DEAN SENSUI / DSENSUI@STARBULLETIN.COM|
The 11-acre Manoa campus holds a lot of history and open-air ambience for alumni and students. Having lunch in the senior courtyard are Cierra Haney-Agor, Courtney Singletary, Kelika Robinson and Nicole Shibata on the far side of the table. On the near side of the table are Sharice Pabalan, Natasha Naki and Sheena Malbog.
A brand-new campus
in Kapolei intrigues
all-girls Saint Francis
Saint Francis School is exploring the possibility of selling the tranquil Manoa campus it has occupied for more than 70 years and moving to Kapolei.
The school was approached earlier this year by a developer that offered to buy its campus in exchange for a new school to be built in Kapolei. The company, Community Development Inc., is preparing a feasibility study, which is due soon, said Sister Joan of Arc Souza, principal of the all-girls school.
"We're simply looking at the option," Souza said. "Until we have completion of the feasibility study, we just don't know."
As part of that study, Souza visited Minneapolis-St. Paul last week to tour schools and consider options for layout and construction of a new school. If the school decides to make the move, it would take three or four years to prepare the new campus, she said.
"Saint Francis has been approached time and time again by people asking if it was interested in selling this property," said Dennis Hu, vice chairman of the school's board of directors. "Only recently are we now considering it because of the demographics in the Kapolei area."
Two-thirds of the school's student body comes from the Leeward side, and that region has the fastest-growing population on the island, Hu noted. There is no Catholic high school west of Damien Memorial High School, the boys' school in Kalihi.
Hu emphasized that the proposal is "very preliminary," and questions such as costs have yet to be addressed.
While the prospect of brand-new facilities is tempting, moving has its drawbacks and is always a difficult decision. Leaving Manoa could mean the loss of students whose families who find that location convenient, including those who work downtown.
"We have a very beautiful campus in Manoa, and there's a lot of history behind it and emotional attachment for alumni, parents and the nuns," Hu said.
Saint Francis sits on 11 prime acres of land at the end of narrow Pamoa Road in Manoa, adjacent to the University of Hawaii. The property is owned by the Sisters of Saint Francis, of Syracuse, N.Y., and a new campus would need to include housing for the two dozen nuns now living at Manoa.
John Lyles, president of Community Development, said it was premature to discuss possible uses for the Manoa land.
Given its location, the university is a logical buyer for the property. UH-Manoa needs more dormitory space for its students but may not be in a financial position to buy the land, according to university spokesman Jim Manke. Another option would be for a private developer to buy it and develop housing for university use.
Brother Greg O'Donnell, president of Damien, said yesterday his school had also been approached about selling its campus but has no plans to do so.
"There are a lot of advantages to being where we are," he said. "There's no compelling or even motivating reason why we would move our campus."
BACK TO TOP
When Sister Joan of Arc Souza became principal of Saint Francis School 12 years ago, enrollment had been slipping, and the head of her religious order had a blunt assessment of the school's future.
"Her edict, if you will, was, 'Turn it around, or we're going to have to close it,'" Souza said in an interview last week. "They were very concerned because the enrollment was at 275."
Since then, Souza has boosted enrollment to 425 girls in grades 6 through 12, enhanced the curriculum and raised the profile of the school, long hidden at the end of a quiet street in Manoa. And she has pulled her alma mater's financial picture firmly into the black.
All of 5 feet tall in shoes, the 59-year-old nun combines a sense of Franciscan mission to help the poor with the savvy of a business leader. The school had no board of directors when she arrived, so Souza created one, along with a development office.
She has developed new sources of income for the school, from opening a preschool on campus to renting parking space to university students. She also built a new swimming pool that is used by Leahi Swim School.
"The people we serve struggle to pay tuition," she said. "We need to do as much as we can to keep the tuition within their range, which means finding resources outside."
The Franciscan Sisters of the Third Order, of Syracuse, N.Y., founded the school in 1924 in Liliha, and moved it to Manoa eight years later. Souza, who graduated in 1961, taught there and on the mainland before becoming principal. She has developed a reputation for being unafraid of innovation.
"She has a definite vision of the future," said Dennis Hu, vice chairman of the school's board of directors. "I think Sister Joan has been more pragmatic."
On the academic front, she raised the bar by instituting an honors degree, known as the baccalaureate program, along with the regular college preparatory program. At the same time, she added a career track for students likely to attend community college or work after high school.
In 1999, Saint Francis became the first school in the state to offer American Sign Language as a foreign language. Its English as a Second Language program contributes to the diversity at the school, whose largest ethnic groups are Filipino, Hawaiian, Japanese and Caucasian.
One venture that did not pan out for Saint Francis was the campus it opened on Kauai, which closed four years later because of insufficient enrollment.
While Souza is ready to try new things, there are some traditions she refuses to relinquish. She is committed to keeping Saint Francis an all-girls school. Boys tend to command more of a teacher's attention and can keep girls from speaking up, she believes.
"If you give a wrong answer here, nobody's going to make fun of you," she said. "They're going to help you."
Cierra Haney-Agor, a senior who entered Saint Francis after completing Manoa Elementary, said attending the all-girls school transformed her.
"In elementary school I was always shy, I hardly talked," she said. "Once I went to Saint Francis, it opened up doors for me. I got involved in student government and color guard.
"It was only girls, so I could be more expressive of myself. When you're with guys, you don't want to make a fool of yourself, so I wouldn't say anything. Saint Francis taught us not to always go with the flow, to be independent and make your own path."
While Souza may have a businesslike approach to the school, she has the helping heart of a nun, according to Cierra's mother, Luciann Haney. A single mother who works as a flight attendant, Haney had trouble paying tuition for a couple of years and thought she would have to pull her daughter out. Instead, the school gave her financial aid.
"Any time you need help," Haney said, "they are there."