From the outside, Waipahu Elementary School looks like any other public school. Bright murals reminding students to “Be the I in kind” adorn the walls, while a faded blue and yellow sign reminds parents of upcoming events for the 2022-23 school year.

But beyond the campus gates, clothing racks filled with sweatshirts, washing machines available to families and bookshelves crammed with toothpaste bottles and deodorant provide evidence that this is a different kind of school.

Waipahu Elementary is one of the emerging leaders in Hawaii’s community schools movement.

Community schools function no differently from other public schools within the Department of Education. However, they distinguish themselves by partnering with local organizations to provide comprehensive services to students and families while also involving community members in the administration of the school. By considering the challenges children face inside and outside of the classroom, community schools aim to consolidate multiple programs and support systems in one place.

During this year’s legislative session, state leaders joined the national discourse on the growing importance of community schools during the Covid-19 pandemic.

House Bill 1941 would have required the DOE to offer grants for planning and implementation of community schools over a two-year period. The bill passed the House but not the Senate.

“I think one of the great things that this legislation brought forward was this new model of what education can look like and what it can do, not just for students, but for communities,” said Rep. Jeanne Kapela, who introduced the bill.

Pa‘ia Elementary School Community School
Pa‘ia Elementary is one of five schools aiming to adopt the community school model under the Resilient Communities, Schools and Families Partnership. Courtesy: Leona Luuwai

Community Schools In The Works

For David Sun-Miyashiro, founding executive director of HawaiiKidsCAN, community schools just make sense.

“I think the real asset is that Hawaii has a tight-knit community,” he said. “We have a whole range of partners in our communities, and I think it’s very natural to really try to lean on and support each other.”

Sun-Miyashiro hopes to implement the community school model in Hawaii through the Resilient Communities, Schools and Families Partnership. Drawing on the leadership of several organizations across the state, the partnership aims to transform five rural schools on Oahu, Maui and Hawaii island into community schools.

On Maui, Pa‘ia Elementary School is preparing to enter its third and final year in the partnership. When Pa‘ia started the process of becoming a community school in the 2020-21 school year, Principal Kehau Luuwai said she was initially overwhelmed by the number of community partners available to support her students and families. Ivee Cruz and other members of Ceeds of Peace, a nonprofit dedicated to uplifting local leaders, stepped in to connect the school with local organizations that could fulfill families’ needs throughout the pandemic, including medical, dental and mental health services.

Kapela also sees community schools as a means of fulfilling the basic needs of rural communities on Hawaii island. In Kapela’s district, not all students have access to clean water, so community schools could offer washing machines to families, she said. At the same time, schools might offer health care clinics on campus so that older children can go to class instead of taking care of sick younger siblings.

“It’s making sure that no one is missing an opportunity to better themselves or to get the education that they deserve, just because you don’t have access to the most basic needs,” Kapela said.

“This is a model that would have been extremely valuable and helpful before the pandemic, and, now, it’s so critical and it’s tailor-made to respond to these times.” — David Sun-Miyashiro, founding executive director of HawaiiKidsCAN

But this has yet to become a reality for many schools in Kapela’s district and across the state.

While the community school movement was gaining traction before the pandemic, restrictions on campus gatherings and remote instruction prevented schools from conducting in-person outreach to community partners and families.

Scott Nishimoto, executive director of Ceeds of Peace, said the pandemic’s strain on teachers and families has made it difficult for the Resilient Communities, Schools and Families Partnership to ask more of school leaders in order to advance the project objectives.

“It’s hard to be human right now,” he said. “We’ve been really trying to balance between pushing them and being ambitious with the goals of our project … and balancing that with just having grace and understanding that life is tough right now.”

However, the pandemic also created the perfect conditions to test-run the effectiveness of emerging community schools.

At Pa‘ia, the school underwent a series of trauma-informed trainings in the 2021-22 school year. As a result, teachers realized the importance of slowing down the pace of their curricula and meeting students where they were — even if they were performing below grade level expectations after a year of virtual learning, Luuwai said.

