By CAROLYN LUCAS-ZENK
For as long as Kaimi Kaupiko can remember, the Milolii community has talked about establishing a school. Kaupiko recalled optimism residents felt more than a decade ago when Hawaii’s first 25 charter schools were authorized and the Legislature later amended the law to allow start-up charters.
Residents saw a charter school, publicly funded, but privately operated, as an answer for their beloved Hawaiian fishing village. It could offer an alternative to the traditional education and possibly more resources for children who spend three hours or more commuting from the isolated rural South Kona community to the closest public school.
A charter could also help preserve the traditions and lifestyles that have sustained families for generations. However, the vision never reached fruition, and Kaupiko, then a teen at the time, couldn’t help.
After graduating from the University of Hawaii at Manoa two years ago, Kaupiko returned to Milolii to start the discussion again. A group of residents formed Milolii Community Hui, determined to create Milolii Hawaiian Cultural Charter School.
They envisioned a charter that perpetuated Hawaiian cultural values and language; strengthen family systems and the community; utilized modern technology; and met or exceeded academic standards of the state Department of Education.
Kaupiko said the state Charter School Review Panel last year denied the hui’s application, citing its inability to secure a facility and an unrealistic budget. That “crushing decision” spurred him to seek guidance, leading him to Susie Osborne, director of Kua o ka La Public Charter School. She and her staff offered the hui more than support; they gave the hui an immediate outlet.
Students and their families love Hipuu o Milolii, though no school building, cafeteria or gym exist. On Monday, Wednesday and Friday, they stay home or meet at Milolii Beach Park pavilion, completing lessons for their grade level online at their own pace.
On Tuesday and Thursday, they do hands-on projects, go on field trips or participate in electives, such as physical education, Hawaiian language and arts. A paid, part-time temporary teacher, Leivallyn Kaupu, as well as a handful of volunteers, support them.
“Today the kids of Milolii have a choice, a choice to choose the education that they want and they have the opportunity to decide the content of their education and the future of their destiny,” said Kaupiko, a volunteer and school board member.
“This virtual academy allowed these kids’ inquisitiveness and desire to direct their learning. It’s also promoting the fundamental importance of kuleana.”
Since July 31, 16 kindergarten through high school students have replaced classrooms with computers. However, they’re still considered students of Kua o ka La, a Puna charter that opened in 2002. Over the past four years, the charter has researched and offered online education for its students, but formalized a program, with dedicated teachers, last year, Osborne said.
Kua o ka La’s Hipuu Program offers blended instruction, combining online curriculum with face-to-face gatherings, community-based projects, and Hawaiian language and culture education.
Kua o ka La issues students a tablet with academic software.
No tuition is required, but Internet access is.
Roughly 50 percent of the lessons, mainly in core subjects like math, science, history, language arts and English, are delivered online. Kaupiko said nearly 70 students are participating in Hipuu, and Milolii is the biggest site.
Daily opportunities for academic mentoring and support are available online, as well as at the charter’s Hilo, Puna, Hamakua, Naalehu and Milolii sites. These places have a paid teacher and volunteers available for students needing help and to provide additional lessons. Sites also allow students to socialize, Kaupu said.
Two full-time, accredited online teachers from Hilo take turns working at the Milolii site weekly to monitor student progress, grade work and respond by email, phone or Skype.
If assignments are overdue or students are struggling, Kaupu makes home visits.
Because a bulk of the learning is online, students must be self-directed and pass rigorous reading assessments prior to participating, Kaupiko said.
Hipuu o Milolii has been positive for 13-year-old Leisha Sesson, a self-described fast learner. She said taking eighth grade online is challenging and rewarding. She feels like she’s learning what she needs to know in a straightforward, better-explained format and at her own pace.
She’s also grateful for not relying on what a particular teacher thinks is important, chooses to skip and determines the class can’t handle yet — something that frustrated her at public school.
“From day one, I had a voice in my education and what my goals will be,” she said. “You feel powerful when given an opportunity like this. All the voices in Milolii should speak and voice our choice. This is the most wonderful and amazing thing I have seen our community accomplish.”
Sixteen hours of parental involvement annually is required for Hipuu, which aims to bind learning, students and families into a supportive network of communities, Osborne said. Besides teachers, the model relies upon “learning coaches,” who provide valuable lessons away from the computer.
Helen Kelekolio said her 8-year-old daughter, Kailee, was doing fine in school, but didn’t enjoy it and longed for lessons that were hands-on, artistic and outdoorsy. Now, her mother said, she is more motivated and happy about her studies, which are more meaningful and challenging.
A drug- and alcohol-free benefit concert for Hipuu is being held from noon to 10 p.m. Oct. 6 at Milolii Beach Park. Food, arts and crafts booths, as well as a silent auction, are planned.
Tickets, costing $15 pre-sale and $20 at the door, are available by contacting Kaupiko at 937-1310 or firstname.lastname@example.org.