Monday | September 25, 2017
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Pride of Laupahoehoe: Graduation ceremony reflects community’s growing support of charter school

LAUPAHOEHOE — It would have been tough to hide the grin on Dylan Archer’s face Friday evening, moments after he strolled through the packed Laupahoehoe Community Public Charter School gymnasium.

Behind him were families sprinkled throughout the gym bleachers clutching balloon bouquets and lei. To his side, fellow cap-and-gown-clad students beamed back. The tune “Pomp and Circumstance” ceremoniously played in the background.

“I’m flabbergasted,” the 17-year-old Archer, a Laupahoehoe senior, said shortly after the ceremony. “It almost didn’t feel real, a little bit. The entire time I was up there I felt myself (going) back and forth thinking ‘Am I really doing it?’”

Archer was among thousands of elated East Hawaii students graduating high school this weekend. Commencement ceremonies at traditional public schools and charter schools around the island are slated to continue through the week.

A total of 13 Laupahoehoe students graduated this year — a seemingly small number but the school’s largest since converting from a state Department of Education school to a public charter school in 2012, said Laupahoehoe Director Romeo Garcia.

“The potential of the school is starting to be realized again,” Garcia said. “ … We (now) have strong community support and that’s played a very important role in helping us grow and be successful. It’s great to see that kind of support and it’s what our students need as well.”

Laupahoehoe opened in 1883. It was historically a traditional state public school. In 2012, it converted to a public charter, partly an effort at the time to avoid closure by the DOE because of flagging enrollment. The community had been hit hard by the loss of the sugar industry.

The conversion initially had strong support. Ultimately, however, it garnered opposition, particularly among school staffers and some parents, who said the community had been duped into voting to convert their school to a charter.

Enrollment took a hit, initially, following the controversial way the school came into being.

Garcia told the Tribune-Herald last week that things have started to change. He said enrollment schoolwide currently stands at 283 students (including a few dozen online students) and has remained relatively consistent in recent years.

He’s shooting for enrollment to increase by an additional 100 students in the next three years, which would put the school at capacity.

Garcia said he’s been trying to educate community members about the benefits of being a charter school — which he said include more flexibility and the “autonomy to be able to develop programs that fit the needs of kids in the community.”

“I absolutely believe (the enrollment dip) is being mitigated and it’s shifted in terms of families coming back,” he said.

Garcia moved to Hawaii this year. He previously lived in California, where he said he helped start a charter school in Oakland. He said a “lack of consistent leadership” has been one of Laupahoehoe’s biggest challenges. The school has cycled through four directors since converting in 2012.

“I absolutely plan to stick around,” Garcia said. “Once I commit to a program, I’m committing for the long term. Because it’s my goal to be successful as a school. And I can say what I want but it comes down to whether I show up again.”

Teresa Ignatio, grandmother to Laupahoehoe senior Austin Parel, was among Friday evening’s attendees. Ignatio didn’t attend Laupahoehoe but has frequented the school for years. She said all her children and grandchildren attended Laupahoehoe and she said she’s generally supported the charter conversion.

“It’s been a great change,” Ignatio said that evening, as Parel snapped photos with family and was showered with lei nearby. “I really do like it. This charter school is the best.”

Garcia said next year he wants to expand Laupahoehoe’s partnership with the state Department of Agriculture.

Specifically, he is looking to repurpose about 19 acres of former sugar plantation coastal land. This summer, the school also will build an on-campus greenhouse and garden, he said.

“As a school, I want us to be in a position to model for students how to get into the agriculture and horticulture industry,” he said. “… I want to create an educational environment that truly values the children who come here and where we can use resources from the community to help promote opportunities for the kids.”

“Our school is the center of the community,” he added. “For a lot of reasons, both educationally and socially, this is a hub for the community.”

Email Kirsten Johnson at kjohnson@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

 

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