Sunday, February 25, 2001
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Posted on: Sunday, February 25, 2001

O'ahu schools sagging under weight of growth

By James Gonser
Advertiser Leeward Bureau

Lunch begins at 10:30 a.m. at Holomua Elementary in Ewa Beach, with a steady stream of students entering the line every 10 minutes.

Holomua Elementary School students crowd around the salad bar during their lunch period.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

More than 100 students will have to leave crowded Mauka Lani Elementary in Makakilo in the fall, to be bused six miles away to Barbers Point Elementary.

Crowded schools have become the norm in rapidly growing Central and Leeward Oahu communities, where development has stretched the system’s ability to accommodate the number of students coming in.

With hundreds of new homes planned in the next five years, parents can expect more portable classrooms and more multi-track scheduling. Indications are that school building is not keeping up with growth; only a couple of new schools are planned.

According to state figures, Oahu’s population is expected to grow by 57,000 in the next 10 years, but neither government officials nor private developers would venture a guess at exactly how many homes will go up in Central and Leeward Oahu over the next decade. Construction depends on home sales and economic conditions, they say.

At the same time, families moving into the area say having quality schools is a major consideration in buying a home.

When the blueprint for growth in this region began to take shape about 50 years go, ironically, the plans were described as a way to relieve crowded streets and neighborhoods in urban Honolulu.

Campbell Estate broke ground 10 years ago on a "Second City" at Kapolei — orchestrating the addition of homes, retail stores, businesses and office space.

"Somewhere between the big dreams of the Second City and the economic cutbacks, the families got lost in the shuffle," said Maka-

kilo resident Todd Jones. "I don’t think there was any proper planning that was reviewed and updated. It was just basically left to rot."

Jones moved into the hillside community to allow his children to attend Mauka Lani Elementary, which has a reputation as one of the best public schools in the state, he said. When the school district boundaries were redrawn last month, the Jones’ residence landed outside. His third-grade daughter will be sent to Barbers Point next year.

At a public meeting Feb. 2, Jones asked Hazel Sumile, district superintendent for Leeward schools, why the state hadn’t planned years ago for the situation, especially since district boundaries were redrawn four years earlier.

"It should have been forecast before this that we were going to be hitting a problem," Sumile acknowledged. "What we don’t want is to be (redistricting) every four years.

"One of the problems is we cannot predict the economy of the state," the superintendent said. "That has so much to do with how well houses sell. As much as we would like to do a 10-, 20-year projection and do a good, long-range solid plan, it is really difficult because it is so dependent on all of these pending developments."

Continued growth

Housing projects continue to pop up on the Ewa plain, earmarked by both the city and state for new development.

Castle & Cooke Homes Hawaii earlier this month announced plans to add hundreds of homes in Mililani Mauka. The company’s plan would add 522 single-family homes and 304 multi-family homes in Central Oahu by 2008. The development is targeted for a 104-acre parcel at the end of Koolani Drive.

Developers work closely with the Department of Education to make sure enough schools are available, said Harry Saunders of Castle & Cooke. Before construction began in Mililani Mauka in 1990, Castle & Cooke had been planning with the DOE for more than five years.

"When you work with the whole land plan, first you have to decide where the schools are going to be. Schools, parks, roads, fire stations, police stations, commercial areas. The whole thing is part of the master plan," Saunders said.

He said the company has five communities under construction, and delivered about 280 homes in Mililani and 130 in Kunia last year. He expects the company will complete about 300 homes in Mililani and 150 in Kunia this year.

Schuler Homes is building a 128-home development called StarsEdge in Makakilo. Children in those homes will also be bused to Barbers Point.

Schuler built about 350 homes last year, of which 80 percent were designed for single families. Most of those families have children, said Mary Flood, vice president of sales and marketing for the company.

"Schools are certainly one of the things that are important to us when we build, because we know it is important to the families that are going to buy the homes," Flood said. "We thought that our children (in Makakilo) would be going to the Mauka Lani school. We were surprised when we found out the children would be bused to Barbers Point."

