz, 6th grade
Hometown: Wai‘anae
Any costs: $8/uniform

Why Kamaile Academy?
When we moved here in 2005 from the Big Island, we were fortunate to live across the street, so this was actually our district elementary school. When the community was presented with the idea that we could convert into a charter school, and we would be making our own decisions—like choosing to bring back classes for elementary like P.E., art, and cultural studies—it seemed like the best choice. At the same time, we were dealing with five elementary schools converging into one middle school, Wai‘anae Intermediate. There were many promising students that got into trouble when they got to intermediate. So the community moved our school up from ending at sixth grade to going all the way through twelfth grade. My oldest daughter was in the second seventh grade class. It was an emotionally based decision to keep her here. I didn’t want to throw my little fishy into the ocean; I needed to keep her in the pond as long as possible. My main reason for keeping my kids here now is because the curriculum the school chose involves project-based learning and presentations. To see my kids—who would not get up in front of anyone to speak, hardly even family—give a 30-minute presentation with artifacts and PowerPoints, dressed professional, and a little scared, but do it anyway, that was amazing to me. It brought a whole new level of respect between the parents and their children.

What is an average day of school like?
School starts at 7:45 a.m. The entire school will have the “E Hō Mai,” a morning chant to open the day. They have their regular curriculum, like math and English, then they have project-based learning—I think the biggest thing is the garden. There’s something they can connect to, with their hands in the dirt, with planting, with seeing it grow, that brings clarity. Our district also has the highest homeless rate. During the day, I work at the Kamaile Store at the school. Students buy things here with “kalo cards,” which they earn for demonstrating one of the Kamaile core values: pride, respect, cooperation, and helpfulness. They earn these for homework, good behavior; for some students, for coming to school, having their uniforms on. At the beginning of the year, you’ll see an influx of students that need school supplies, slippers, jackets, things like that, and they can get those things in my store. From August 2015 to May 2016, we gave out 4,000 pairs of slippers. I see the students helping one another, keeping family in mind. School is about learning, but not just from books.

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SEEQS: the School for Examining Essential Questions of Sustainability
6–8, project-based learning, choice

Parent: Christina Hee, chef at Juicy Brew
Student: Kyann Shafer-Hee, 7th grade
Hometown: Hawai‘i Kai
Costs: $100 basic fee each semester, $125 per month for afterschool care

Why SEEQS?
I felt their values of living sustainably, reasoning analytically, managing effectively, communicating powerfully, and collaborating productively were important for Kyann’s growth. He struggled in public school because of the large class size and the lack of attention on individuals. He also has a hard time focusing. I thought this style of hands-on teaching at SEEQS would benefit him, and the offsite projects, which happen one or two times a month, might be a better way for him to learn rather than being stuck in a classroom all day. For his project this year, he chose to learn about native and invasive plants. He wanted to create an app for iPhone where he could determine which plants were which, and which were edible. His class collected research through field studies, and his teacher took a group of kids hiking on the weekend to get the kids more involved in their projects.

What is an average day of school like?
School starts at 8:30 a.m. every day at their campus at the Salvation Army headquarters near Kapi‘olani Community College, except on Wednesdays, when they start at 9:30. Between 8:30 and 9:15 a.m., kids are in their advisory class, where they talk with their classmates and have a short physical activity to wake them up for the day. This is because the school feels like kids are not ready to learn as soon as school starts, due to “sleep phase delay,” which means it takes time to actually wake up. He has a regular curriculum, which covers mathematics, English language arts, social studies, and science. The day ends around 3:30, then he goes to the afterschool program. Between 4:30 and 5:30, either my mom or myself will pick him up.

How did your school experience influence your choice?
I went to Haha‘ione Elementary School, the same as Kyann—we even had the same fourth grade teachers—then St. Andrew’s Priory for two years, then Mid-Pacific Institute, a school I really enjoyed because it focused on the arts. But I don’t know that this influenced me to choose SEEQS; it was more because of what is happening in the world today, like global warming. If kids can’t learn about sustainability and real-world situations, who is going to protect the world? It’s these kids that go to these types of schools who are.

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This story is part of our School Spirit Issue.


Correction: An earlier version of this story said SEEQS is a K-8 school; it is grades 6-8.