“We had to step back and say, ‘OK, what are we going to do?’” Luuwai said. “The trauma-informed training really helped us to recognize, OK, we can go at this pace. We’ve got to back up.”

Sun-Miyashiro also hopes that community schools and their partnerships can ease the burden educators and administrators face after a grueling two years of teaching, while still addressing the emotional and academic challenges students have faced throughout the pandemic.

“This is a model that would have been extremely valuable and helpful before the pandemic, and, now, it’s so critical and it’s tailor-made to respond to these times,” he said.

Community Schools In Action

For other schools in the state, the community school model is not a blueprint, but an everyday reality.

On Hawaii island, the Kohala complex schools were among the first in the state to start the process of becoming community schools in 2018.

Ross Pagat, who works under the Partners in Development Foundation to serve as Kohala’s community school coordinator, said the complex follows a modified community school model because he is responsible for cultivating community partnerships and working with families across all three schools. In a full-service community school, each campus would have its own coordinator, he added.

Nevertheless, Pagat rallied in the face of the pandemic.

Pagat worked alongside a local church and Vibrant Hawaii, a collective action organization dedicated to promoting social justice and equity, to develop a safe space in which teachers’ children could participate in remote learning during the school day. In a rural community like Kohala, child care is hard to come by, and many teachers found themselves needing to return to their classrooms but barred from bringing their children onto campus in the 2020-21 school year, Pagat said. The partnership enabled the Kohala complex to function throughout the pandemic.

“If this was not provided, then, more than likely, the schools probably would have had to shut down,” Pagat said. “Multiple staff members would not have been able to work because they have to watch their own children.”

Waipahu Elementary on Oahu also jumped into action during the pandemic. As many of Waipahu’s students come from multigenerational households, Principal Aaron Tominaga recognized the importance of keeping entire families healthy and safe from Covid so that their children could continually attend school. Working alongside organizations such as Hawaii Pacific Health, the school established vaccination clinics and offered physicals to all students — and their family members.

Waipahu Elementary’s work as a community school dates to 2018. Prior to the pandemic, the school hosted in-person events that would draw up to 400 students and families. From the annual Thanksgiving bingo offering up 30 turkeys as prizes to literacy events teaching parents how to read to their children, Rochelle Kalili said the school has fostered a culture in which parents are eager to participate in school events and offer their feedback to the administration.

“People that come in to work with our school, they also feel welcomed and valued,” said Kalili, Waipahu’s parent community network center facilitator. “Once you start to feel valued, then you actually produce more.”

Waipahu Elementary has also fostered strong relationships with community partners. Perhaps most notably, the school’s Eagle Store, which offers prizes to students who have consistently exhibited good behavior, was donated by the cast of “Magnum P.I.”

Eagle Closet Waipahu Elementary School Community School
The Eagle Closet at Waipahu Elementary offers personal hygiene items, as well as clothing and shoes, to students in need. It remains stocked with donations from community organizations and churches. Megan Tagami/Civil Beat/2022

Organizations such as Weeds and Seeds and the HawaiiUSA Federal Credit Union keep the Eagle Store and Eagle Closet stocked with board games, deodorant, slippers and any other necessities many people take for granted, Tominaga said.

At the same time, teachers and students also play a role in serving the community, organizing partnerships with the Hawaii Foodbank to create a pantry that provides meals and food supplies to families on a monthly basis.

Despite recent progress at Waipahu Elementary and the Kohala complex, Tominaga and Pagat both recognize that their schools have yet to become full-service community schools. In order to achieve this standing, the schools would need more personnel dedicated to cultivating local partnerships and conducting community outreach.

Pagat remains undeterred in his mission to see his community through the pandemic.

“We all go through struggles, and we all could use help from each other,” Pagat said. “I’ve just gone on to see that, as a community school coordinator, showing more empathy towards one another can go a long way.”

Civil Beat’s education reporting is supported by a grant from Chamberlin Family Philanthropy.

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