GOOD DREAMS, HARD WORK: Kanu O Ka Aina’s growing vision

Thursday, August 9th, 2012
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“We do art!” said Nalu Akau from Kawaihae, during his first day of second grade at Kanu O Ka Aina New Century Public Charter School (Kanu) on Aug.2. “We draw important words, like ‘exit.’”

“I love it – it’s bigger and it’s warmer!” said Taliyah Sylva, a fourth grader from Waimea.

Students, teachers, staff, volunteers and parents were upbeat about Kanu’s first day in their brand-new buildings: Halau Puke (library and classrooms) and Halau Pokii (early childhood classrooms).

“I think it went really well,” said Pat Bergin, Kanu’s co-director. “The kids are so excited, so joyful.”

Completed at the end of June, these two buildings accommodate all of Kanu’s students on one campus, where previously some classes were housed in temporary tent structures at the end of Opelo Road.

“After 13 years of being in tents, it is so nice to honor our children – to show them how special they are — by being in a school like this,” Bergin said.

Kanu has 257 students altogether this year, from pre-kindergarten (4-year-olds) to grade 12. In-class ratios are one teacher for every 13 or 14 students, and classrooms are organized into multi-age “hui” after pre-kindergarten. Students in kindergarten, first and second grade make one hui; students in third, fourth and fifth grade form another. Students in middle school and high school are arranged in their own hui.

Classes meet indoors in the morning, and then may re-form into different groups in the afternoon for project-based learning at Kanu’s two off-site outdoor learning labs at Puupulehu and Waipio, on campus, or elsewhere. There are 11 in this school year’s senior class. And although there is still space available in middle school and high school, Bergin says that new elementary students coming in during the year will have to go on a waitlist.

“The majority are Hawaiian or part Hawaiian,” said Bergin.

Although Kanu is not an immersion school, Hawaiian culture and language are integrated into the curriculum from preschool on, and Hawaiian tradition permeates the school culture.

Near the end of the day on Aug.2, outdoors in the school’s central “piko” area, high school students wielded long spears, rehearsing for Establishment Day Hawaiian Cultural Festival at Puukohola Heiau (Aug. 11 and 12). Lucky middle school kids spent their first day of school at the beach—busy with nature and culture learning activities and “bonding time” with their kumu.

In the new Halau Pokii, the littlest ones and their teachers began the process of getting ready to go home. They joined hands for a closing oli (chant), then went about the business of finding backpacks and water bottles, snack containers, artwork, the note to take home, and finally slippers. When everyone was lined up, they filed out front to meet their rides, some accompanied by an older brother or sister.

A new one-way traffic pattern added a little excitement to the first day, expedited by school SOSA Margo Kawamoto, who helped direct traffic, along with parents and community volunteers. Drivers circled the entry way, stopping only to drop off children in the morning, or quickly pick them up after school.

“I came in the morning to help with traffic and back again this afternoon,” said Kalae Kawamura of Waimea. “I have two kids here and I’ve been volunteering since my son started. He’s now in third grade.”

Kawamura is very happy with the new construction at Kanu.

“I love it; it’s beautiful. Our kids are not in tents,” Kawamura said. “They’re closer to home. I can walk them to school now!”

“With the new campus, more kids, new groups—we are fine tuning right now,” said Scott Plunkett of Waimea, who’s been teaching at Kanu for seven years. “Give us a week!”

Plunkett teaches the hui called “Na Kamalei” (kindergarten, first and second grade).

“It means these children are old enough to be put on the shoulders and worn like a lei,” he said.

His daughter Moani is a Kanu third-grader.

“My last child graduated from Kanu last year,” said Alohalani Kalamau, proud mom, who is also on hand to help with traffic control. She has been volunteering since 2009.

“It’s a dream come true,” said Nalei Kahakalau, instructor and husband of Kanu founder “Auntie Ku” Kahakalau. “It’s the fulfillment of a dream that started in the Kukulu Kumuhana Camps in Waipio in the 90’s, to the Hawaiian Academy school-within-a-school in Honokaa in 1999 to 2000.”

Co-Director Allyson Tamura said that two of the original Hawaiian Academy students have come to teach at Kanu.

“They want to carry on the Hawaiian traditions and values they learned, for the keiki,” she said. Her daughter Erin started school at Kanu this year, after eagerly watching the new buildings under construction.

“We think the buildings turned out fabulous, and will work to inspire and instruct,” said project manager Ken Melrose of Paahana Enterprises LLC, who oversaw the construction. “They were finished for occupancy June 30, right on schedule, and we came in well within the budget established … I am very proud of the project and very appreciative of the opportunity to work with the wonderful folks at Kanu O Ka Aina,” said Melrose.

“It shows that if you have good dreams and work hard you can make things happen,” said Kahakalau.

Kanu is a project of Kanu O Ka Aina Learning Ohana (KALO), a non-profit educational organization based in Waimea that assists statewide with Hawaiian-focus charter schools. Kanu has received a full term of accreditation by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges. The school’s comprehensive campus is named Kauhale Oiwi O Puukapu and is intended as an intergenerational learning destination. Its first building, Halau Hoolako, opened in 2009, and also serves as a community resource and technology center. When ready, the new Halau Puke will contain a community Hawaiian resource library, open to the public.

Although Kanu is a public school, its per-pupil allocation is significantly lower than other public schools. Kanu depends on funding from grants, loans and private benefactors, and donations (and volunteers) are always welcome. For more information, visit or call 887-1117.

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