A School Without Walls: A Partnership With Kealakehe High School

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Photo: Deann Thornton

By Deann Thornton

This past fall, Kealakehe High School (KHS) and the Hawaiʻi Department of Education partnered with Liliʻuokalani Trust (LT) to offer an ʻāina-based Alternative Learning Opportunity (ALO).

Co-taught by a KHS teacher and an LT ʻāina educator, ALO provides KHS students who are not succeeding in traditional classrooms with a unique learning environment in the ahupuaʻa of Keahuolū.

The outdoor learning environments, or “classrooms,” encompass the upland forest, low dryland, and coastal areas where ʻāina drives and facilitates real-world and hands-on learning.

The curriculum developed for the program is project-based and covers both core subjects and electives required for graduation including health and wellness, job readiness, life skills, and community service.

Photo: Students transplanting Pāʻū o Hiʻiaka
Transplanting Pāʻū o Hiʻiaka for dryland forest restoration efforts. – Photos: Courtesy

Math, science, English, and history are woven into cultural and natural resource stewardship projects such as forest restoration, marine and coastal water quality, species monitoring, and out-planting. The intended outcome of the program is for students to successfully graduate and transition into academic and/or professional pursuits after graduation.

Beyond the tangibles of courses, credits, and diplomas, ALO’s goal is to inspire learning and bring forth students’ self-identity, confidence and their inherit talents and creativity. Overall, the objective is for students to become meaningful contributors in West Hawaiʻi communities and re-connect to ʻāina and the value of reciprocity.

In an end-of-year survey, ALO participants reflected on the statement “I feel personally responsible for taking care of this place.”

Photo: Papa Kuʻiʻai workshop
Papa Kuʻiʻai workshop

At the beginning of the school year students, on average, felt the statement was “somewhat like them” but by the end of the year, students, on average, felt the statement was “mostly” or “very much” like them with an average change of 1.2 points on a 5-point scale.

As one student shared, “Before I never really knew the places so if I’m being honest I didn’t really care, but now that I got to know the places more, I gained responsibility and respect.” Another student shared, “I feel like I belong here.”

The first cohort of ALO participants began the program as rising sophomores in fall 2020 and will graduate in spring 2023.

It is imperative, now more than ever, that our kamaliʻi be educated in the ways of Hawaiian culture and become ambassadors and advocates of protecting and preserving our homelands for future generations. ALO may be one way to support this aim while preparing youth for successful futures.


Deann Thornton is from ʻŌlaʻa, Puna, and is the ʻāina educator at Liliʻuokalani Trust. Her interests include working with youth and Native Hawaiian plants. She is a huge advocate for place-based learning and restoration work.