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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, November 2, 2001

Island Voices
Big Island charter school is surviving

By Daniel Shapiro
Student services coordinator, Waters of Life "Wai Ola" Public Charter School

We, the teachers and staff, are writing to tell a different story of Waters of Life Public Charter School.

Waters of Life opened its doors last year as the very first start-up charter school. This means we started from scratch, having to purchase everything from books to buildings. Last year, teachers, staff and parents volunteered throughout the summer and on weekends to prepare for opening day. In order to open, we purchased our own facility for our elementary students, and rented two facilities for our high school and Special Day Program.

We were promised the use of Department of Education buses, but these were denied the week before school opened (though empty buses rolled within blocks of our school). We helped set up carpools and managed to get most of our students to school (though we lost many due to the transportation hardship). Last spring we purchased three buses and hired two drivers at our own expense.

Approximately 95 percent of our students qualified for the Federal Free or Reduced Lunch Program, but we were not able to implement it. We were also forced to cancel our own "healthy nutrition" program that was detailed in our state-sponsored charter.

We ended up paying out-of-pocket to ensure our students were fed.

Waters of Life opened its doors last year as a small school of approximately 150 students K-12. A great majority of our students were ill-served by our standard public education system. Fifteen percent of our students were identified as special ed. A large number at the high school had gone through numerous other schools and viewed us as their last option.

Approximately 30 percent of our elementary students had never gone to a public school before, most of them doing some sort of home-school program. These students stuck with us despite our lack of "standard" facilities, transportation or meal program.

Our school has gone through many hardships and our students have learned how to deal with grief. Just six weeks after opening, our founder, Cindy Moriarity, passed away at the age of 42. She was the life-force behind the school and the visionary who helped create our charter. She left two of her own children behind at the school. The entire staff pulled together to support them and to keep the school going.

This Sept. 11, our school was faced with a larger national tragedy. Our students and teachers responded in a variety of ways. Elementary students expressed their grief through art and personal writing. High school students developed pen pals across the country and the world to express their feelings. The entire school came together to create two giant lei made of paper, each flower containing a message for the victims of the attack. These were sent to New York and Washington, D.C.

This past summer, teachers, staff, parents and board members met three times per week to review our past year, our charter and our vision for the future. We purchased nine acres to build our own school. We moved both our elementary and high school to the Naniloa Resort so that we would have an adequate, temporary site until our new campus is built.

We passed our health and safety inspection, and our federal food program was approved. We have restrooms in every classroom. We have our own buses bringing Puna students into Hilo every day. Our Special Day Program is serving eight "high-end" Felix-class students and is recognized statewide as an exemplary program that is serving students whose needs were not being met at traditional public schools.

Our school as a whole continues to serve students of all kinds who just do not "fit in" at traditional public schools. If our school were to close, many of these students would simply fall through the cracks.