As a parent, Angie Solomon was drawn to Voyager Public Charter School for its strong emphasis on parent engagement and involvement.
When she was researching public schools for her children to attend several years ago, she was sold by the Honolulu school’s welcoming atmosphere during an open house.
“I really got a sense of, ‘This is a partnership between the school and the parent. We want your input, we want to know your thoughts,’” Solomon recalled.
Now, with her older daughter entering the second grade at Voyager and her youngest in kindergarten, that same spirit of parent-and-school collaboration is permeating the school’s reopening plans for the 2020-21 school year, via parent surveys, constant communication and an ongoing flow of information.
“It was a bit overwhelming, the communication, to be honest,” said Solomon, who works with student-parents at University of Hawaii Manoa. “I’m savvy with computers, but it was overwhelming to ensure I got all the emails.”
Close interaction with families is perhaps what sets apart many of Hawaii’s charter schools — which are tuition free and publicly funded but are run by their own governing boards — from their Hawaii Department of Education counterparts, which operate within a more constricted and top-down framework.
The state’s 37 charter schools will serve about 12,000 students statewide in the 2020-21 school year, or roughly 6.7% of the state’s total public school population. While some charters are DOE-conversion schools, many are newer start-ups that are open enrollment but use a lottery if the demand exceeds space.
They have the freedom to explore non-traditional models, including Hawaiian language immersion, a technology focus or even blended or full-virtual modes. That gives them a greater degree of flexibility but also less institutional support.
That autonomy can come with its own occupational hazards during a time of upheaval, not only when it comes to determining a reopening plan but ensuring financial solvency.
“Charters are typically smaller and more intimate than larger, Department of Education district schools,” said Alex Teece, co-founder and chief education officer of DreamHouse Ewa Beach, which opened its doors last school year. “We are working closely with our families with what feels right (on reopening for fall). The decision really remains here at the school level which is a blessing but also a responsibility for us.”
Charter schools receive per pupil funding which, despite ongoing legislative efforts, does not include a separate pot of money for facilities or maintenance. Last school year, per pupil funding was $7,873 but is expected to drop to $7,285 this school year due to a state budget that has been reduced due to COVID-19 economic fallout.
“We have been telling our schools to be very, very judicious in the way they spend money,” said Yvonne Lau, interim executive director of the State Public Charter School Commission, the regulator of charter schools that holds schools’ governing boards accountable to their performance contracts.
Voyager, a K-8 school that enrolls 288 students, will need to dip into reserve funds in the upcoming school year, according to its principal, Evan Anderson.
“We will need to draw from that to accommodate facilities, cost of moving expenses, COVID-related needs and extra staffing,” he said.
Anderson said the school received about $170 per student in CARES Act funds. But its per-pupil allocation is projected to be reduced by $500 or more per student. “So it’s a net loss even after federal funds are taken into consideration,” he said.
Of the $43 million given to Hawaii’s DOE under the CARES Act, $2.07 million was set aside for the charter schools based on enrollment. On the high end, that means about $214,000 for Hawaii Technology Academy down to $7,000 for Ke Ana La’ahana, a Hawaiian-focused charter school.
Susie Osborne, development director and former head of school at Kua o Ka La Charter School on the Big Island, a Hawaiian-focused charter school, said most of the CARES Act money will likely be dedicated to enhanced safety measures.
The school is receiving $40,500 in federal funds, but it won’t “cover the plethora of needs,” Osborne said.
“We’ve never had (financial) support for health aides, that’s always been a gap for the charters,” she said.
Voyager’s school reopening model has K-2 students back on campus daily for instruction while grades 3-8 will be on a blended model that includes two days of on-campus instruction as well as distance learning, according to a letter sent to parents Friday.
Due to the need for extra classroom space to spread students out, the school will be expanding its physical footprint for upper level students to Our Redeemer Lutheran Church.
“They’ve given us a good deal, at much reduced cost,” Anderson said.
With tens of thousands of public school students returning to school on Aug. 4, the 257 DOE schools have announced their school reopening plans, a mix of in-person instruction, distance learning or a hybrid of the two, that follows broader DOE requirements like prioritizing in-person instruction for high-needs and younger students.
The state’s charter schools are leaning on the DOE’s suggested instructional models for the fall. Many are still in the process of finalizing their plans, which the charter school commission will post to its website once ready.
“We don’t approve (the plans), but we definitely need to know what they’re doing so the public knows and so we in fact know they’re having school,” said Lau.
When the coronavirus forced the closure of school buildings back in March, the commission agreed to have the DOE coordinate the pandemic response for all of its schools as well. That meant charters followed the same protocols when it came to school closures, including timelines, personnel allowed to enter campuses and staff telework arrangements during the final portion of last school year.
Lau is regularly part of DOE and state Department of Health meetings regarding health and safety protocols for the coming school year and charter school teachers are also members of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, which has fought back against DOE guidance that 3-feet distancing between desks is adequate when students are all facing forward.
So, even though charter schools’ reopening plans require approval from individual governing boards, to some degree, there is still reliance on DOE. The commission is advising charter schools to closely follow state DOH and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, and to utilize DOE guidance.
For Teece, of DreamHouse Ewa Beach, safety is paramount. The school opened last year with 99 sixth graders and is adding a seventh grade this year, on top of welcoming 93 new sixth graders this fall.
Founded upon principles like leadership development and place-based learning, the school quickly stitched together a distance learning plan by April. It’s scheduled to move into a gleaming new site in Kapolei for the 2020-21 school year, a stroke of unfortunate timing with the pandemic.
It’s a building where “bathrooms have never been used, lights have never been turned on, seats never been sat on,” said Teece.
“Obviously, we have a brand new, beautiful building waiting for us, but I do feel our team, our families, will go with whatever route is safest,” he said.
Marinda Okelberry-Harmer’s younger son was in DreamHouse’s entering class and is now a rising seventh grader, while her older son attends Kapolei High. She’s been able to compare both schools’ responses and adjustments to the pandemic.
“I really haven’t heard enough from Kapolei High administration to my liking,” she said. “I’d like to have a more solid plan in place. I feel they’re waiting on word from DOE.”
“My feeling about DreamHouse is they have a plan in place, and are going to see how it goes over the next two weeks. I feel it will be more seamless with DreamHouse in the event DOE decides we’ll need to be homeschooling,” she added.
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