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Monday, April 21, 2014         

UNDER THE SUN


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Closing smaller schools might make sense now, but what about later?

By Cynthia Oi

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When budgetary push comes to shove, the smallest are the most vulnerable. Size determines who survives and who doesn't, at least as far as the state Department of Education is concerned.

Closing two schools in Kalihi and another in Kaimuki -- all with what the department identifies as less than "optimal enrollment" -- will save $2 million a year, officials say.

That's not a lot of money in the $1.7 billion school system scheme of things because children moved from those schools will still need to be educated. They will still require teachers, administrators, desks, instructional material and cafeteria meals.

Savings will be achieved by consolidating those needs under a bigger roof, gaining efficiencies in delivering services, to put it in bureaucratic-speak.

In Hawaii Kai, where two schools were proposed for consolidation, the department decided that moving boundaries drawn to determine which schools students attend would sufficiently even out enrollment, negating the need to close them.

Such a plan doesn't seem to be an option for the Kalihi schools. The department proposes to shutter Puuhale and Kalihi elementary schools and send students elsewhere.

The shift would create a mega-campus of 833 students at Kalihi Kai Elementary, twice the enrollment the department considers "optimal."

No matter, the department's consolidation study asserts, because smaller schools do not necessarily mean students get a better education. Size is far outweighed by having good principals and teachers, "a campus culture of high expectations and parents who believe education is important," according to the study.

That goes without saying. But consolidating schools has nothing to do with reaching high expectations and having strong teaching staffs. It's about cutting costs, so let's not camouflage the issue.

As can be expected, charges of socio-economic bias have been raised because of the different solutions devised for the Hawaii Kai and Kalihi campuses. Most of the students at the Kalihi schools come from low-income families and have limited English-language skills while Hawaii Kai communities are largely middle class -- thus the perception of discrimination, true or not.

The consolidation issue, though rooted in finances, stems from a problem the department has long struggled with. That is, how to manage fluid population changes with campuses that remain fixed.

That's the situation with Liliuokalani Elementary, dedicated by its namesake queen in 1912. Just 98 children are enrolled at the campus in Kaimuki, a community that bloomed quickly after World War II, requiring more than a half dozen schools be built to take in students. Now, with an aging population, schools in the area have seen the need for its classrooms diminish.

But enrollment is cyclical. In the past decade, families with young children have moved to the area and as more homes change hands, the number of students will increase. Closing a school may be cost effective today, but the department has to devise a flexible strategy to adapt to change.






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