By Tiffany Edwards Hunt
There is a plethora of subjects I have been inspired to write about, particularly with the diverse content of the issue that this editorial is appearing in print. But with print I have a finite amount of space, as you know, and I prefer to make the most of it by focusing on the most important to me at this moment that I write: our school system.
I am writing in the heels of Department of Education’s decision to not allow students from the Hawaii Academy of Arts and Sciences ride on the same buses as regular DOE students headed for Pahoa High and Intermediate School. HAAS principal Steve Hirakami had arranged ten years ago for what is now 50 students to share the bus, at a rate for $30,000 per year. The minute details of that arrangement is a real blood boiler, as a resident, as a parent of a HAAS student, and as a part-time staffer (I help teach yearbook at that charter school.) HAAS agreed to pay $2.50 per student per ride, double what the paying Pahoa High and Intermediate Students pay. And not all the Pahoa kids pay — many of them qualify for free and reduced lunch, so they don’t have to pay.
DOE officials announced their decision to comply with an administrative rule not to let charter schools participate in DOE school bus transportation. This decision came late on the Friday afternoon of the weekend before the new school year commenced. And they also announced that another 10 disabled students in HAAS’ workplace readiness program wouldn’t be getting curb-to-curb service.
As soon as the media picked up on the story, though, DOE started back peddling — by press time they had resumed transportation services for the disabled children. And our Puna contingency of elected officials (not including Councilman Zendo Kern — he has gone phantom on us) scrambled to help broker a deal for the remaining 50 displaced children.
Who knows what will come of this, and what else is in store for charter schools.
In the first week of the new school year, Kua O Ka La Public Charter School announced that breakfast wouldn’t be served. And HAAS administrators are looking at a budget hacked by the state Charter Schools Commission, fearing they too will have to eliminate some meals for school children.
All of this begs some further digging to uncover what is going on behind the scenes. Why is it looking like charter schools are, not just ugly step children, battered foster kids?
I am pretty alarmed by what appears to be an effort to sabotage the charter school movement, particularly since I chose for my child to attend a charter school!
You want to know why? Let me let you in on my decision making process, because it was quite an ordeal and it sheds light on why I think other parents make the charter school choice.
Having taken education courses at UH Hilo and working at HAAS, I was always leaning toward a charter school. In my mind, my child was either going to HAAS or to Ke Kula Mauli Ola Hawai?i ?O N?wah?okalani??pu?u, the Hawaiian immersion school in Kea’au. Having learned the history of journalism in Hawaii, I am familiar with Joseph Nawahi’s newspaper publishing legacy here on Hawaii Island. I also want my child to grow up familiar with the host culture and the Native Hawaiian language. But upon inquiring with that school, I learned that there are more than 60 children on the waiting list.
My husband couldn’t understand why our child shouldn’t just attend Pahoa Elementary School with many of her other friends. I decided to put on my reporter hat and sleuth around the school. But I could not for the life of me get a tour of Pahoa Elementary School, no matter how many times I called. I just about gave up, when I decided to sign my child up for the KEIKI Steps program at that school. This involved filling out the school’s registration packet. My child was really overqualified for KEIKI Steps because she has attended preschool. Still, I saw KEIKI Steps as an opportunity to get into the school and observe, in order to make an informed decision.
The first and only day my child attended that program I accompanied her. The classroom seemed old and rundown, but I told myself that the school has been many years and maybe they just don’t have the funding to paint and spruce up the classroom interior.
More than the rundown look of the classroom, I was bothered that there weren’t more parents accompanying their children. Those children who were not with their parents and guardians were openly crying; it was just so heartbreaking. And I didn’t really feel like I could reach out and console them. But with one distraught girl in particular, my daughter and I tried to involve her as we played with a game that teaches children how to weave. The teacher leading the KEIKI Steps program formally called everyone’s attention, and the day officially began with questions and answers for the parents and guardians in attendance.
