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New charter school aims to meet 'multigenerational' need on Kauaʻi's North Shore

Namahana School officials with Namahana Mountain in the background. From left to right, Lori Mull, Kapua Chandler, Melanie Parker, and Mehana and Anaʻualekupuna Vaughan.
Casey Harlow
Namahana School officials with Namahana Mountain in the background. From left to right, Lori Mull, Kapua Chandler, Melanie Parker, and Mehana and Anaʻualekupuna Vaughan.

For decades, middle and high school students living in communities such as Wainiha and Hanalei have traveled to and from school in Kapaʻa. Students often spend more than an hour commuting between home and school.

"Anybody who lives past Hanalei, that's all single-lane bridges," said Kapua Chandler, school director of the newly approved Namahana School in Kīlauea.

Namahana is one of two schools approved by the state Public Charter School Commission this year to begin operations.

Chandler tells HPR that the limited bus service has always been a challenge for North Shore residents.

"The big bus can't go down there, so the folks that live on that side get on an even smaller bus. And in my dad's day, it was like a little Volkswagen — and they still do it today. They all have to wake up even earlier," she said.

Today, traffic is more of an issue for Kauaʻi residents. The island primarily relies on a single two-lane road connecting towns and communities.

"The southbound bottleneck from the North Shore to Kapaʻa is strikingly different," said Felicia Cowden, a Kīlauea resident and Kauaʻi councilmember. "Kūhiō Highway, southbound going into Keālia, which is just before you start to turn up to go to Kapaʻa High — that gets caught up in traffic during that time."

Cowden notes the buses rely on an aging population of drivers. And the island is having a hard time employing bus drivers.

For students living on the North Shore, the travel time and limited service often hinder them from participating in extracurricular activities the school may offer.

"My daughter just started seventh grade, and this is her second week of getting on a bus at 6:40 a.m.," said Melanie Parker, Namahana School's governing board chair. "She's got an hour drive to her school, and she gets home at 4 p.m. If she does any extracurricular activities, she has to jump on a bus at 5:30, and get home at 6:30. So that's a 12-hour day, and that is hard. It's so hard for the kids doing that."

The North Shore community has made past attempts to get a public middle and high school nearby. But previous efforts were rejected by the state Department of Education.

"It was clear that wasn't in the cards. They didn't think we had the need or the population to support such an effort," said Lori Mull, education chair of the Kauaʻi North Shore Community Foundation.

Mull tells HPR it wasn't until eight years ago the idea of starting a charter school became an option for the community.

Charter schools are public schools, but provide an alternative for families who want flexibility in their child's education.

However, starting and maintaining a charter school isn't an easy process.

"There's a pretty rigorous process and application process because we're talking about public dollars — state dollars," said PJ Foehr, interim deputy director at the state Public Charter Schools Commission. "We need to be responsible stewards of state dollars. So we want to make sure that schools are prepared, not just academically, but there's also financial obligations . . . understand how the staffing and all those pieces come together — the business side, the governance side, the organizational side."

Interested applicants must complete a roughly 90-page application, going into as much detail about the school's organizational structure, finances, and academics.

Foehr tells HPR that every charter school needs to have a governing board. These boards are the entities outlining the need and operation of the school to the commission. They are also the point of contact for the commission when dealing with a contract to operate and receive funding from the state.

However, funding is not the same as the public school system. Foehr tells HPR charter schools are allocated money on a per pupil allocation — meaning a certain dollar amount is given on the size of the school's student body. This funding is primarily used for operating costs.

Foehr says it's not uncommon for charter schools to establish a nonprofit arm in order to raise more funds for the school.

Namahana School in Kīlauea will be located on land donated to the Kauaʻi North Shore Community Foundation by Bill and Joan Porter for education purposes. The school has a 99-year renewable lease.
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The school will be located on 8 acres of the Wai Koa Plantation in Kalihiwai, according to the school.

The support of the Kauaʻi North Shore Community Foundation helped Namahana overcome major hurdles, such as seed funding and site location. The school's location was donated to the foundation by Bill and Joan Porter for education purposes. The school has a 99-year renewable lease.

Location is one of the biggest challenges for charter schools. Unlike public schools, charter schools usually have to lease space for their facilities.

Getting approved is just the start for Namahana. The school still has to construct facilities, hire teachers, and get a contract with the state.

But having a nearby school, and the hope to create future leaders for the island's North Shore community, is worth the effort to Namahana's leaders.

"I think the power of our school, and the beauty of our school, is to be able to be one of those foundations in the community that really holds a place for the future generations," Chandler said. "It's really just a foundation that future generations to build and build."

Namahana School is expected to welcome its first class of students in 2025.

More information can be found at namahanafoundation.org

Casey Harlow was an HPR reporter and occasionally filled in as local host of Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
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