story by Paul Wood
photos by Olivier Koning
“Our air conditioning is the wind. Our shelter is the trees. Our table is our lap. And we’re fine with that. In this school, you learn to pay attention. You realize that there are a lot of things you don’t need in life.”
Lorena Shire, age 16
Kua O Ka La Charter School
The thin road that streaks through Kïlauea Volcano’s East Rift Zone is cloaked in rain forest, bookended by lava devastation and nearly devoid of human habitation. Here in the shoreline wilderness almost 30 miles southeast of Hilo, you would hardly expect to find a new public school. And even when you do, you can’t be sure at first glance exactly what you’ve found. You find sheds, modified shipping containers painted with brilliant murals, a former shave-ice stand—apparently random structures set on the unpaved earth so as to scarcely disrupt the hot dominion of coconut palms and native trees. The materials might be haphazard but the design is hardly that: The school is laid out like an island village, using the most convenient cast-off structures to be found in a style that is deliberately and enthusiastically Polynesian. It is the natural look for a “Hawaiian-focused” public charter school—that is, a member of the state educational system, but one that operates on values and teaching methods that are decidedly nontraditional and non-Western.
Kua O Ka La is the name of this school in the Puna district, which opened in 2001 and now teaches about
sixty students in grades 6 though 12. This year it launched its elementary school by starting a kindergarten class in a church four miles down the road. But here at the main campus—under a tarp stretched over picnic tables—it’s the beginning of the year, so teens are doing “icebreaker” group theater games, miming simple machines (pencil sharpener, vacuum cleaner) while the other kids hoot and laugh and applaud. Other students are darting off for some rather unusual orientation activities: Red Cross level three training, CPR certification, water safety, tool safety, food safety and instruction in the core values of this and all other Hawaiian-focused charter schools—aloha kekahi i kekahi (love one another), mahalo i ka mea loa‘a (be thankful for what you have), malama i ka kuleana (take care of your responsibilities), kulia i ka nu‘u (strive to reach your highest level) and kokua aku, kokua mai (give help, receive help).
The new students are easy to pick out—they’re stiff and acting cool while the returning students are relaxed and laughing. Faculty and students alike wear shorts, slippers and the occasional backward baseball cap. The style says, Come as you are and expect to get gritty. Activities on any given school day might include planting and fishing, pulling invasive plants out of the forest, woodcarving, lauhala weaving and other endemic practices of the Puna region. On this day after lunch, some of the students are digging out an imu pit and busting up logs for tomorrow’s lu‘au. Others are picking up litter from the surrounding countryside—malama ‘aina, taking care of the land.
“When I first came to this school, I was kind of rotten, kind of punky. If not for this school, I’d probably be in lockup now. But here we’re mostly outdoors. I don’t feel like I’m in a cage. This school helps you focus. This school mellows you out.”
Keli‘i Haunio, age 17
Kua O Ka La Charter School