As lava from the Kilauea Volcano continues its approach toward Pahoa, schools in the rural community are preparing for the worst.

For two public Department of Education and charter schools, that could mean total devastation. The latest volcanic activity started in late June and threatens to divide Pahoa in half. The flow has slowed down — on Tuesday it had advanced just 120 yards since the day before — but it’s still expected to eventually cross over Highway 130.

Schools that sit in the lava flow’s path include the DOE’s Keonepoko Elementary and Hawaii Academy of Arts and Science, a charter school, while access to several additional schools could also be compromised. This would be the first time lava damaged Hawaii’s public schools. 

But while the DOE already has a contingency plan in place for Keonepoko — a $9 million alternative campus with modular buildings on Keaau High’s parking lot that’s slated to serve as many as 500 people — the charter school appears to have little recourse. Unlike DOE schools, charter schools don’t have access to repair and maintenance funding, which is what the state is currently using for Keonepoko’s alternative campus. 

Puna Lava Flow

The June 27 lava flow inches toward Kaohe Homesteads subdivision, a portion of which is seen at bottom right in this Sept. 3 photo.

Tim Orr/USGS

A group of students at Hawaii Academy of Arts and Science, or HAAS, is so worried about the school’s fate that it created a fundraising campaign, “Hope for HAAS,” last week to try and keep it afloat. 

“I know I wouldn’t want to go anywhere else,” a 10th-grade student, Stella Javier, says in a video on the campaign’s website. “I choose to be here simply because I love it here, everything about it … I have hope for my school, and I hope that you do, too.”

The state doesn’t have any contingency funds in place for charter schools, according to Justin Fujioka, a spokesman for Gov. Neil Abercrombie, whose administration is currently working with the Charter School Commission “to find alternative solutions.” It would be up to the Legislature to appropriate emergency funding, he said.

Meanwhile, as families continue to move out of the area and transfer their children to schools in neighboring districts such as Hilo, Pahoa-area schools are experiencing unanticipated declines in enrollment — meaning much less per-pupil funding than they had expected earlier this year. 

Public schools statewide, DOE and chartered, have to report their student counts Oct. 15. That number largely determines how much funding each school will get for the school year. Charter schools receive about $6,200 per student from the state, according to Tom Hutton, executive director of the Charter School Commission. 

The ongoing relocation of families could also mean that the money many schools get according to the Oct. 15 counts wouldn’t necessarily reflect their funding needs, whether they have more students than reported that date or fewer of them. 

Roughly 70 students have transferred out of DOE schools in the Pahoa area to places in nearby areas such as Hilo, according to department spokeswoman Donalyn Dela Cruz. Charter school administrators say they’ve lost dozens more.

HAAS’s enrollment as of Tuesday stands at 564, 81 fewer students than it had projected based on earlier trends, according to Steve Hirakami, the school’s director. The K-12 school’s enrollment has grown steadily over the years, increasing by roughly 100 students between 2011 and 2013, when it served some 640 kids. 

The school has actually grown in enrollment since the start of the school year — it has a waiting list for elementary grades — but the student population is still under the projected count. Students, particularly older ones, have been leaving HAAS since classes started up this year in early August. Some didn’t show up at all.

Kua O Ka La, a Hawaiian-focused charter school in Pahoa that sits on the eastern-most tip of the Big Island, has also experienced a precipitous decline in enrollment, according to Susie Osborne, the school’s head. 

The K-12 school currently enrolls 220 students — 100 fewer students than Osborne had projected for the year. Osborne fears she will have to lay off many of her 30 or so employees, though she’s hoping to receive stabilization funds to offset the reduction in enrollment.

In Kua O Ka La’s case, however, it was Hurricane Iselle that prompted the exodus, Osborne said. The hurricane, which pummeled the Pahoa area just days after the school year started, forced the school to close for two weeks  and devastated much of the campus. The school had to repair the damage using its own operational funds. 

Hurricane Iselle knocked Albiza trees fall into this house in the Puna District on Hawaii Island.

Albizia trees were largely to blame for much of the damage caused by Tropical Storm Iselle on the Big Island.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

“It’s so disheartening,” Osborne said, adding that the school was in the direct path of Iselle. “We took a really big hit … Now that this lava thing comes, everyone reacts based on what they just experienced — they won’t have power, won’t have water, won’t have a home.”

Hutton, who’s discussing contingency plans with the governor’s office, said one short-term solution for the charter schools would be for the state to base funding levels on enrollment counts from the start of the school year versus Oct. 15. 

“The enrollment adjustment would mean taking our existing pie and making sure it’s sliced in a way that no school gets tripped up from the existing numbers,” he said. “It’s not going to be some sort of permanent funding to make up for (the loss of their student populations) but the idea is that we can avoid some sort of precipitous crash.”

‘It’s Just Too Much for Families’

HAAS, which sits right along the highway, would be the first school hit by the flow if it continues as currently projected. Keonepoko also stands directly on that track, though it’s a 5-minute drive closer to the ocean

Hirakami attributes the school’s enrollment drop to both the impending lava flow and Iselle. Indirect repercussions of the volcanic activity — namely the poor air quality — are also factors, he said. 

Iselle “severely impacted the kids coming to school, and then right around the time that things were getting back to normal … (in late August) the lava reappeared and started moving real fast to Pahoa,” Hirakami said. “Ever since then it’s been panic city here.”

“With this bearing down, it’s just too much for families.”

The threat of lava — on top of the damage from Iselle — is what clinched the decision of Netalia Rybakov to move out of the area and transfer her child out of HAAS. Rybakov’s 14-year-old daughter Jessica was at HAAS for a month and a half before leaving the school and moving with her mother to Florida. The two lived just west of the highway in the lava flow’s path in a home they had been renting for just a few months. 

DRY CLOTHES Clothes are still hanging on the line at a house damaged by Hurricane Iselle in the Puna District of Hawaii Island.

Clothes hanging on the line at a house damaged by Hurricane Iselle in Puna.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Angie Oliver said she just transferred her 17-year-old son Johannes, a senior, from HAAS to Keaau High to ensure he could complete the credits he needs to graduate on time. 

“We don’t want to wait until the last minute, because (the lava is) going to affect a lot of people, and we want to make sure he got a spot there (at Keaau),” Oliver said. Johannes had been at HAAS since middle school and has no friends at Keaau. 

“It’s just sad,” Oliver said. “But we really need him to graduate.”

Scott Jennings, who owns a home inspection company in Hilo, for his part said he’s noticed a lot of people moving from the at-risk areas and buying homes in safer areas such as Hawaiian Paradise Park. 

To try and resuscitate its enrollment — and offer schooling alternatives for kids who’ve withdrawn from neighboring schools — HAAS is developing a new program in which students can take classes on their computers from home or satellite campuses. At least 20 families in the area have already registered their children in the program, according to Eric Johnson, a language arts teacher at HAAS. 

For now, both the DOE and charter schools in Pahoa are operating much as they would normally. Students are on fall break this week, but they’ll resume classes Monday, assuming the lava flow remains relatively stalled as it has in recent weeks. 

The alternative site for Keonepoko Elemenatary is expected to be completed by the end of this month, according to Dela Cruz, who said the DOE hopes to get reimbursed for the $9 million in repair and maintenance money that it spent on the new campus.  

Schools in the Pahoa area serve more than 3,000 students.

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