Yet Flood also defends the quality of the Barbers Point school, saying: "At least, we feel that the children in our school district will get to go to a quality school."

Looking toward the future

Although years away and dependent on appropriations, new schools on the drawing board include four elementary schools, one middle and one high school for east Kapolei and three elementary schools, a middle school and a high school for the Central district, said Ray Minami, acting facilities director for the DOE.

The DOE is always looking toward the future, but does not want to overbuild schools, Minami said. And although schools may be crowded, the DOE believes that there is enough room for the number of students projected through 2005.

"We don’t want to be in a situation where we overbuild, and in the future there is a lot of unassigned classrooms like we have, unfortunately, in the East Honolulu district," he said. "We are trying to be responsible with our tax dollars.

"We don’t want to go full blown and overbuild schools to accommodate a peak enrollment and later on, here we are stuck with a white elephant."

The city projects that the problem of crowded schools may be short term, as demographics change with community needs, said Randall Fujiki, director of the city Department of Planning and Permitting.

"Growing communities hit a high level of kids," he said. "Pearl City and Hawaii Kai were growing communities at one point. When the kids got older and left, then you have more of an elderly community. You have to look at overall picture. It is a very sophisticated process."

Using portables to create more space and figuring in multi-tracking, DOE planners believe they will keep the numbers of students near capacity limits through 2005.

While growth is happening in Central and Leeward Oahu, previously crowded Windward, Honolulu and East Oahu schools have space, said Department of Education spokesman Greg Knudsen.

"It would be great to pick up eight classrooms from East Oahu and move it to where it is needed, but it doesn’t work that way," Knudsen said.

Minami said when a developer applies for a land-use permit, the city asks the DOE to calculate school needs before approving new housing. Developers are charged a fee of $930 per unit to build or maintain schools.

"Despite what the public thinks, we are planning ahead six years," Minami said. "We have a plan for 10 years as far as facilities, 20 years as far as new schools. As you go beyond six years, the data is not as reliable. As the economy changes and the residential areas shift, we’re flexible."

Multi-tracking students

Every school complex, or set of schools, has its own development plan.

"In Mililani Mauka, for example, we are utilizing multi-track scheduling," Minami said. "It’s an option available to take care of peak enrollments or enrollments that are really high when a new development of homes goes in and the families are younger. We also leave room for portable structures to accommodate the peak enrollment. When the populations stabilizes in a community, we can remove those portables."

Multi-tracking divides students into groups, with each beginning classes at a different time of the year. One group is on vacation at any given time.

Holomua Elementary began multi-track scheduling five years ago, and this month was selected from 3,000 schools nationwide for a "Year-Round Schools of Merit" award. Principal Norman Pang said the school was designed for 850 students, but with multi-tracking has 1,130 and can easily handle the load.

Kapolei Elementary School, which opened in 1993, is hovering at about 1,000 students and will likely go to multi-tracking in 2003, principal Michael Miyamura said.

"We can add more buildings; we could add more portables to increase the capacity of the school, but the cafeteria is not going to grow," Miyamura said. "We currently run three lunches to feed 1,066 students. We are able to process that many children, but if we grow any larger, it will be hard."

The Kapolei Elementary principal said his school could manage no more than 1,200 students. With multi-tracking, Kapolei would have 900 students on campus at most times. "That is manageable," Miyamura said.

Effects on learning

With 33 students crowded into Diane Kazama’s fifth-grade class at Alvah A. Scott Elementary this year, she doesn’t see how all the planning in the world can help their learning environment.

"For the kids, they definitely lose out on the kind of attention that teachers can provide," Kazama said. "I really don’t think I would like my kid in that type of situation. If you look at private schools, everybody has about 15 per class. But when you double that, it is really an awful lot.

"I’m very frustrated. I know I could help them, I just don’t have enough time or the resources.

"Parents don’t understand. They don’t want to hear I don’t have enough time. It’s a real challenge."

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