Officials try to dispel fears of looming school closure


POSTED: Friday, January 16, 2009

State education leaders sought last night to reassure worried parents and children of a small Windward school facing closure that no decision has been made to shut down the century-old campus.

“;It is not a done deal,”; Lea Albert, the Castle-Kahuku complex superintendent, told about 100 people crammed into Kaaawa Elementary School's cafeteria, where the walls had signs reading, “;Don't rip our family apart”; and “;Why us?”;

The Hawaii Education Department recommended closing Kaaawa Elementary last month because of costs to upgrade facilities, shut a cesspool and mitigate other health and safety hazards such as flooding. It proposed moving the low-lying school's 158 students - three short of capacity - to nearby Hauula or Waiahole elementary schools, which have extra room and are less than seven miles away.

But Albert said state law requires a task force to study the plan before it heads to public hearings and the Board of Education.

“;We want this to be fair,”; she said. “;Our minds are open.”;

Kaaawa parents fighting the school's closure have praised its academic record. The school is on track for the No Child Left Behind law's goal of having every student proficient in reading and math by 2014. Hauula and Waiahole, meanwhile, have struggled to meet annual progress benchmarks under the federal mandate.

“;It's a terrible thing (to do),”; said Gary Cooper, who brought his daughter Siobhan to yesterday's two-hour meeting.

“;I like all my teachers,”; the 11-year-old Kaaawa student said. “;I would like to stay here.”;

But education officials say many issues plague the school, which opened in 1904 on 3.7 acres donated by Kualoa Ranch. The campus is near a blind curve on busy Kamehameha Highway and in a tsunami inundation zone that requires classrooms and administrative offices be raised eight feet, the Education Department has said. It estimates the cesspool project would cost about $2 million.

Kaaawa Elementary is among dozens of schools from Kauai to the Big Island being considered for closure. The decision to examine shutting down public schools comes as statewide enrollment sank to 177,871 from a peak of more than 189,000 a decade ago.