A century of planting seeds

HILO — When Frances Sherrard was principal at Chiefess Kapiolani Elementary School, she led each grade-level to plant a tree outside the school building.

“I saw (the students) perspiring in the hot sun,” explained Sherrard on Friday, who was Kapiolani’s principal from 1965 to 1978 and also is a former student. “It was too hot. There was no shade at all for them to cool off. So I decided (the trees) would give us a nice background.”

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Decades later, those sprawling — and now much-taller trees — still stand at the elementary school today. This school year, Kapiolani is celebrating its 100th anniversary.

Sherrard is one of at least 11 current and former Kapiolani principals. She joined hundreds of students, teachers, alumni and former staff on Sunday for Kapiolani’s centennial celebration luncheon at Aunty Sally’s Luau Hale in Hilo.

The luncheon included remarks by Mayor Harry Kim, and East Hawaii state Reps. Mark Nakashima, Richard Onishi and Chris Todd. It also included a showing of a centennial video created by students.

Many former students in attendance spent the luncheon swapping stories and sharing memories.

“It was a fun school, and we really felt like family here,” said alumna Cheryl Nakagawa, 65, who reunited at the luncheon with former classmate Sandra (Shindo) Deleon, 65. “There was a closeness amongst us.”

“I think that’s why today we’re still together,” Deleon added. “My kindergarten friends are still my friends … It’s great to have this community where we stay together and we all know where everybody came from. If you went to Kapiolani you still have those Kapiolani friends. It’s unique.”

Kapiolani opened in 1917 as the Piopio School, according to research compiled by teachers Jackie Kubo Luna and Jonette Fujitake.

It is believed to have initially operated inside a Japanese language school building in the basement of a Buddhist temple. There were reportedly 144 students enrolled that first year and the school served primarily families in plantation camps, house lots and homesteads in the area.

According to the research, Kapiolani moved to its present Kilauea Avenue site in 1921. The school was eventually renamed after Chiefess Kapiolani, upon suggestion of its principal at the time, FM Wakefield. Chiefess Kapiolani was said to have been a strong advocate of education and is believed to have been born on or near the school grounds.

Portable buildings at one point lined the campus and were used for after-school programs, adult education and citizenship classes, Kubo Luna said. During World War II, those portables became barracks and were used as a location to show movies.

Enrollment over the years has fluctuated as high as 700 students. Current enrollment stands about 370 students.

Current fourth grader Maya Enos, 9, said on Sunday she enjoys attending Kapiolani because “it’s a nice school with nice people” and she thinks “it’s really cool Kapiolani is turning 100 because I’ve never seen a school turn that old before.” Maya’s mom, Sacha Enos, said the family enjoys Kapiolani’s “small school” and “family-oriented” environment.

“It really feels like family here,” Sacha Enos said. “We love it.”

Nakagawa and Deleon say they fondly remember decorating for May Day, playing beanbag and kickball and walking home after school each day. They also noted how things have changed: Back when they were students, students had rotating cafeteria duties, lunch cost just 25 cents and milk was served from bottles rather than cartons, they recalled.

However, some elements of the past remain in various ways. For example, during her time as principal several decades ago, Sherrard said she’d work to help each child develop their individual identity and learn more than strictly academics.

“The main purpose was development of the person,” Sherrard said. “Everyone is different and they learn differently and they develop differently depending on many factors.”

And current Principal Gregg Yonemori said that concept — developing the “whole child” — remains a current goal at Kapiolani.

“Our focus isn’t purely academics our focus is the whole child,” Yonemori said. “It’s academics, social, emotional, physical and just wellness in general. So as we are moving forward we are consciously looking at those different areas.”

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“Kapiolani is the best school to be at and that’s our theme,” added Kubo Luna, who said she began teaching at the elementary school 13 years ago. “With the students, it’s amazing all the hugs in the morning and everyone helping each other out. It always has been and still is the place to be.”

Email Kirsten Johnson at kjohnson@hawaiitribune-herald.com.