The differences stand out.
One is a high school, the other a middle school.
One was established more than 70 years ago, the other only four years ago.
One’s student body is nearly one-quarter Micronesian, with a large English language learner population and 60 percent of students who qualify for free or reduced-cost lunch. The other’s is a blend of races and ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds.
Yet, for all their surface differences, Kaimuki High School and The School for Examining Questions of Sustainability — or SEEQS — share a lot in common.
Bold leaders. Emphasis on project-based learning. A presence in the local community.
And starting this school year, the same address.
“It’s a pretty good fit,” Kaimuki Principal Wade Araki told a cafeteria packed with SEEQS parents during an information session last week.
Starting this year, the charter school, which takes a project-based learning approach to real-world contexts, is occupying six classrooms on the 33-acre Kaimuki High campus, including half the cafeteria, a portable classroom divided into two and use of a massive field for outdoor activities and physical ed.
The no-cost residency reflects as much a spirit of cooperation between school leaders and state education administrators as it highlights a real struggle for Hawaii’s charter schools — which are funded by the state but autonomous from the Hawaii Department of Education — to find affordable facilities to house students.
Faced with an expiring lease last year at its old Salvation Army-owned site in Kaimuki, SEEQS was forced to seek out a new home for the current school year. Unlike DOE schools, Hawaii’s charters must find and fund their own facilities.
“We made it work (at the old location),” says SEEQS’ principal, Buffy Cushman-Patz, “but finding a site in Honolulu is very difficult.”
Clarification: A previous version of this story mischaracterized the extent of space available at SEEQS’ old location.
Cushman-Patz scrambled to find a new facility to house her 180 middle schoolers. She approached Araki last December with the proposal to use part of his high school’s campus. He initially declined.
But by April, when SEEQS was struggling to find a new space, he relented.
“With desperation, comes collaboration at times,” Araki said.
SEEQS, which last year shelled out nearly $150,000 in rent from its $1 million budget, is now rent-free, thanks to the new arrangement. While other charter schools lease space at reduced costs from other state agencies, or already occupy a DOE facility as a conversion charter, this is the first co-existing partnership of its kind between a startup charter school and existing DOE school.
Given the extent of underutilized classroom space at DOE schools, “it might be extremely cheaper and cost-beneficial to the state to have a charter school in the facility,” said Sione Thompson, executive director of the Hawaii State Public Charter School Commission.
It didn’t hurt that SEEQS was willing to transport two of its tent-covered classrooms onto Kaimuki High School’s grounds and also bring its own picnic tables, where students eat lunch.
“What’s it feel like? It’s exciting. It’s super exciting. It’s a huge relief,” said Cushman-Patz, on SEEQS’ first day of classes Thursday.
Hawaii’s charter schools last year received roughly $7,089 in per-pupil-funding. Unlike DOE schools, the charters, which are still public schools and free of cost, must pay for their own space and utilities. (In comparison, DOE schools receive about $12,000 in per-pupil-funding, though the exact figure varies based on a weighted student formula.)
Charter schools must rely heavily on fundraising and think up with ways to occupy space that won’t sink their budget.
SEEQS’ contract with the DOE to occupy part of Kaimuki High is on a year-to-year basis with chance of renewal.
SEEQS had looked at 37 sites before finding its old 5,000-square-foot Salvation Army-owned space. The high cost of renting space has delayed the school from fulfilling its original charter of serving both middle school and high school students, although Cushman-Patz says she hopes this year’s arrangement will enable the school to begin adding a high school grade level in increments.
Hawaii’s 36 charter schools — which serve more than 10,000 students in the state — spent a cumulative $5.4 million in facilities funding last school year, according to the charter school commission.
“It’s an ongoing struggle for all the charter schools. We’re always scrambling for space. It’s a perpetual inequity, frankly,” Cushman-Patz said. “At minimum, we need to have facilities funding provided.”
Lawmakers in the past have pushed for legislation providing facilities funding for charter schools to no avail but may explore such options this coming legislative session, according to Thompson.
Other states offer a per-pupil funding allowance or charter school facility grant program, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
SEEQS’ co-habitancy with Kaimuki High is a bit of an experiment. Araki — who as school principal has the authority to decide whether or not to share his campus —acknowledged as much at the SEEQS’ parents’ information night.
“It’s kind of a gutsy move,” he said, to some laughter. “Not too many high school principals can do this. We can look really good, or we can look really bad.”
Araki, however, has a reputation as an administrator willing to think outside the box.
He moved back his school’s start time by an hour in 2015 to offer his students more sleep in hopes of improving academic performance and health.
When it comes to the new dual-student arrangement, he assured SEEQS’ parents that his high school kids “might look tough,” but “are really nice.”
“They have really big hearts. They are really nice when you get to know them,” he said.
Little interaction is expected between the two sets of students. SEEQS has a separate entrance to use for parents and school bus drop-offs. Aside from a split cafeteria, there is little opportunity to cross paths — although SEEQS’ students have been encouraged to try out for Kaimuki High’s band and color guard team.
Kaimuki High, whose campus boasts an Olympic-sized swimming pool, an 800-seat auditorium and recording studio that makes it resemble more of a mini college campus than high school, has faced declining student enrollment in recent years.
At its peak, more than 10 years ago, it enrolled more than 1,200 students. Today, that’s dwindled to about 720, a result of a changing population in Kaimuki, which has experienced a rise in property values in recent years.
Kaimuki High’s academies, which offer smaller, more personalized learning environments specializing in such topics as entertainment, hospitality and science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, curriculum, are similar to SEEQS’ own philosophy of using project-based learning to teach sustainability and community engagement.
Cushman-Patz, who taught summer school algebra at Kaimuki High when she first started out as an educator more than a decade ago, recognizes that despite the schools’ differences, they actually share a lot of common approaches.
“My hope by being here is that we can help bring some attention to their program,” she said. “They’re doing some great stuff.”
The question is whether this kind of co-habitancy will be replicated down the road between new charter schools and existing DOE schools.
“There are many charter schools that are continuing to negotiate their current lease,” Thompson said. “The difficulty is how they’re going to financially sustain that model when the big percentage of dollars is going to pay for a brick and mortar that should be going to the pupil.”
“It’s a per pupil allocation, not a per ‘brick and mortar’ allocation,” he added. “The less money to the student, the more it hurts your program.”
On the first day of the new school year last week, SEEQS’ student Sydnee Lum said the transition to a new campus at Kaimuki High felt “kind of weird” since she was accustomed to the old space.
But there were no complaints from the eighth-grader. “They’re making it really comfortable,” she said.