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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, February 14, 2004

Residents launch petition for charter school in Waimanalo

By Eloise Aguiar
Advertiser Windward O'ahu Writer

WAIMANALO — Community leaders will launch a petition drive today toward the goal of converting struggling Blanche Pope Elementary to a charter school, a move that carries political overtones but could mean more money and autonomy for the campus.

At a glance

• What: Petition campaign

• When: 8 a.m. today

• Where: Blanche Pope Elementary School, 41-133 Huli St., Waimanalo

The Waimanalo proposal is one of three such efforts under way across the state and it comes as lawmakers debate how to reform a system that saw 60 percent of its schools fail to make adequate progress last year under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Pope is one of those schools, though its principal, Rodney Moriwake, said students have made progress in math and reading.

While some residents — most notably Wilson Ho, chairman of the Waimanalo Neighborhood Board — are pushing for the conversion, Moriwake has not yet made a commitment to switch. The process could take up to three years and requires, among other things, a majority vote among the community, school personnel and parents.

"I understand it may be a political issue," Moriwake said. "I want to ... divorce ourselves from getting into that political arena and just look at what's in the best interest of our kids."

Ho, who is spearheading the petition drive, is a member of Gov. Linda Lingle's CARE committee, Citizens Achieving Reform in Education. But he said conversion is not a slam-dunk process that the community is trying to shove down the school's throat.

Ho said he has been working to convert the school for about a year and has met with resistance from Moriwake. But with the debate over education reform in full swing, Ho said he thought the time was right to try again.

"It's not involved in the controversy going on now" over competing reform proposals from Lingle, a Republican, and Democratic lawmakers, Ho said.

Charter schools, authorized by the Legislature in 1999, use public money and are part of the Department of Education, but operate largely independent of the education bureaucracy through a local board made up of parents, educators and community members. Advocates say this makes them more efficient, more responsive to parents and more creative in their curriculum. Twenty-five charter schools were originally authorized, but Act 2 passed last year will allow 23 more charter schools via the conversion process.

Converting to a charter school would make the Blanche Pope campus eligible for money from Ho'okako'o Corp., a nonprofit organization financed by Kamehameha Schools that is intended to help educate children with significant socioeconomic needs.

Ho'okako'o helps public schools convert to charter schools under Act 2 and can provide $1 for every $4 the state gives a campus. The program is aimed at helping Title 1, or low-income schools, particularly where Kamehameha Schools does not have a presence.

Ho'okako'o also can provide technical assistance in the process, said Lynn Fallin, executive director for Ho'okako'o.

Two other elementary schools — Kualapu'u on Moloka'i and Kekaha on Kaua'i — are exploring the possibility of converting, Fallin said. Waimea Middle School on the Big Island was the first school to convert under the Act 2 provision last year and receive money from Ho'okako'o.

Waimea Middle principal Jon Znamierowski said the advantages of converting to a charter school are more than he could have anticipated, including the latitude to design programs, to avoid DOE rules that restrict schools and to have its own school board.

Then there's the partnership with Ho'okako'o, which offers money, expertise, analysis of the school's systems and organization, and an indirect relationship with Kamehameha Schools, Znamierowski said.

Next year Waimea Middle's sixth-grade class will have a student-to-teacher ratio of 14-to-1 and every book in the school is less than 4 years old, he said. Both are significant improvements.

"We've been able to do things that schools without this advantage simply can't touch," Znamierowski said.

The Waimanalo petition asks the leadership of Blanche Pope Elementary to explore planning for the conversion, with the understanding that the process must be well researched.

A meeting for school staff and Ho'okako'o and union representatives to discuss the ramifications of switching to a charter school is set for March 17.

Some parents picking up students at the school this week said they didn't know what a charter school is and were not aware of any effort to convert Pope to one. They said they are satisfied with the education their students are receiving at Pope, but some felt that if switching would mean more money and improved education, then the option should be considered.

"Maybe we should try something new," said Leone Kaehu, mother of a fourth-grader. "It may be better than what we have now."

Alan Gervickas, whose daughter has been at the school for two weeks, said if Kamehameha Schools is willing to give money to Pope, it should switch.

"They claim they don't have money and the system is failing," Gervickas said. "Whatever they can do to get the necessary funds to help kids learn and if that's an effective way of doing it, why not?"

Several Waimanalo parents who used to send their children to Pope and now send them to other public schools said Blanche Pope needs to change and a charter school could be the answer.

"The rating of the school is so low," said Kilauea Wilson, of Waimanalo. "These guys can hardly read. They can hardly add."

Last year, 27.5 percent of the school's third-graders met or exceeded the state standard in reading, and 30 percent did so in math. A total of 62.5 percent of third-graders and 55.1 percent of fifth-graders scored average or above average in reading on the national Stanford Achievement Test. And 82.1 percent of third-graders and 43.8 percent of fifth-graders scored average or above average in math on the same test.

Reach Eloise Aguiar at eaguiar@honoluluadvertiser.com or 234-5266.