I asked how many kindergarteners would be in one class. There are three classes of up to 25 students, we were told. Any teacher’s assistants? No. Wow, 25 students to one teacher?! Can parents or guardians volunteer to help out? I asked. No, parents and guardians can volunteer at the school, but parents and guardians cannot volunteer in their own children’s class at Pahoa Elementary School. There were other parents and guardians asking questions, but my mind lingered on the 25-1 ratio and the fact that I couldn’t volunteer in my own child’s class. I contemplated the fact that HAAS’ kindergarten class consists of 18 children, with the teacher having a teacher’s assistant and the parents and guardians able to visit and help out in class any time they want (once they are subjected to a background check and TB clearance.)
My wandering mind was brought back to the question-and-answer session when I heard the answer to another parent’s inquiry about where the children would be eating since Pahoa Elementary School doesn’t have its own cafeteria. All elementary school children walk across the street to the Pahoa High and Intermediate School cafeteria. That was a pleasant thought either — envisioning my child having to cross the street, not once but two times, in order to access a cafeteria to eat her lunch? Why doesn’t Pahoa Elementary School have its own cafeteria?
Before I knew it, the teacher was thanking us parents and guardians for coming and asking us to leave our children until 12:30 p.m. It was 9 a.m. That was a long 3.5 hours, let me tell you. I was filled with anxiety most of the time, thinking about not being able to volunteer in her class and having the image of her crossing a street every day to go have lunch at another school’s cafeteria.
When I showed back up at 12:30 p.m., my child was leading the KEIKI Steps class back to the classroom from lunch at the Pahoa High and Intermediate School cafeteria. As we walked to the parking lot together, she said emphatically, “I don’t want to go to this school, I want to go to HAAS.” I inquired why she was so certain so soon. “It’s not like Montessori at all.” (My daughter attended Montessori Country School in Pahoa.) I pressed for more details. “Well, what did you do after I left?” “We went over the rules,” she said. “And you already know the rules, huh?” I replied. “Yes,” she said. I asked how another friend of hers from Montessori fared. “She did alright, except when we were learning the ducktails.”
“The ducktails?” I asked.
“Yeah, that’s where you stand with your hands like this,” she said, demonstrating what ducktails are. Imagine your hands behind your back, kinda like the way they would be if, God forbid, you were arrested.
I envisioned kindergarteners being taught this, so they would neatly line up and be able to walk in an orderly fashion across the street to the cafeteria.
I felt guilty for even signing my child up for KEIKI Steps. My husband and I decided that night that our child would not be returning to KEIKI Steps the next day. I called the KEIKI Steps coordinator to explain, and to share our decision that our child would be attending HAAS. “It’s nothing personal,” I assured her. And it really isn’t.
I didn’t encounter a mean person at Pahoa Elementary School. I understand that they are doing what they are taught or told to do, and a lot of this, whether it is keeping parents and guardians out of classrooms or making children walk with their hands behind their back, is a way to control the masses.
But that is how you kill the love of learning. And my husband and I have been actively trying to teach our child to love learning, since, well, the day she was born, but most certainly since we decided on preschool at Montessori. The Montessori method is all about instilling the loving of learning.
My paternal grandmother was a school teacher for ranch families, and then for small towns in one-room school houses. In my mind, charter schools are an effort to get back to the basics of education, where schools were modest structures that facilitated the gathering of children to learn reading, writing and arithmetic. The difference between now and back in the day my grandmother taught is that we are more aware of the different ways that children learn. Some are more hands-on than others. A charter school recognizes the different styles of education and, ideally, fosters the love of learning by allowing students to learn through the different styles.
The point of education and school is to teach children, not just the academics, about the world outside of themselves and their families.
To house children in a building all day and not allow their own parents and guardians to access them is to give them a sense of imprisonment. And then to design the building to look like a jail, my goodness, what message are we sending our children?
Granted, there may be parents, children, and teachers who do not see anything wrong with the DOE structure. I believe DOE is committing a crime against children by not allowing for more charter and Hawaiian immersion schools to exist and to prosper alongside the DOE structure.
The bureaucrats on Oahu and even those with any power and influence on Hawaii Island are so entrenched in their policies they have lost common sense and seemingly penalize parents, children and teachers who choose schooling beyond the confines of those multi-million-dollar buildings that DOE has erected.
