Nourishing bodies, nurturing minds


Six days into the new school year, Kualapuʻu Public Conversion Charter School students gleefully chased Office of Hawaiian Affairs trustees across a grassy field.

Punctuated by peals of laughter and capped off with hugs and high fives, the exercise was an energetic mahalo to the Trustees for approving a second two-year grant to support the Molokaʻi elementary school’s Pūʻolo project. The obesity-prevention program has already boosted the nutrition factor of school meals and turned two homegrown lunch events into family affairs. Kualapuʻu’s second OHA grant, awarded at the end of June, provides funding for an additional physical education teacher. That means P.E. every day, something many public schools have eliminated in favor of more instruction time in the classroom.

Photo: Children running with OHA staff

Instead of choosing between core subjects and enrichment, Kualapuʻu extended its school day by an hour to give students time for both. As Principal Lydia Trinidad led a school tour, it was immediately clear the school’s emphasis on health and wellness doesn’t detract from its commitment to academics. In fact, to bolster the school’s kaiapuni (Hawaiian language immersion) program, Kualapuʻu has begun publishing its own books for developing readers in ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi. On the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) side, sixth-graders in the school’s two-year-old robotics program placed second in the world at an international competition in April.

With other initiatives also underway, “It’s almost like we get to reinvent ourselves,” Trinidad said as she highlighted the conversion charter school’s successes.


Kualapuʻu’s programs often reach out into the greater Molokaʻi community but its ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi curriculum project will benefit Hawaiian language learners across the state. “We are creating middle grade chapter books and lower grade workbooks in Hawaiian translated into English,” Trinidad said. “These are contemporary local stories which are high interest for the students.”

Photo: Kamalu Poepoe holding a book
Kualapuʻu Curriculum Coordinator Kamalu Poepoe shares chapter books the school has self-published for Hawaiian language immersion students in grades 2-4. The books will be distributed to kaiapuni programs across the state and are also available for purchase on Amazon. – Photo: Kaipo Kīʻaha

Excellent Hawaiian language books have been provided to Kaiapuni schools for many years, mainly by the ʻAha Pūnana Leo and UH Hilo’s Hale Kuamoʻo. However, teachers at Kualapuʻu school began to notice a shortage of resources for developing readers who have progressed beyond picture books. Kaiapuni students at the second through fourth grades wanted to have the same kinds of books that their English-reading peers were carrying around-namely chapter books with more text and fewer illustrations. “We saw the children’s interest in the English chapter book format as they moved past the emergent reading level. But schools had little to no access to similar kinds of reading material in Hawaiian,” said Kualapuʻu’s Curriculum Coordinator Kamalu Poepoe. “We wanted to start providing that guided step reading experience for our Hawaiian language learners with interesting and fun stories that they could relate to.”

Photo: Teacher holding a book

Poepoe is spearheading the project to develop new grade-appropriate, Common Core-aligned Hawaiian language reading materials that will be shared with kaiapuni programs across the state. A highly competitive two-year grant from the Administration for Native Americans will fund the production of four Hawaiian-medium chapter books for grades two through four and eight consumable workbooks for kindergarteners and first-graders learning to read and write in ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi. All 12 will also be published in English for non-kaiapuni students. Of Kualapuʻu’s nearly 400 students, more than 20 percent are in the immersion program.

“We wanted to start providing that guided step reading experience for our Hawaiian language learners with interesting and fun stories that they could relate to.”

“All of these books are new on the horizon,” Poepoe continued. “Teachers in all of the state Hawaiian language immersion elementary schools have enthusiastically expressed an interest in having these materials to support their instruction. Their challenges have mirrored those at Kualapuʻu. I hope others join in to create more books of this genre to strengthen these ‘middle ladder rungs’ that our keiki need in order to move forward successfully.”

Photo: Two books titled The Kamali'i Club and the Kamali'i Club Returns

The ANA grant follows a smaller one from the Hawaiʻi Tourism Authority that allowed Kualapuʻu to self-publish its first readers published in both ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi and English by ʻŌpuʻulani Albino: Ka Wena, a second-grade chapter book, and Ka Moeʻuhane, a mystery for third and fourth-graders.

Kualapuʻu plans to give a set of the books to each kaiapuni school in the state, including the two other sister schools operated by Hoʻokākoʻo Corporation: Kamaile Academy on Oʻahu and Waimea Middle School on Hawaiʻi Island. Because the books are self-published through CreateSpace on Amazon, they’re also available for purchase by the public. “It’s printed on demand,” explained Trinidad. The books will be published as the Kukuiehu series, named for Opuʻulani Albino’s grandmother, to keep them attached to Kualapuʻu School.


Rural Molokaʻi may seem like an unlikely place to find robotics champs but in reality every school on the island participates, with six elementary and middle schools coming together as the Molokaʻi League. “We all get to play together because we’re so tiny,” said Jeannine Rossa, a grant writer for Kualapuʻu whose daughter was part of Kualapuʻu’s first robotics team. “We don’t have a lot to offer kids here. We just don’t have the bodies – all of us do five different things – but robotics is something we’re all committed to.”

Edwin Mendija, who provides Kualapuʻu’s IT support, exemplifies that commitment. In late 2014, Mendija began volunteering his time to students willing to give up their recesses to build and program robots. “I do it at the high school as well, so I thought I’d give the kids here some exposure, too,” he said. “It’s not just robotics. I want them to be exposed to the STEM field and see it elsewhere, too.”

In its first full year, when Rossa’s daughter was on the team, Kualapuʻu made it to the state championships. “To go to state’s is a big deal because unlike the Oʻahu kids, we can’t drive there,” Rossa pointed out.

In their second year, the Kualapuʻu Comets came within a few points of winning the state championship, which qualified them to go to the 2017 VEX IQ World Championships in Kentucky. “I think our jaws just dropped,” said Rossa. “It’s was like, ‘Really, us? Molokaʻi?’”

Getting to Kentucky required raising $10,000 but Mendija was able to take two teams to the international competition: John Quintua and Naiwa Pescaia formed Team 1037B, while Jaryn Kaholoaa and Aron Corpuz competed as Team 1037A. In the finals, Quintua and Pescaia and two students from Canada teamed up against a pair of teams from China – ultimately seizing the No. 2 spot in a field of 272 teams from 30 countries. Kaholoaa and Corpuz also had a good showing, placing in the top 15 percent.

Mendija’s goals for this school year include getting his high school team to their first international competition and, for Kualapuʻu to “Win the state championship. Win the world championship.”