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A School of Choice

First of a two-part series about Kihei Charter School explores its 12-year history, growth and success.

November 29, 2012
Susan Halas , The Maui Weekly

What Maui public high school ranks near the top of all Hawai'i schools in reading and math scores?

What K-12 school tests well above the national norms across all grade levels, has a curriculum focused on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), and achieves remarkable results for considerably less than the cost of other public schools?

If you didn't know it's Kihei Charter School (KCS), you are not alone.

Article Photos

Gene Zarro, chairman of Kīhei Charter School’s governing board, is working on school’s next expansion. Whether KCS buys, leases, builds, borrows, finds an angel or is able to finagle it by other means, Zarro is pursuing all the options to find more space for the growing enrollment at the award-winning school.

KCS, Maui's only public charter school, is one of only 32 public charter schools statewide.

It celebrated its tenth anniversary in 2011, but unless you're a student, parent or community partner, chances are you might not have noticed.

The charter school's presence isn't conspicuous. Its decentralized classrooms are spread out in repurposed commercial space in Kihei at the Kihei Commercial Center and Lipoa Shopping Center, with three additional classrooms leased from St. Theresa Church.

There is no gym, no playing fields and few sports activities. There is an outdoor meeting area and large school garden on the backside of the shopping center. It's possibly the only public school with a commercial coin-op laundry tucked between its classrooms.

You may not have heard of the school because, as Dan Kuhar, one of KCS's two directors put it, "We're not too good at blowing our own horn but, we're a success by whatever metric you want to use. We're not for everybody. We're a school of choice. We are an option and we can be a very good fit."

KCS' Many Accomplishments

Just because they're not so hot in the hype department doesn't mean they don't have a lot to crow about.

According to Gail Weaver, KCS's other director, the school:

Leads the state public high schools in both reading and math test scores

90 percent proficient in reading (ranking second statewide*)

73% proficient in math (ranking second statewide*)

*Computed as of April 2012 from data supplied by State of Hawai'i via Hawai'i Charter Schools Network; includes most recent test data using "No Child Left Behind" standards.

First STEM school in Hawai'i and the only one that offers STEM classes to all students.

Offers college-level for-credit courses in both high school and college subjects, including engineering courses, for all students in grades 7-12.

Only public school in Hawai'i to offer University of Hawai'i courses on its own campus.

First and only school in Hawai'i to receive Healthier US School Challenge Bronze Award of Distinction for school lunch and nutrition.

Fully accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC).

Last year, KCS had a graduating senior class of just over 30.

"Eighty percent of all graduates continue directly on with their education," Weaver said. Enrollment is open to any student on the island of Maui by application.

KCS is Growing Fast

The school was founded in 2001 with a student body of about 60 high-school-age kids sharing space at Kihei Youth Center. It grew rapidly and soon expanded to the old Rainsong Guitar Factory in the Kihei Commercial Complex. As of October 2012, KCS is leasing over 30,000 square feet of space and has a current enrollment of 581 youngsters in grades K-12 (High School, 270; Middle School, 185; blended lower grades and special programs make up the rest.)

But this is a school that is bigger than its classrooms and has its main focus outside the schoolhouse walls. It has its own fleet of nine (soon to be 10) vans that transport students off into "real life" on a daily basis.

These, said Kuhar, are not "field trips," but part of the schools basic learning experience. Likewise, the classrooms are flexible and multi-purpose. KCS is project-based--there are no textbooks per se, and current technology is integrated into every aspect of school life. Class size, he said, averages at about one teacher to every 17 students.

Achievement Brings Its Own Problems

But if you think nothing succeeds like success, this story will remind you there are exceptions. The problems at KCS are not the problems that result from achievement and recognition.

Space is the main issue; the school is bursting at the seams. Finding, leasing and paying for adequate facilities are top priorities, as is getting KCS its fair share of money in a public school system that seems to punish rather than reward innovation and accomplishment.

KCS' budget comes from a per-student allotment of about $5,900 a year, which totals about $4 million annually. The cost for space and utilities eat up about $1 million of the money.

"So the first million off the top doesn't go to the kids; it goes to the landlords and the utilities," Kuhar said.

Regular schools, termed "comprehensive," receive additional funds for facilities and maintenance. Though both charter and comprehensive schools are ultimately under the state Board of Education, they have different financial and administrative rules. Those rules say that charter schools, especially "start up" charters (as opposed to existing schools that have converted to charter status), must pay their own facilities and utility costs out of flat, per-capita fee allotments from the state.

KCA Searches for Space

Gene Zarro, chairman of the KCS governing board, is also CEO the South Maui Learning 'Ohana, the nonprofit organization that planned and founded the school, and holds the leases on its current physical facilities.

The inequities of public funding sometimes put him in an awkward position.

This is the case in Kihei, where the community has long desired a "regular" high school. That school was in the planning stages long before KCS opened. The "regular" high school still does not exist, except on paper. The proposed school is a very big-ticket item, estimated to cost $160 million to be spent in two phases.

In comparison, Zarro thinks that "about $10 million" would meet all KCS's space needs for the foreseeable future. But even that much smaller amount is proving difficult to find.

"We are all are sensitive to the desire for a high school for Kihei," Zarro said. "KCS is not eager to be seen as in competition with the proposed high school, because 'our model is not that model.' We think that there's room for both."

As Weaver put it earlier, referring to the traditional "comprehensive" school: "We never wanted a campus on a hill with a fence around it. We want a school that is within the community, not isolated from it."

But comparisons seem inevitable. Why spend big bucks on a "comprehensive" model when small bucks would take care of a standout school that's real and growing?

No matter which way it goes, Zarro hopes to be the architect of the KCS' next expansion. Whether he buys, leases, builds, borrows, finds an angel or is able to finagle it by other means, he's pursuing all the options to find more space for KCS.

To find out more about "Gene's Schemes," and possible funding sources and facilities options for expansion of the school, read part two in next week's issue.



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