The classroom was packed with hungry students, as busy as any midday rush might be at a popular lunch spot. Dozens of middle schoolers waited in line, cash in hand to buy shaved ice, chips and other snacks from their peers, who scurried frantically to take orders and count change.

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“We need a raspberry and tiger’s blood!”

“Where is No. 19?!”

“We don’t have any ice!”

This is the recess rush that happens every Tuesday and Thursday at Lokelani Intermediate School, where a group of eighth and seventh grade students pitched, planned and are now finding out what it takes to run a store that serves shaved ice to as many as 30 children in the short 20-minute slot that it’s open.

To an outsider, the school store may seem like just another fun activity, but for the students at Lokelani, it means so much more than that, according to teachers and school administrators. Standing up the store has given students a chance to regain control and reconnect with each other after more than two years of uncertainty due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

It’s also an example of the creative ways that schools are using federal Covid relief funds to address the emotional and academic setbacks suffered by students throughout the crisis.

“These kids were rendered so powerless during this pandemic,” principal Francoise Bell said. “One day they were at school. The next day there was no school.”

A photo of a student at Lokelani Intermediate School selling shave ice
Ren Cooper applied and went through a round of interviews before she was selected to be the general manager of Wave Mart, the student-run store at Lokelani Intermediate School. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

Lokelani Intermediate School is home to about 450 students in the heart of Kihei. It’s what the federal government calls a Title I school, which means a large number of families at the school earn low incomes, so their children qualify for free or reduced school lunch.

When the pandemic struck in March 2020, many of Lokelani’s students watched their parents lose work or started caring for younger siblings when schools shifted to remote learning. In the initial months, Maui’s unemployment rate soared to 35%, the highest among all U.S. metro areas, ABC News reported.

That same year, research showed that Hawaii’s children were most at risk of learning loss during the pandemic in comparison to their peers across the U.S., when considering things like internet availability, access to remote-learning devices and the amount of time they spent with teachers and family.

For so long, students were separated from their friends, teachers and regular daily routines. And when they finally returned to school in person, they weren’t talking with each other anymore, Bell said. They weren’t excited about learning, and teachers struggled to get them to engage with anything that didn’t involve a computer.

But the school had some extra funding through pandemic relief dollars for schools — officially called the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund — which gave the middle school about $18,000 to spend over the course of a couple years, Bell said. So the principal gave teachers the green light to work with students to pitch their own student-run project.

The middle schoolers’ resounding first choice: to start their own store, where they could create and sell goods like T-shirts, pencils and snacks.

“The kids want to learn how they can make money,” Bell said. “How can they help their families out? How can they be part of the solution? How can they be entrepreneurs?”

A photo of students counting earnings from Lokelani Intermediate School's student-run store.
Students count the earnings from the student-run store. They made $103 during the 20-minute recess. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

Students came up with the name, Wave Mart, and voted on a store logo designed by one of their classmates. The school bought a screen printing machine so children could create their own store uniforms. It got a shaved ice machine too, and sent dozens of children on a field trip to learn how to make the treat at a food truck a couple blocks away.

They learned financial literacy as well — how to set prices for products, put together a budget, determine how to use the profits. And just like in the real world, anyone who wanted to work at the store had to interview for the job.

Ren Cooper, 13, knew she wanted to work in management, which meant she had to interview with school faculty. Among the interview questions: What are your weaknesses? Where are your strengths? Why do you want this job? Why are you a good fit?

Afterward, Cooper said she couldn’t help but worry that she hadn’t done well enough. But a couple days later, an email landed in her inbox. Cooper got the job.

“I was so excited that I screamed,” Cooper said. “I scared the life out of my dog and my sister.”

A photo of the menu at Wave Mart, the student-run store at Maui's Lokelani Intermediate School
Students pitched, developed and worked to set prices for the menu at Lokelani Intermediate School’s student-run store. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

She’s now the general manager, overseeing up to a dozen other store employees charged with accounting for Wave Mart’s profits, creating marketing materials and ensuring they have enough inventory.

During recess last week, Cooper worked the cash register, while her assistant general manager, Mallory McNeish, welcomed the guests at the front of the classroom, answering questions about the store’s products and taking customers’ orders.

“How do you explain pina colada flavor?” the 14-year-old yelled to a classmate. “I don’t know.”

Across the classroom, her peers looked puzzled. Then a boy paused and made his best guess: “Like, tropical?”

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by a grant from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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