Saturday, October 10, 2015         

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Plan to close Kalihi schools triggers opposition

By Mary Vorsino


Shuttering two Kalihi elementary schools will overwhelm struggling nearby campuses, boosting the population of one to more than 800, parents and teachers said last night at a packed public hearing.

In addition, children walking to school will have to cross more busy roadways, they said.

"We are a home to kids that might not have the best home," said Scott Kunihiro, a fourth-grade teacher at Puuhale Elementary. "They need to have that home feeling."

At the hearing, Kunihiro got a raucous round of applause when he said, "Yeah, go someplace else for the money," referring to budget savings.

Kalihi Elementary School, with 294 students, and Puuhale Elementary, with 234, are being considered for closing.

A Department of Education consolidation study proposed transferring all of Puuhale's students to Kalihi Kai Elementary, creating a campus with 833 students.

Kalihi Elementary students would be split between Kalihi Uka and Kaewai elementary schools. Their enrollments would jump to 401 and 490, respectively.

More than 300 parents and teachers attended the hearing, filling the cafeteria at Kalakaua Middle School. Many wore T-shirts that read "Puuhale: Endangered Species" and held "Save Our School" signs.

Momi Akana, whose 3-year-old child with Down Syndrome attends a special-education preschool at Kalihi Elementary, said the department should not be looking to save money in largely low-income Kalihi.

"You can't make it more difficult for people who are already struggling," Akana said.

Rene Bacalso, who has three children at Puuhale, agreed, saying that the schools in Kalihi are making big improvements. Puuhale "is a good school," he said. Kids and the community "deserve this school."

Pearl Ridge resident Fred Aquino and his family plan to move to Kalihi next month after the foreclosure of their home is complete. Aquino wants to send his children, ages 9 and 7, to Kalihi Elementary because the school is close to the home of a friend with whom they are going to stay.

Aquino said that in these tough times, he was looking forward to a little stability. But if Kalihi Elementary closes, his kids will have to walk farther to school and cross busy streets.

"It's dangerous," he said, shaking his head.

Kalihi and Puuhale are two of five schools the department is considering for shutdown. Also being eyed are Queen Liliuokalani Elementary in Kaimuki and Kamiloiki or Koko Head in Hawaii Kai.

The hearing yesterday was the third this week on proposed consolidations in East and urban Honolulu. Testimony given at the hearing will be presented to the Board of Education along with a recommendation from the department superintendent. The board will then vote on the proposals.

The board is expected to take up the issue as early as January.

The department has pledged to consider consolidating the state's smallest campuses as a way to slash costs. So far, though, it has closed just two, Wailupe Valley Elementary in East Honolulu, which had 75 students, and the one-room school (with six students) at Keanae, Maui.

Parents and teachers last night said students from disadvantaged backgrounds will fall through the cracks if the Kalihi schools are consolidated.

Students at the schools are already struggling.

The department's consolidation study notes that 80 percent of students at the Kalihi elementary schools are from low-income households. The two campuses also have large numbers of students for whom English is not their first language.

Kalihi Elementary School did not meet adequate yearly progress benchmarks under the No Child Left Behind law last school year while Puuhale did. Meanwhile, Kalihi Kai Elementary, which would take in Puuhale students and expand its enrollment to 833, is in "restructuring" after not meeting NCLB annual benchmarks for years.

The department's report points to research that puts the "optimal size" for an elementary school at 300 to 400 students and says "literacy learning is lower" in schools with more than 800.

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