Waiahole and Kaʻaʻawa Elementary Schools fight for survival

December 3, 2022

Two of the schools in the Castle Complex of schools are fighting to survive as enrollment declines. Please read about it in the Honolulu Star Advertiserʻs story.

2 Oahu schools fight for survival as enrollment shrinks (

2 Oahu schools fight for survival as enrollment shrinks

By Esme M. Infante November 28, 2022

On a radiant fall day at tiny Waiahole Elementary School in Windward Oahu, the whole school’s worth of students — all 97 of them — are revving up for their annual corn harvesting by singing with gusto in their little school garden, “I’m gonna say thank you to the sun, I’m gonna say thank you to the soil!”

The enrollment here is so small that the teachers need no microphones to amplify their ukulele accompaniment or to yell out the “One, two, three, go!” countdown that sends the kids plunging into the swaying cornstalks. And when the keiki finally sit on the ground to shuck the yellow corn they’ve raised themselves, the entire student body fits easily inside the shade of one lychee tree and two smaller citrus trees.

An hour later, Principal Alexandra Obra drives six miles up the winding rural beach roadway of Kamehameha Highway to hand-deliver some of the just-picked corn to Jennifer L. Luke-Payne, principal of Waiahole’s equally diminutive sister school, the 109-student Ka‘a‘awa Elementary.

The two campuses’ principals and teachers increasingly share and cooperate on nearly everything these days — not just corn, but curriculum, strategic planning and encouragement for each other.

They feel the two small schools must stick together in order to keep their offerings robust for their students — and to prove their worth so they can stay open.

Waiahole and Ka‘a‘awa elementary schools are “the heart of the community” for their neighborhoods, Obra says. “But we’re always on the chopping block because of our numbers. We really want to be the one to tell our own story. How can we work together and bring the best group together in our community to make sure that we are in existence for the next 100 years?”

The two schools have created a “Small Schools Hui” and are holding public meetings to pool resources and strategize. They organized the first meeting in October, and the next is 5-7 p.m. Dec. 5 at Waiahole Elementary School. Community members can go to to register and reserve a bento.

Waiahole and Ka‘a‘awa each are just over one-fifth the size of the average Hawaii elementary school of about 485 students, according the National Center for Education Statistics in the U.S. Department of Education.

Student counts at the two schools have shrunk as their surrounding neighborhoods have aged and families with young children have gravitated toward new housing developments in places like the Ewa plain. Waiahole Elementary turns 140 in 2023; Obra believes it is the oldest school in Windward Oahu and one of the oldest in the state. Ka‘a‘awa Elementary is 118 years old.

A few years back, when Christina Kishimoto was still state schools superintendent, Obra said, the two schools were told that because of their low enrollment, they were going to be considered for closure, which is diplomatically referred to as “consolidation.” But Kishimoto stepped down in July 2021. The state Department of Education hasn’t raised the issue since.

“There have not been any recent discussions about Waiahole elementary and Ka‘a‘awa elementary schools being closed or consolidated,” interim Castle-Kahuku Complex Area Superintendent Ed Noh told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser via email.

Consolidations are rare. The last Hawaii public school in recent memory to close was Kaimuki’s Lili‘uokalani Elementary School in 2011, a DOE spokesperson said. In Hawaii the process is dictated by a complex set of state Department of Education administrative rules in which the state schools superintendent must justify a consolidation study and later make a recommendation to the state Board of Education, considering such factors as costs and benefits, and effects on the students and residents. Following public hearings, the decision would be up to the board.

But public schools that stay open even as enrollment shrinks face a tough road.

About 60% of the money a Hawaii public school receives comes via a “weighted student formula” that gives a set dollar amount for each student, with the rest earmarked for specific needs such as special education and “school support.” That means a small school tends to have fewer dollars, faculty and staff available and can find it hard to provide a wide range of classes and extracurricular activities.

Cooperative program

The two small schools’ answer is to develop a cooperative “mauka to makai” (mountain to sea) program, with Waiahole, located in a verdant valley, and Ka‘a‘awa, mere steps away from the Pacific Ocean, combining ideas and resources. The tie to Hawaiian culture is a natural fit as roughly half of each school’s students are Native Hawaiian. Each school has student gardens, Waiahole has an aquaponics project. Both depend heavily on the community. “We have very supportive businesses around us,” Luke-Payne said. “7-Eleven will call us and say, ‘When you got a field trip?’ Kualoa Ranch lets us do pretty much anything we want.”

Their teachers are making professional observation visits to each other’s campuses and starting to coordinate student activities together. Even principals Obra and Luke-Payne have grown so close, they finish each other’s sentences. “She’s my partner in crime,” Obra says.

Small schools also have to get creative with staffing. On the Waiahole and Ka‘a‘awa campuses, there are only one or two teachers for each grade, and just a handful of administrative and support staff. “Everyone has to be a team player and pitch in,” says Sas Lopes, who on paper is a health aide but has helped with lunch supervision, counseling and whatever else has been needed during her 18 years working at Waiahole, her elementary school alma mater.

On corn-harvesting day, it was Lopes’ booming voice cutting through the organized chaos: “Once you pick the corn, step on the stalk with your feet!” She called almost every student by name and reminded them, “Older students, help the younger ones.”

Sixth grader Nevaeh Wong said proudly that she has done the corn harvest every year since preschool. “We planted the corn and harvested it, and now we get to eat it!” she gushed.

Also guiding the harvest, as they have for generations, were longtime members of the surrounding farming community. The Reppun family lives up the road and has been teaching Waiahole students about growing corn for so long, they can’t remember whether it’s been 30 years, 40 years or more.

As “Uncle Charlie” Reppun reminded the students that the husks needed to be composted, they obediently gathered the leaves and silk, and ran over to give him an enthusiastic group hug. “My two kids were students here,” Reppun said. “The community-school connection is really strong. We kind of feel like every school should do more of that.”

Such tight bonds, advocates say, are the magic of small schools.

Ka‘a‘awa second grade teacher Joy Schlachter said she feels so invested in her school that even though the common wisdom is that teachers shouldn’t live in the community where they work, she relocated nearby and is in her 18th year of teaching there.

“Your child is seen at this school, at these small schools. No one’s hidden,” she says. “We see when they’re having a problem with something, and we always want to address it and try to help it. And they are loved. All of our kids are loved.”

Ka‘a‘awa Elementary School

>> 51-296 Kamehameha Highway, Kaaawa

>> 109 students in grades K-6

>> 25 full- and part-time employees

>> Founded in 1904; serving Kualoa, Kaaawa, Kahana and part of Punaluu

>> “Each one of our students are our proudest accomplishments,” says Principal Jennifer L. Luke-Payne. Kaaawa also is a Lighthouse School for the Leader in Me program, in which students are cultivated to become leaders.

Waiahole Elementary School

>> 48-215 Waiahole Valley Road, Kaneohe

>> 97 students in prekindergarten to grade 6

>> 30 teachers and staff

>> Founded in 1883; serving Wailehua to Waiahole Valley

>> “We are most proud of our community partners (Reppun ohana, Kanehunumoku Voyaging Academy, Papahana Kuaola, Uncle Kanaloa Bishop, and Waiahole Poi Factory),” said Principal Alexandra Obra. “We are also proud of our annual corn planting/harvesting, as well as our ku‘i kalo day.”