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Parents urge panel to save small school


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POSTED: Thursday, April 09, 2009

Parents raised questions last night about the proposed shutdown of Wailupe Elementary School, with some saying the school provides a great learning environment but that years of closure threats have driven down enrollment to 79 students.

"We love the creative, intimate position that it presented for our kids," said parent Eric Carlson. "Ever since we've been there, there have been threats of closures," so "no new parents have brought their children to the school."

"It's an easy fix," he said. "We need to ramp up the enrollment. Give it a couple of special programs ... and parents will flock."

A task force appointed by Department of Education Complex Area Superintendent Ronn Nozoe heard comments on the proposal from 11 people during the meeting at Niu Valley Intermediate School. About 60 people attended the meeting.

The task force will come up with a recommendation on whether to consolidate Wailupe with Aina Haina Elementary School.

Nozoe told a reporter that if the school were shut down, some of the options include renting it out to a private school or turning it into a school of choice that is thematically organized, for example having a focus in science, engineering, math or dramatic arts.

He said there have been school closure threats over the past 20 years. He said the school has been the lowest performing academically in the complex from Aina Haina to Hawaii Kai.

But alumnus Lance Morita testified that still put Wailupe among the best in the state—among the top 22 percent, according to a ranking by Honolulu magazine.

"I believe in the quality of education in a small class," he said.

Parent Carl Young questioned how the school's closure could save money if the faculty were to be absorbed into other schools. If the two schools were merged, Aina Haina would have too many students per teacher, he said.

Nozoe said more positions would be available at Aina Haina if the enrollment grew.

Sen. Sam Slom (R, Diamond Head-Hawaii Kai) said he didn't like government spending, but "if the school is doing well, we need to find ways to enhance it and look at alternatives."

He pointed to parents' suggestions to have the schools share administrations, offering different programs and opening the boundaries to allow more students to attend.

One mother said the school "offers the choice of a small, nurturing school, and it gives students more opportunity to shine."

She said her daughter finds Wailupe rewarding and "it is a happy, safe place."

But Cary Miyashiro, chairman of the task force, told a reporter: "It should be about equal opportunity for the 176,000 students in the state of Hawaii.

"Big schools have been subsidizing small schools."