PUNA — Nearly nine months after lava inundated Kua O Ka La New Century Public Charter School’s Puna campus, classes continue elsewhere and school officials are looking toward the future.
The school originally sat on 600 acres along the Puna coast but relocated to Hilo after lava from Kilauea volcano’s lower East Rift Zone eruption, which began May 3, 2018, in Leilani Estates and continued through early September, destroyed the campus in July.
Head of School Susie Osborne said the land was “one of the most intact ancient Hawaiian fishing villages” that remained and had 40 acres of archaeological sites, lowland rain forest and fish ponds.
It was a “wondrous learning lab for the children, especially our mission and vision as a Hawaiian-focused charter school and doing placed-based education.”
Last summer’s loss was significant, she said.
This year, Kua O Ka La’s preschool continued in its existing location at Puula United Church of Christ in Nanawale, but classes for grades K-6 are housed at Nani Mau Gardens, while those for grades 7-12 are being conducted at the Boys and Girls Club of the Big Island.
“I went crazy nuts all over looking for a place and could not find anything,” Osborne said about the search for a new location.
She remembered another charter school was located at Nani Mau years ago, and began making calls.
Osborne said the school had a prior relationship with the Boys and Girls Club, but it was just two weeks before school started this year that it secured the lease at Nani Mau and began renovating the space with the support of five East Hawaii Rotary clubs — Hilo, Hilo Bay, South Hilo, Pahoa Sunset and Volcano — as well as other volunteers.
The Nani Mau location, though, is just a temporary home.
“We have this for five years, but we’ve got to have one foot in the future and looking at how we’ll rebuild when there’s no money for facilities for charter schools,” Osborne said. “So now we have to look forward and we have to find a place, but we’ve got to think about how we’re going to do that and how we’re going to raise the money, how we’re going to build it and what that vision is going to look like, which we want to include all of our community partners and players and do something.
“My thinking is, if we got to do it again, I want to do something that’s like a model for the rest of the world and do something amazing.”
Although the school has the Nani Mau location for five years, Osborne thinks that time frame will be needed “since we don’t have any money to build another campus.”
The school’s next steps would be “strengthening our community partnerships,” and looking for and securing a site for a permanent campus.
Osborne said school leaders are in the process of finding a permanent location and raising the necessary funds. A total amount needed depends on what they are able to find.
Additionally, the school won’t have space at the Boys and Girls Club next year.
Instead, students in grades K-8 will be located at Nani Mau, and the high school will transition to a hybrid online program based at the Kalapana Maunakea Congregational Church in Nanawale, “ensuring that our mission as a Hawaiian-focus charter school is intact,” Osborne said.
“If they’re just straight online (classes), you give them the computer, they go,” she said. “This way they have support systems in place, projects available, field trips available, a whole support network available to them.”
That means students can go into a classroom — or not.
“We have a space, we have teachers available, but they don’t have to and they’ve got their computers and they can do (classes) from home,” Osborne said.
Students and staff continue to recover from the eruption.
“I think, given the difficulties that we’re having to kind of live and breathe through, we anticipate some challenges, but for the most part, I think it’s going really well,” Principal Kapoula Thompson said about the current school year. “I think the kids are super resilient. I think them adjusting to just kind of the curve balls that have happened within their lives, they’ve been really resilient.”
Osborne, who also lost her home in the eruption, said a large percentage of students and staff lost their homes or were displaced because of last year’s volcanic activity.
“It has been really challenging for the staff because they’re going through all their personal, emotional stuff and then like Kapoula said, the kids are really resilient, but they all miss their home campus,” she said.
Initially, trauma and trauma mitigation was the biggest challenge for everyone, said Vice Principal Denim Cretton.
“Now we’re to the point where we’re past the trauma mitigation and we’re to academic achievement and success,” he said. “Taking care of the basic needs was really key right at the very beginning. I thought that was the biggest part of the whole thing.”
Osborne said counselors worked with students, Pacific Quest provided different support services and there were a number of community donations at the start of the school year to help mitigate the trauma.
But despite the challenges of the past year, “I think that we’re not only surviving, but thriving,” Osborne said.
Kua O Ka La is currently enrolling for the 2019-20 school year. More information can be found online at kuaokala.org.