An Oahu charter school more than doubled its student enrollment between the start of the school year and October by offering an unauthorized distance learning option to students that would have meant an extra $1.4 million in funding this year.

On Monday, the Hawaii State Public Charter School Commission unanimously voted to strike 183 kids participating in Kamalani Academy’s virtual program from the official rolls, saying the school did not get clearance to amend its charter to offer a new online program this year.

“It wasn’t about accommodating their existing students with distance learning. It was their implementation of a new program that was the problem,” said Yvonne Lau, interim director of the commission.

Kamalani Academy opened in Wahiawa in the 2017-18 school year. Its charter was based on a vision to provide schooling that integrated arts and Hawaiian culture. April Estrellon/Civil Beat/2017

In late October, the commission issued a Notice of Concern to Kamalani flagging the irregularity and saying it was enrolling students “in an unauthorized virtual learning program for school year 2021-22.”

The commission argued that Kamalani did not apply for a change in its charter, or contract, to use this virtual program, the Utah-based Harmony Educational Services. That would have required submitting many more details on the construction of the program, and whether it offers instruction by Hawaii-licensed teachers.

“The bottom line is we have a contract with all of our schools and it’s very specific — if they want to start a blended or virtual program, they have to apply for a change in contract, which Kamalani did not do,” said John Kim, commission chair.

The episode has played out at a precarious time for public schools, which were forced to adapt to a constantly changing environment in the Covid-19 era. It also strikes a cautionary note for charter schools, which are public taxpayer-funded schools, about checking off all the boxes with the authority that monitors the schools’ compliance with state and federal academic and financial standards.

When the school year started in early August, the delta variant was causing Covid cases and hospitalizations to surge in Hawaii. Though the state Department of Education emphasized a return to full in-person instruction, many families preferred to keep their children out of the classroom due to health concerns. Distance options through the DOE, however, were limited.

Kamalani, a K-8 school housed in the building that was formerly Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic School, opened in the 2017-18 school year under a charter that promised an arts-focused curriculum integrating Hawaiian culture.

Its historical enrollment high was 311 kids in 2017. That dropped to 178 kids in the 2020-21 school year, then to 166 students as of Aug. 16, when an official enrollment count was taken of all charter schools in the state.

But by Oct. 15 — the enrollment date determining the actual funding that charter schools get this year — Kamalani’s student count had risen 102% to 335.

The school principal, Amanda Fung, said Wednesday that the boost was “very surprising” but not pre-planned.

“That was not the intention, to gain enrollment,” she said. “We’ve had increases before, not to this magnitude, but any time you have an increase in enrollment, it is a surprise. But again, that’s just what it was.”

Fung did not pre-clear Harmony with the commission since she was relying on temporary guidance from May that allowed charters some flexibility in moving between in-person and virtual models due to the global health pandemic.

But according to commission staff, that May guidance did not say schools were allowed to start a new virtual program. Most of the state’s 37 charters are in a brick-and-mortar setting, except a few that are fully virtual, like Hawaii Technology Academy, or blended, like Hawaii Academy of Arts & Sciences in Pahoa on Hawaii island.

Finding An Online Program

The online program Kamalani is using this year is the Utah-based Harmony Educational Services, which caters to students in Arkansas, Hawaii, Idaho, Tennessee and Utah.

A curriculum provider, Harmony charges $3,400 per student. With roughly 160 students enrolled in Harmony, that came at a cost to Kamalani of roughly $600,000, Fung said.

Kamalani’s staff is not directly involved in any of the online instruction although Fung said three of her teachers offer direct support to kids when needed.

But under Hawaii law, public school instructors must be licensed with the Hawaii Teacher Standards Board while federal law requires all teachers to be licensed in the subject area they’re assigned, or else the school must provide notice to families.

Reached by email, Harmony President John Thorn said his company employs two Hawaii-based licensed teachers and one Hawaii substitute teacher who check in with families and monitor students’ progress.

He said Harmony’s program aligns with Hawaii state and Common Core standards and is similar in content to other virtual programs used by the DOE.

Back in 2018, Kamalani was the subject of Civil Beat’s in-depth look at the growing pains of a new charter school. Its current contract runs from 2017 through 2023.

Recently, Kamalani was the recipient of a $675,000 federal Native Hawaiian education program grant to boost literacy needs, improve professional development for teachers and prop up a community learning center.

Fung defended the largely hands-off arrangement through Harmony as equivalent to the DOE’s own asynchronous statewide distance learning program for DOE families it uses called K12/Stride Learning Solutions.

Board of Education Charter School Board Chair John Kim.
Hawaii State Public Charter School Commission Chair John Kim said Kamalani was “not authorized to start a virtual program.” Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Kim, the commission chair, said from what he knew so far about the program, Harmony would not have been approved as an appropriate offering. He also said the members couldn’t overlook the fact that up to 97 of the new virtual students were previously home-schooled.

“We, the commission, are supposed to prevent public funds from going to support home-schooling parents,” he said. “I am 100% certain that whatever action we took was in keeping with our fiduciary responsibilities to the state.”

For the 2021-22 school year, the state’s 37 charter schools were allocated a lump sum in per pupil funding of $95.8 million. Last year, per pupil funding for charters was $7,872.

The Oct. 15 enrollment count showed a total charter school enrollment in Hawaii of 12,234, a less than 1% increase from the prior year. While most of the 37 schools showed no change or a slight decrease from the August count, only three schools showed a bump of more than 5%: Kamalani was one of them, going from 166 to 335 students, a 102% rise.

The other two schools were Alakai O Kauai Public Charter School, which also offered Harmony, and Kanu O Ka Aina New Century Public Charter School which had been authorized to offer a virtual program.

The commission also voted on Monday that Alakai O Kauai lacked the authority to offer a new virtual program this year and reduced its official enrollment to 172 students from 194.

Of Kamalani’s 335 students as of Oct. 15, 108 were returning students; meaning 227 were new to the school.

And out of the 227, 94 of the students came from a different public school, while 82 were not previously enrolled at any other public school, meaning they could have come from out of state or a prior homeschool situation.

Fung said the geographic location of Kamalani — near two major military installations — draws many new families throughout the school year due to military placements. She also refutes any suggestion the school directly advertised or marketed the new virtual option to woo new students, saying families heard about it from word of mouth or were unable to get into the DOE’s statewide distance program.

Thorn, though, said the company conducted outreach to Hawaii families, including posting to Facebook pages frequented by “families who were researching alternatives to what their zoned DOE (school) was offering.”

“Many families were searching for an option for keeping their children safe during the Covid times along with assuring their children continued to meet the performance and progress requirements of the DOE,” he said.

Monday’s commission meeting over Zoom was attended by up to 85 people, many of them Kamalani parents and children who testified how the virtual option provided them peace of mind.

“We would hate to see this program interrupted and her education interrupted,” said Jamie Reis, mother of a kindergartener. “She’s just starting on this journey and we want to support her as best we can.”

Fung said the Harmony contract lasts through the end of the school year and she has no plans to cut ties with the program for the existing students.

“We’re still accountable for those students, so we have to assure their learning,” she said.

Fung said she does not anticipate having to lay off any of her 26-member staff from the lost $1.4 million in funds.

But, she added, “It’s just a really big hit and we’re going to have to be creative to figure it out.”

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