When fissures began oozing lava in Kīlauea Volcano’s East Rift Zone in early May, public charter school Kua o ka Lā (KOKL) moved classes from its lower Puna campus to a borrowed space in Hilo.
At the time, KOKL leaders hoped the relocation would be temporary. But by the end of the school year, lava flow had cut off access to the campus along Kaimū-Kapoho Road. Then, in early June, the flow turned toward Kapoho and lava began creeping toward campus. A month later, aerial photos confirmed the campus had been entirely covered.
While the school’s site is lost, its spirit is undeterred. “We can never replace the wahi pana of the place that was taken, but we can take our school values and foundation, its pu‘uwai,” said KOKL’s Head of School Susie Osborne and business manager Karina Leasure-Espinoza in a phone interview. “Who we are as a school continues to be strong and resilient. We are re-engaging and supporting our families in a very real way.”
Osborne estimates about 30 percent of the students and staff have also lost homes or had to evacuate. She’s included in that count – KOKL was still standing when lava claimed her Leilani Estates home. Osborne put 25 years into building the school, including clearing the campus of jungle and figuring out how to operate without electricity and running water. “I put my heart and soul into this,” she said. “It was a long time to build it and it’s heartbreaking.”
Record of resilience
This is the toughest in a series of environmental challenges the small Hawaiian-focused charter school has faced. In 2014, the campus took a direct hit from Tropical Storm Iselle, then a few months later was isolated by a lava flow headed toward Pāhoa.
The rural school was built off the grid, but what KOKL lacked in infrastructure, it made up for with ingenuity, even repurposing buses to create more enclosed structures. KOKL had the distinction of being the first 100 percent solar powered school in the state – the second in the nation – and its school gardens and greenhouse demonstrated a commitment to health that helped KOKL become the first K-12 school to win Blue Zones Project Approval.
But much of what the school created had to be left behind in the rush to evacuate. “There was no time,” said Leasure-Espinoza.
Instead of dwelling on what has been buried, Osborne is looking at what can be rebuilt – for KOKL and other Puna charter schools that have been impacted, including Hawai‘i Academy of Arts and Science in Pāhoa and Ke Kula ‘O Nāwahīokalani’ōpu‘u Iki Lab in Kea‘au. About 32 percent of Puna residents are Native Hawaiian, which is reflected in the student population at Hawaiian-focused KOKL and Nāwahī. Hawaiian students make up about 40 percent of KOKL’s enrollment and 88.5 percent at Nāwahī.
Wherever KOKL’s classes are held, “We want to continue our strong academic program, which is mission-aligned and ‘āina-based,” said Osborne. KOKL offered agriculture, forestry, marine biology, culinary arts programs and other place-based initiatives at its original site, and those programs will resume after the school relocates.
Osborne wants KOKL included in a larger community stabilization plan. “We could really uplift our community if we can do this in a planful, mindful, comprehensive way,” Osborne said. “We’re asking to be on the ground floor of the planning initiative.”
Upswelling of support
With no way to know when the lava flow could cease – a report from the Hawai‘i Volcano Observatory warned the eruption could continue for months, or even years – KOKL will be starting the next school year at two temporary sites as it looks for a new permanent home.
KOKL Principal Kapoula Thompson said enrollment dropped at the end of the last school year but it’s on its way back up. School leaders expect at least 184 K-12 students when school resumes Aug. 6. KOKL’s preschool program serves another 43 students in Nanawale.
Community organizations stepped up to provide classroom space when KOKL had to evacuate. Boys & Girls Club of the Big Island (BGCBI), an Office of Hawaiian Affairs grantee, took in 120 middle and high school students and 25 staff members at the end of the last school year, and will welcome them back this month.
BGCBI comments will replace this Despite the uncertainty and loss, Osborne points out that only the campus is gone – the school still exists. “We’re resilient and flexible and open,” she said. “We’re open and enrolling.”
Once the school year is underway, Osborne will begin looking for a permanent site to house the campus, which she hopes will be part of a larger community redesign. She’s already talking to lawmakers about stabilization plans, which includes fortifying the four pillars of housing, employment, food security and education. “No matter what, the whole aspect of the community rebuild, including the school, is imperative because we don’t know how long this will last.”
KOKL already offers dual-credit high school and college classes, and Osborne is looking at way the school might be incorporated in the state Sen. Russell Ruderman’s proposal for an agricultural park on Hawai‘i Island that would include research and science laboratories, and could serve as a model for the nation. She’s also
KOKL’s elementary school students finished the last school year at New Hope Church in Waiākea Uka, but a new location was needed for the upcoming year. Now KOKL’s 110 elementary students will attend class at Nani Mau Gardens, but the site needs an industrial cleaning and fresh paint – and termite treatment further down the road.
With the school year just around the corner, Osborne is especially grateful to the Rotary Clubs in Pāhoa and Hilo which collectively raised about $60,000 to help the school prepare the Nani Mau Gardens site. The clubs are following up with manpower during the final two weekends of the summer break.
Providing support for Puna
Support for Puna has been strong since the eruption started, but need is building as the lava flow continues to claim homes and other property. More than 700 homes were lost in the first 80 days of the eruption.
The Office of Hawaiian Affairs is working with Neighborhood Place of Puna in Kea‘au to provide disaster relief aid to impacted beneficiaries. In June, OHA’s Board of Trustees approved $250,000 to distribute to qualified ‘ohana, similar to OHA’s response to the Kaua‘i flooding. The non-profit social service agency Neighborhood Place of Puna has become a piko for those displaced by the lava flow, providing information to help them find housing, medical care, food and other resources.
Moving forward, “I’m very prayerful, trying to focus on our community, which is the foundation of our school,” Osborne said. “We need to be sensitive and focused on helping and supporting each other because it’s a really challenging time for all of Puna.”
Leasure-Espinoza started a GoFundMe page to raise funds to help Kua o ka Lā relocate at www.gofundme.com/relocate-school-displaced-by-lava.
The Office of Hawaiian Affairs Kōkua for Puna page has information about disaster relief for beneficiaries impacted by the lava flow. Visit www.oha.org/puna for information and check back for updates.