KAILUA-KONA » Teenagers sit at a picnic table as their math teacher sketches out a navigation problem on a whiteboard propped near a plumeria tree, with the rumble of surf as his soundtrack.
The spartan campus of West Hawaii Explorations Academy, a public charter school next to Kona Airport, lives up to its motto, "No Child Left Indoors." The most substantial structure is a hollow-tile concrete pavilion workshop. Students work mostly in open-air structures with fabric roofs.
Small sharks swim in a reef pool, and clown fish, opihi and other marine creatures inhabit various bubbling tanks scattered here and there. A couple of sixth-grade girls bend and twist the blades of their miniature windmill to see whether they can make it whirl faster, crouching by a garden of herbs and bananas coaxed from the barren lava.
About 200 students in grades 6 through 12 trek to this campus daily for the chance to take charge of their education, working on projects they dream up themselves, learning as they pursue their own passions. They travel from as far as South Point and Honokaa.
"They come from a 100-mile radius," said Curtis Muraoka, co-director of the school, which began as an off-campus program of Konawaena High School before becoming a charter in 2000. "Obviously, the demand for programs like this is there."
The school is founded on bringing choice and control to young people, he said. And it seems to be working. Test scores are among the best of the state’s high schools, with 84 percent proficient in reading and 48 percent proficient in math. But now WHEA, as it is known, has to pick up and move because of noise expected from a new runway and more military flights at Kona Airport.
To stay alive, the school is launching a $10 million capital campaign to build new facilities on a quieter site, also on the grounds of the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii. It has already signed a new lease.
"It is a tremendous undertaking," said Muraoka, his sunglasses pushed into his thick salt-and-pepper hair. "We are hoping we can get a little state support, federal support and philanthropy. We’re frugal — we’re a good deal."
He sees the $10 million price tag as a bargain compared with the upward of $100 million that could be spent on a traditional high school. The state has been reluctant to provide facilities funding for charter schools, arguing that it doesn’t have the money to duplicate infrastructure. But legislators just approved a $1.5 million grant in aid for the project.
"It was a win-win because we’re improving state facilities," said a grateful Muraoka. "My view is they should build schools like ours because it’s a different way to build public education. Ultimately it does save money if you look at making smaller, more frugal campuses with less comprehensive infrastructure."
Virtually everything on WHEA’s campus was donated or built by volunteers. Even the slabs of concrete in its gravel landscape are not uniform, because they were built in bits and pieces with leftovers donated by cement trucks finishing other jobs.
The state’s first charter high school doesn’t have the trappings of most public high schools. There is no football team or marching band or even a cafeteria or gym. Because the ground water is close to the surface, students and staff rely on portable toilets. Along with upgraded restrooms, plans for the new campus include a play court and a food service area that can also serve as a teaching classroom for food science and culinary arts.
Students say they are drawn by the small-school setting and the hands-on learning at the school, where they immerse themselves in subjects they care about. The academic standards they must meet are worked into that framework.
"The thing I like about WHEA is it grows with its students. It’s not just a tunnel; it’s something that moves and changes with you," said Kyra Boyl, 18. "And I really like the fact that the teachers know me as a person, not just one of 150 students that they see for 45 minutes every day."
Shellese Guieb, the school’s office manager, said WHEA has worked beautifully for her son but would not fit her daughter, who thrives in her large public school four miles away, where she is active in student government, service clubs and various sports. "I think if I brought her here, she would just shrivel up," she said.
"My son, he is now motivated, interested and taking responsibility for his learning, whereas before he was just kind of trudging through, totally not interested in his schoolwork," Guieb said. "He has done a complete turnaround."
Muraoka said the campus is meant to offer something different, and attracts a large portion of students for whom traditional school hasn’t worked out, as well as bright kids who want the challenge of more independent study. He sees WHEA’s approach, which has attracted national interest, as a model that could be broadly applied.
"Every district should have programs like this," Muraoka said. "It shouldn’t just be in science. It should be in performing arts. It should be in fine arts, in vocational technology. Every district should have these programs, like a wagon wheel of spokes with different emphases."