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Erasing small schools

  • FL MORRIS / FMORRIS@STARADVERTISER.COM
    Haleiwa Elementary School, which dates back to 1871, is on the National Register of Historic Places.
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This summer, the Board of Education will be weighing the fates of four rural schools being considered for possible closure, a touchy prospect that communities are mobilizing to fight.

On tap are Kaaawa Elementary and Haleiwa Elementary on Oahu, Maunaloa Elementary on Molokai and Kohala Middle School on the Big Island. The school superintendent will make recommendations in each case, but the final decisions on whether to close each school will be up to the Board of Education.

"This is probably the least desirable thing that anybody in the department would be tasked to do," said Assistant Superintendent Randolph Moore, who is overseeing consolidation efforts. "Nobody wants their school closed. It’s a very difficult thing, even if it makes sense."

"The primary motivation is to save money," he added. "There are cases where consolidation is in the best interest of the student as well, but that is definitely not always the case."

Along with the four rural schools ready in the review pipeline, the Department of Education has begun preparing consolidation studies for elementary schools in Hawaii Kai and in the Kalani complex.

ALREADY CLOSED:

» Wailupe Valley Elementary
» Keanae

NEXT IN LINE:

The department is preparing consolidation studies for elementary schools in Hawaii Kai and the Kalani complex.

For more information and copies of consolidation studies, visit the website: consolidation.k12.hi.us

THE DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION CONSIDERS SCHOOLS FOR POSSIBLE CLOSURE IF:

» At least a third of the campus needs replacement or improvement.
» At least a third of the classroom space is unnecessary.
» Declining enrollment is affecting educational opportunity.
» Adjoining schools can readily accommodate its students.

So far, the Board of Education has closed two schools: Wailupe Valley in East Honolulu and the one-room schoolhouse at Keanae, Maui. Those decisions were relatively easy compared with the schools now under review. Keanae’s handful of students had already transferred to Hana High and Elementary years before the board voted in February to formally close it.

Enrollment at Wailupe Valley had dwindled to 79 students by the time the board decided to shut it last summer. It was costing the state $12,079 a year to educate each student at Wailupe, compared with $5,140 at nearby Aina Haina, with 543 students. Yet Aina Haina had better test scores and a richer array of academic and extracurricular activities. The closure is saving the state about $750,000 a year, Moore said.

The current cases are tougher calls. Schools in rural areas play vital roles in their communities, serving as gathering places, centers for learning and focal points for local culture. Shutting a rural campus can force students into long commutes, while urban schools are in closer proximity, making mergers easier. In each case, families are rising up to save their schools.

Last week, Board of Education member Breene Harimoto said the board needs to give the department more direction in determining how many and which schools to consider for closure.

"Why are we looking at rural schools?" he asked. "We should look at urban and suburban Honolulu, where schools may be close together and the population has shifted. It seems logical rather than starting with rural areas, where there is just one school in the area."

Kaaawa Elementary

After a year of study, a task force strongly recommended keeping Kaaawa Elementary open, rather than shifting its students to Waiahole or Hauula elementary schools.

The school is full, with 139 students, more than twice as many as Waiahole.

"Our school is fully utilized. It is the second-most utilized school in the Windward District, and it has an excellent academic record," said Brian Walsh, chairman of Kaaawa’s School Community Council.

"It has been an important community asset for over 100 years. It’s the soul of the community, if you will."

The department targeted Kaaawa for closure because it believes its facilities—largely portables—are inadequate and the property could be subject to flooding. But the task force countered those concerns, noting that many schools use portables.

Complex-area Superintendent Lea Albert said she would weigh evidence presented by the task force as well as testimony at last week’s public hearing in preparing her recommendation to Interim Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi, who will advise the board.

"It would be a wide range of factors, which would include fiscal concerns as well as academic and social impacts," Albert said. "My major concern is the impact on the students in all three schools."

The department projects savings of $400,000 to $450,000 a year if Kaaawa were shut down. But the task force said that shifting Kaaawa students would probably require capital improvements at the other schools.

Haleiwa Elementary

Haleiwa Elementary School, which dates to 1871, also has a cherished history and an uncertain future. Literally a landmark in the community, one of its buildings is on the National Register of Historic Places.

"The closure of Haleiwa Elementary would mean the loss of an institution vital to the community and a blow to the cultural mores of the Haleiwa and Waialua communities," said a consolidation study prepared by the Department of Education. The issue is headed for a public hearing, although the date has not been set.

The department considered either merging Haleiwa into Waialua or vice versa, but since Haleiwa’s enrollment is much smaller, at 168 students compared with Waialua’s 530, it appears far likelier to be closed.

"My personal concern is just by moving the children into an overcrowded environment, you’ll be taking away their one-on-one time with the teachers," said Cristal Ige, whose son is heading into second grade.

To make room at Waialua Elementary, all sixth-graders would be shifted to Waialua High and Intermediate, a prospect that alarms many parents. "We’re concerned about how they’ll do and their safety," Ige said.

Like most small schools, Haleiwa is relatively costly to operate, with greater overhead.

Waialua has nine students per full-time staff position, while there are five students at Haleiwa for each full-time staff position, according to the consolidation study. Shutting Haleiwa Elementary School could save the state $720,000 a year in operating costs.

Moore said that saving money would be the driving factor for consolidating. "It’s hard to make a case that it’s educationally desirable," he said. "Both Haleiwa and Waialua are doing quite well."

Maunaloa Elementary

A task force unanimously recommended last week that Maunaloa Elementary be kept open. The only public school serving the west end of Molokai, Maunaloa has about 60 students, and because of its intimate size, they get a lot of personal attention. The closest school is 15 miles away. Shutting the campus would require busing students and would limit parental involvement, which is considered important in helping kids succeed.

"It’s a unique school and a unique island," said Lindsay Ball, complex-area superintendent, who will make a recommendation by mid-June.

The school is the center of Maunaloa, and residents are passionate about keeping it.

"The school is small, down to an average of nine students per grade, and you can make an argument that educational opportunities are greater elsewhere on the island," Moore said. "But these are young kids. If you look at it from the community perspective, it’s not good for consolidation. The ranch has abandoned the town, many of the commercial properties are boarded up and closing the school is one more injury on top of many."

Kohala Middle School

On the Big Island, a task force has advised keeping Kohala Middle School open, rather than splitting its students between Kohala High and Elementary. It noted that the campuses do not have room for the influx of students. And it said that middle school students benefit socially and academically from having their own campus.

"Although there might be some financial savings, there are other compelling reasons why you want to preserve the quality of education, and some of the social and emotional factors need to be included in the final decision," said Art Souza, complex-area superintendent, who supports the task force recommendation.

The state is likely to save $1.2 million a year by closing Kohala Middle School. But it would have to build another 10 classrooms at the high and elementary schools for the incoming students, which could cost anywhere from $3.7 million for portables to $15 million for a permanent building, the study said.

The department is trying to nail down those capital improvement costs before deciding whether to recommend closure, Moore said.

"We didn’t think we could responsibly make a recommendation until we better identify that cost," Moore said. "The range is pretty big."

Last year the Department of Education streamlined the process for closing schools. Instead of appointing a task force to study the issue, the department now prepares the consolidation study, in consultation with the school community council.

The report then goes to a public hearing, and the superintendent makes a recommendation to the board.

"The board has the freedom to decide what it thinks is best," Ball said.

 

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