For some school leaders, back to school means fulfilling the dream to better educate underserved kids.

Recently, I had the opportunity to catch up with Steve Hirakami, the founding leader of the Hawaii Academy of Arts and Sciences, a public charter school in Pahoa in Hawaii County, to see how his school year was starting out. Since students returned from the summer, Steve has had to arrange with a temporary food vendor to supply school lunches, and his staff has to travel 60 miles round trip to Hilo twice each day to bring in meals for students because he believes healthy minds function better with healthy bodies.

He’s been doing this all month to fill in a staffing gap in the school’s food service department. He finds time to feed the students while continuing to run the day-to-day school and preparing for the school’s annual audit.

To run a school with nearly 700 students, Steve shifts into a variety of roles in order to keep everything in gear.

In addition to all his leadership responsibilities, he meets with prospective families interested in a public charter school education. He is a financial planner and project manager, overseeing construction and renovation that transformed an abandoned macadamia nut farm into a beautiful campus setting with new buildings. It’s financed through charter school financing institutions.

Steve Hirakami of the the Hawaii Academy of Arts and Sciences in Pahoa is an “everyday charter school hero,” says the author. Courtesy

Steve also fills in from time to time as a school van driver, maintenance and office worker, disposing trash or making an office supply run as needed. He believes that it takes a team to run the school, and he is willing to take different roles depending upon what’s needed at that moment.

Pahoa is a community with one of the highest poverty rates in the state and has a smaller pool of qualified employees than most places, giving HAAS the designation of being “Hard-to-Staff.” With this designation, HAAS must also pay teacher incentives as required by a master contract negotiated between the governor, the Department of Education and the Hawaii State Teachers Association for all state-employed teachers.

However, not all costs for required bonus pay are accounted for and funded in the state’s budget for charter schools, or even DOE schools, for that matter.

The difference is that charters must stretch a dollar a lot further to meet the educational needs of kids, pay for facilities acquisition, maintenance and repairs, staffing costs; and, as needed especially in many rural areas with high poverty, provide school meals and transportation for students.

This year, Hawaii charter schools like HAAS must stretch $7,323.66 per student. The money is primarily intended for instruction but is stretched to meet other needs.

Steve started in education a substitute public school teacher in a school with low attendance, high dropout rates and chronic student discipline challenges. But he knew that there was a better way to educate students and envisioned a community public school that provides a quality, holistic approach to nurture and celebrate the contributions of its students.

A Difficult Task

It was not an easy undertaking. After receiving its charter in 2001, HAAS started out in tents and temporary structures on the former farm, serving grades 7-12 with a little more than 100 students. 

Today, HAAS has expanded to two campuses providing instruction to nearly 700 students from kindergarten through 12th grade. HAAS continues to grow academically as well as demographically with increased test scores on the Smarter Balanced and ACT assessments. Students are provided STEAM-based (science technology engineering arts/agriculture and math) instruction in a project-based environment.

Come to HAAS’ campus on any given day and you will find students engaged in variety of projects from learning about wood-carving and the construction of a life-sized carousel to the cultivating and marketing of agricultural products while being engaged by community mentors. Every other Friday students participate in a community service project in giving back to Pahoa.

To learn more about HAAS’ student service days, visit our website featuring the innovative practices of Hawaii’s charter schools.

Let’s commit to raising up all schools.

Steve is now a veteran among Hawaii’s charter school leaders. Over the years, he has worked within a changing education system, to create the school he envisioned about a generation ago.

Steve can now see the fruits of strategic planning and hard labor. But the road to long-term sustainability with very limited resources, razor-thin budgets and no dedicated source for facilities has him reaching out to fellow charter school leaders to raise the tide for all public schools across the state.

Like many school leaders who craved the autonomy of a charter school and wanted to use that freedom to implement methods that would fit their students, Steve recognized the need of the demographic community and saw the “one-size-fits-all” wasn’t working for kids. He’s committed to do things differently to reach more.

Steve also learned that with independence comes greater responsibility to innovate while stretching dollars much further than most imaginations allow. He gives back by being a beacon and shedding light on long-standing resource gaps that still need fixing. 

Let’s commit to raising up all schools and not diminish the light of what several dedicated and hard-working leaders in our community accomplish to provide free, high-quality and holistic education choices for students every day. Let’s give charter school leaders and the students they stand up for the support they truly deserve.

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