Cynthia Oi Under the Sun

Cynthia Oi

Effective public schooling
perseveres in plain package

NEARLY 40 years ago, I walked away from the complex of flat-roofed, one- and two-story buildings painted in that muddy green and tan government institutions cultivate for reasons unknown. Even though I've lived in Hawaii for much of that time, even though I pass by the place at least twice a week and even though there is an unfocused recognition of the collection of modest structures, I didn't give my high school much thought.

Until last week, I'd not set foot on the grounds since graduation. Once before, I'd buzzed through the semi-circular driveway during a "memory lane" tour of Honolulu with a friend.

"Looks like a minimum-security prison," he joked. I was insulted, but on second thought agreed it could be mistaken for that.

The school was one of many thrown up to accommodate the baby-boom population that swelled the public education system after World War II. It isn't much as far as architecture and landscaping.

Wooden jalousies extending almost floor to ceiling dissect the concrete rectangles of classrooms. The administration building has a few touches, but it too is plain. A broad lawn and bleachers for outdoor pep rallies have been replaced by a hulking performing arts center. Shop and vocational classes go on in structures that recall military barracks, and rocks dabbed with white paint warn of ankle-twisting holes and sprinkler heads. Buildings are denoted simply: A, B, C and so on. None carry the names of Hawaii's rich and famous.

Classes were in session when I arrived on the campus so it appeared the school was deserted, but inside one of those fatigued buildings there was a whir of fresh energy. Students in a food science class were dashing around, preparing lunch for a group of 20 or so adults from the community who had been invited to see them in action by the school's foundation, set up to raise money for equipment, programs and improvement projects.

There were no bells and whistles, no high-pressure pushes for donations of cash or services, just a low-key lunch in the tiny "cafe" tucked into one side of the kitchen-classroom.

The meal consisted of soup, chicken parmesan, salads and two desserts that were as good as any served in trendy restaurants. The teacher, Angela Inouye, and a shy student explained that the class did more than cook. The course involves all the elements of running a restaurant business: financial planning, purchasing, nutritional benefits, marketing and other matters.

It was an expansive instrument for showing the value of a diverse public education system, of the sweat and dedication of teachers and staff members and the undiluted excitement kids generate as they learn how to cost out, assemble and serve a pistachio-berry ice cream cake.

The lunch guests included a number of alumni -- a lawyer, some business owners and managers, a dentist and a former legislator. All of us -- having once rambled and dallied in the hallways, made lifelong friends, bopped at hops in the cafeteria, endured detention (pulling weeds) for breaking rules, maneuvered through the tortures of adolescent insecurities combined with pop quizzes, homework and P.E. -- were graduates, examples of the success of public schools.

Public education in Hawaii is often vilified as ineffective, inefficient and full of lazy and careless employees. Some of this may be true, but during my brief visit, I saw that though the school is so short of cash that leaks in the library roof have gone unrepaired for years, though classrooms have equipment as old as I am and though teachers and administrators are stretched to the limit, they make do, rig together what they can and try their best to teach Hawaii's young people.

There remains a persistent optimism as individual and collective efforts counter a tide of negativity and obstacles. Homely and unadorned as Kaimuki High School may be, the beat of education goes on.

Cynthia Oi has been on the staff of the Star-Bulletin for 25 years.
She can be reached at:


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