Work progressing on WHEA campus

Twenty years ago, West Hawaii Explorations Academy opened its doors, offering project-based learning to West Hawaii students out of a temporary facility near Keahole Point.

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Twenty years ago, West Hawaii Explorations Academy opened its doors, offering project-based learning to West Hawaii students out of a temporary facility near Keahole Point.

On Thursday, crews began pouring the foundation of a permanent facility for the public charter school.

The new campus, located south and makai of the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority’s Gateway Center, will open to high school students in August and middle school students in October, despite delays which arose when securing a loan for the project, Curtis Muraoka, the school’s co-director, and Ken Melrose, who is managing the project, told West Hawaii Today. Construction was expected to get started in August 2013 but was delayed until Dec. 5.

Delay or not, the school and contractor Quality Builders of Waimea, and its subcontractors, will complete the project in about 7.5 months versus the 11 months it was expected to take to ensure classrooms are ready to welcome pupils and celebrate the school’s 20th anniversary this year, Melrose and Muraoka said.

Melrose said the contractor and subcontractors have “agreed to apply every effort to complete the high school in July and middle school in October.

“It feels really great that everyone is behind this project. It’s really a community effort,” said Muraoka, who has been with WHEA for about 17 years. “And, not to be cliche, but it feels really ‘ohana-ish’ that everyone is behind this.”

More than a dozen workers were at the 4.7-acre site, which will place the school outside both the tsunami evacuation zone and Kona International Airport’s flight path, Thursday pouring the first concrete foundation for what will become a flexible four classroom building. The $3.7 million first phase, which is fully funded and got underway Dec. 5, also includes an outdoor amphitheater, a science, technology, engineering and math building, a building for science and computer labs, restrooms and a 20,000-gallon shark and reef tank.

“We will be the only school in the world with a shark tank,” he said, noting the tank will be an important basis for the school’s project-based learning approach.

The work follows approximately $1.9 million in site work completed by Isemoto Contracting in August and funded via $1.5 million in state capital improvement project funds and funds raised by the school. The first phase, with walls expected to take shape next week, is funded via a U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development loan of up to $5.5 million and funds raised by the school, which total $1.7 million.

The campus, at full build-out, which is expected to be heavily phased and cost $8.5 million, will include an administration building, nine classrooms, outdoor amphitheater, labs, multipurpose room, kitchen and eating area, outdoor covered space, courts and an individual waste water system. It will also be built to meet LEED Silver certification, but actual certification will not be sought for financial reasons, said Melrose.

“I always felt that it was (going to happen that WHEA would get a permanent campus),” Muraoka said about the permanent locale coming to fruition. “It was the original idea to start the school, drive the curriculum and figure out what works and then build the school. This is the way schools should work.”

If relocated in 2014, the momentous occasion will coincide with the 20th anniversary of the now-public charter school opening its doors to West Hawaii pupils at its site near Keahole Point. That would mean students who are juniors during the 2013-14 academic year will be the first students to graduate from the new campus.

WHEA opened to students in grades six through 12 in 1993, operating out of a temporary facility that it still occupies today. That first year, 53 students studied at WHEA. Today, 235 students occupy the 1.7-acre facility. Muraoka estimated the school, which became a public charter school in 2000, has graduated 400 students over the years.

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As construction continues on the first phase, WHEA is seeking sponsorship and donations from companies and the community, Melrose and Muraoka said.

Companies looking to secure naming opportunities for a building can call Muraoka at 327-4751 or email wheapcs@gmail.com. To make a tax-deductible donation, via the Explorations Foundation, contact Muraoka at the phone number or email listed above.

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