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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, October 18, 2001

Kawaiaha'o School keeps old values alive

By Karen Blakeman
Advertiser Staff Writer

Just over 25 years ago, Wendy Lagareta, newly printed education degree in hand, was looking for a job as a high school French teacher. She was out of luck.

Koalani Lagareta is a teacher and former student of Kawaiaha'o School. Her son, Kanoa Cleveland, 3, is a student there.

Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser

"They weren't hiring French teachers," Lagareta said. But a little school she saw operated from the home of a woman who lived down the road caught her attention, so Lagareta paid a visit.

It was a Montessori school, and Lagareta was fascinated by the theories she saw put into practice there: abstract thought linked to concrete representations; an early start on understanding the importance of peace and community; the idea that all parts of nature are spiritually linked.

"I said, I want to be a Montessori teacher," Lagareta said. "What do I need to do?"

Just over 25 years ago, Abraham Akaka, then minister of Kawaiaha'o Church, saw that his community and parishioners would benefit from a day care center for their children, and appointed a blue ribbon panel of congregants to do something about it.

The panel hired Jerry Richmond to be the first director of Kawaiaha'o School. Richmond, a Montessori-trained educator, hired Lagareta, who had just completed her training to be a Montessori teacher. Akaka and Kawaiaha'o Church got more then they bargained for.

Kawaiaha'o School quickly grew into a facility encompassing preschool through third grade.

On Nov. 3, the school will celebrate "Imagining Peace," an acknowledgement of 25 years of operation and a fund-raising dinner and auction at the Hilton Hawaiian Village. The money will be used to finance scholarships for students and for teachers seeking advanced Montessori training.

Lagareta worked as a teacher at Kawaiaha'o for years, then spent 15 years as its director. She recently turned over that post to Marie Hook, who says her daughter, Ke'ala Hook, a Kawaiaha'o School graduate and now a college student on the Mainland, is her best advertisement for the school.

"She says, 'I learned everything I needed at Kawaiaha'o School,'" Hook said. "Math, geometry grammar and research."

Lagareta's daughter, Koalani Lagareta, is a teacher at Kawaiaha'o, and Koalani's son, 3-year-old Kanoa Cleveland, is a student there.

Koalani Lagareta said she didn't realize how much her Montessori training meant to her until she got old enough to attend other schools.

"I hated it," she said of the more traditional learning models.

Her training at Kawaiaha'o taught her to think for herself and to trust in her own ability to learn. Those are the qualities she hopes to pass on to her son and daughter, 1-year-old Hoku Cleveland.

While the younger Lagareta and Hook stress the academics and styles of learning at Kawaiaha'o, the elder Lagareta and Hook are more likely to stress the spiritual aspects of Montessori training: the links between people and nature, the importance of peace and of feeling a part of the community.

Recently, the peace education part of the curriculum became more important than even the Kawaiaha'o faculty had anticipated. When the World Trade Center and Pentagon were struck by hijacked jetliners, America's children were given a first-hand look at what happens in the absence of peace. It wasn't easy to take.

At Kawaiaha'o, the teachers relied on their training to get them and their students through the ordeal.

Adult Americans were giving money to those who lost loved ones in the attacks. They donated blood. The children also needed to give, said Susan Costello, who teaches in an upper-grades classroom at the school. So they created a peace poster: a maile lei surrounded by a flower lei, with messages of peace from the children written inside each flower.

The poster was exhibited at Kawaiaha'o Church on the national day of mourning that followed the attacks. It was then sent to Sen. Daniel Akaka, who exhibits it at his office in Washington, D.C.