I am not the type of parent who wants to drop off my child for her school day at a building that I cannot freely access. This is my child, after all. I gave birth to her, I love her, and I want to be part of her life as much as possible. I want to know her teacher, her classmates, and what she is learning. I want her to feel free to learn and thoroughly enjoy learning, without feeling deflated by the confines of rules and regulations and policies that can be maddening — like not allowing her own mother to volunteer her classroom.
I told you that our family ultimately chose for our child to go to HAAS. But we were lucky. So many of our child’s friends didn’t even have the choice, due to space limitations at the charter school. Those children and their parents would have liked the choice. And because they didn’t get one, the children risk having their love of learning stifled by this DOE setting I described above. These are my child’s friends, her community of peers. Whether or not they attend the same school, they will continue to interact and socialize with each other. Like my child, those children and their parents and guardians should have a choice in their education.
And because my family has chosen a public charter school, DOE should not discriminate against my child. You know how they do that? Public charter school students in the State of Hawaii currently receive LESS THAN HALF of the funding their peers receive in traditional charter schools. That is unfair and illegal.
If only we could have enough elected officials take a genuine interest in our broken education system in Hawaii, and truly fight to reverse this injustice.
Puna’s own state representative Faye Hanohano serves on the Education Committee. Perhaps she and her colleagues can start pushing harder on the DOE to give charter schools their fair share.
And perhaps they can push for some educational reform within the DOE structure.
You cannot tell me that DOE cannot afford to spruce up the interiors of some of those old classrooms, like the one I saw at Pahoa Elementary School, or to hire teacher assistants for kindergarten classes. Imagine a bunch of five year olds first embarking on their learning experience. I’m sure it is like herding cats. Why torture a kindergarten teacher by not affording her with an assistant or at least a parent volunteer?
Charter schools are losing transportation services and having to cut meals while DOE bureaucrats sit comfortably in air conditioned offices and freely spend our taxpayer money on things like their own travel.
For their decision to deprive charter schools of equal funding, the children will suffer. And the poorest of the poor will suffer even more than they already do.
The reality is, for many children, the bus to school is their escape from a pathetic home life. Their parents or guardians cannot be bothered to drive them or they do not have the gas money or a reliable car to drive them. With our hunger problem in Hawaii County, for many children, their meal at school may be their only meal of the day. With charter schools having to make tough decisions, like cutting meals, to balance the budget, those children won’t eat. And how can you learn with a starving brain? If any of that is hard to believe, you may not be fully aware of our community’s profoundly devastating problems.
You know what? I’m not certain that the State Charter School Commission is looking out for charter schools’ best interest. In fact, I’m starting to wonder if commissioners aren’t acting as henchmen for DOE. Here are a couple of examples of questionable behavior on the part of the commission:
— Under SB244 the Commission is responsible for and required to develop and adopt criteria for facility funding distribution. But the commission has called for student federal impact aid to be used for a pilot program providing facility funding.
— HRS302D-28 requires per-pupil funding to be the same as the general funded DOE students and Act 130 did away with the 2% formula for funding the CSAO. Yet, if you look at the Commission’s budget, you’ll find that per-pupil money continues to be deducted.
Sounds pretty sketchy, don’t you think?
Some of you have drank the Kool-Aid and might have your heart set on believing that Hawaiian immersion and charter schools are bad. Some of you might be among the NIMBYs who complain when Hawaiian immersion or charter schools try to move in the neighborhood. But let me ask you something: Are you going to complain when DOE officials decide to build their taxpayer funded multi-million-dollar educational fortresses?
Are you going to be opposed to them building jails and mental institutions next door to your DOE schools? You’re going to need those jails and mental institutions for all the madness that the current educational system creates.
Now is not the time to be complacent about our broken education system. It’s time to go revolutionary and insist that we look at DOE with a critical eye and a dose of common sense. Whether or not you have any children, this is your problem. We all call this island our home. Any child that suffers will potentially impact your life. Trust me on this one. Call your elected officials and insist on educational reform. Ask them to advocate for the equal treatment of charter schools and for every effort for more charter and Hawaiian immersion schools to exist.
Aloha, Tiffany & Co.