Destination Unknown

Hawai‘i’s charter schools still struggle to find permanent homes.
At Halau Ku Mana’s Paradise Park facility, the school’s lobby also functions as a cafeteria, playground and classroom. photo: Karin Kovalsky

While students at Halau Ku Mana enjoy their winter break next month, their teachers will likely be at work, packing up the public charter school’s furniture, equipment and supplies. For two years, the school has operated out of the Paradise Park facility, owned by the James Wong family, without having to pay rent, covering only utility costs and maintenance. But this past summer, Paradise Park told the school to vacate by December.

This will be the fifth time the school has had to move since it opened in 2001. As we went to press last month, principal Keola Nakanishi was unsure where the school’s new site would be.

“I try to remain positive, … saying that the Wong ‘ohana graciously hosted us for two years, and while moving midyear … is not my idea of a good time, it is not the private sector’s kuleana to provide us a permanent home free of charge,” Nakanishi says.

Halau Ku Mana is not alone in struggling to find a permanent home; it’s a problem that all of Hawai‘i’s 23 startup charter schools have faced. Since their inception in 2000, startups have received less funding from the state, per student, than traditional DOE schools. Until this fall, startups have also had to pay for their facilities out of those state funds—an added challenge that DOE schools have never had to worry about. As a result, startups have educated their students wherever they could—from converted chicken coops in Nanakuli to public parks in Kane‘ohe.

Earlier this year, the state Legislature, enjoying its first surplus in more than a decade, gave startups their first-ever allocation for facilities—$686 per student. Lawmakers also increased startups’ per-pupil allocation to $6,940, closer to the more than $9,000 DOE schools receive for each of their students. While the extra money helps, some charter schools say it’s still not enough.

“We all know that [our] $68,600 will not buy land, nor buildings on it, nor all the capital equipment in it,” says Nakanishi, who estimates that Halau Ku Mana would need $200,000 annually to rent and maintain a school of its size.

Charter schools have to be creative—fundraising, applying for and managing multiple grants and relying on the generosity of the private sector. In Anahola on Kaua‘i, for example, Kanuikapono Learning Center holds classes at nearby Ko‘olau Hui Church. Like many charter schools whose curriculum is based on Hawaiian culture, Kanuikapono teaches classes such as science with hands-on projects off campus, like tending to taro at the lo‘i.

“We’ve learned to appreciate what we have,” assistant director Kamahalo Ka‘uhane says. “The first year, all we had was a tent. When it got blown away, there was no classroom. Then we built a shade house, but it still doesn’t meet our needs.”

In September, the Board of Education fired Jim Shon, head of the state Charter School Administrative Office (CSAO), making charter schools even more uncertain about their future. The BOE would not disclose why it dismissed Shon.

As of press time, the board had yet to name a permanent replacement.

“It’s hard for me to say if the charter schools are getting enough money; every school has different circumstances,” says CSAO chief financial officer Bob Roberts. “This legislative session, we’re re-questing to continue with the money we’re currently receiving for facilities. Our request is not to lose any money. Without a leader, it’s hard for us to say what will happen.”