QUESTION: What ever happened to Laupahoehoe School's effort to become a charter school rather than face possible closure by the Department of Education?
ANSWER: The push to convert Laupahoehoe High and Elementary School to charter status is back on track after the Charter School Review Panel agreed to start considering applications for new charters again after a six-month hiatus.
The panel had suspended all applications statewide in November, citing fiscal concerns, throwing a wrench into Laupahoehoe's conversion plans and possibly jeopardizing a $450,000 federal grant a community group had won last year for conversion. The state panel decided May 13 to end that suspension.
"We're pleased that the panel did lift the suspension and we still have our federal grant," said Fred Pollock, a Laupahoehoe parent and the project director for the U.S. Department of Education grant.
The scenic campus, on a sea cliff midway between Hilo and Honokaa on the Big Island's Hamakua Coast, will remain a regular public school for the next academic year. If the community group leading the conversion effort gets the go-ahead, the school could reopen as Laupahoehoe Community Public Charter School in August 2011.
"Some people assume we've gone charter already, that it's a done deal," said Principal Thomas Ekno. "It's not. We are still a (regular) Department of Education school and will be so for the coming school year."
The rural school, founded in 1883, has 212 students in kindergarten through 12th grade. The end of sugar production in the mid-1990s hit the isolated community hard. The school has struggled academically, and residents have mobilized in recent years in hopes of improving it.
When the Department of Education put Laupahoehoe on a list for possible closure, a push to switch to charter status picked up steam. Charter schools are public schools that have their own local school boards and are free of many state regulations.
In February, 80 percent of parents and staff voted for conversion. The charter effort is being led by the Laupahoehoe Alumni/Community Association and an affiliate group, Save and Improve Our School.
As a charter, the school plans to focus its curriculum on "project-based learning" and expand electives. It also is forging partnerships with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Forest Service, which is gearing up for major research in the Laupahoehoe Forest Conservation Area and intends to create a science lab at the school, Pollock said.
The school now attracts roughly half of the 400 students who live in its district, he said. Since the charter would receive state funding on a per-pupil basis, "you have to treat the school almost like a business," Pollock said.
"We have to provide customer service, and the customers are the parents and the students," Pollock said. "We have to create a program that they want and need for the future of their kids, and by doing that we can raise enrollment and make the school financially sustainable."