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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, January 6, 2004

E-school learning hoops the hard way

By Wes Nakama
Advertiser Staff Writer

John Abrams attempts a shot over Aja Muncie during a Thompson Academy basketball practice at Manoa Recreation Center. The academy, one of the few online charter schools in the country, is fielding a varsity team in its first year of competition.

Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser

Students at Myron B. Thompson Academy are receiving a 21st century education at one of the nation's few online charter high schools.

Thompson's boys basketball players, meanwhile, are getting an old-school education competing as a first-year team in the O'ahu Interscholastic Association.

The Sharks made their OIA debut Friday against McKinley and lost, 86-24. Their second game is tomorrow ... at Kahuku.

"We're not going in there thinking high hopes or anything," said Thompson freshman John Abrams, in his first year of organized basketball. "We're just going out there to try and have fun."

If that truly is the objective, then the Sharks' daring — some say ill-advised — foray into varsity basketball is working. Unlike students at traditional high schools, Thompson kids don't report to homeroom in the morning, don't laugh and joke in hallways between classes and don't sit with friends in the cafeteria during lunch period.

"When you are in our school environment, you don't have the same co-curricular activities like you do at traditional schools, like proms and so forth," said Thompson principal Diana Oshiro. "When we asked the kids to rank in order which activities they would want, they said the one they really wanted was sports."

The state's athletic directors unanimously passed a resolution last summer to allow athletes from charter schools to play for the public schools in their district. But Oshiro said there was enough interest at Thompson to start its own team, so she applied for OIA membership before school started in August.

OIA executive secretary Dwight Toyama said the league's principals had no choice but to accept Thompson based on a provision under the federal "No Child Left Behind" law.

"It actually was a legislative mandate," Toyama said.

That got the ball rolling, sort of.

Oshiro said at the Sharks' first practice, a couple of players were instructed to run down the court with the ball, which they did.

Except they didn't know they were supposed to dribble it.

"For most of them, this is their first year picking up a basketball," said Andrew Aki, Thompson's 20-year-old head coach. "We could have started with a JV team, but we have three seniors and three juniors, and we decided to push it up to a higher level. You only get better by playing the best ... We're taking a beating, but they're in school mainly to study, anyway."

'Not just a number'

Oshiro said Thompson has its roots as an "E-School" founded by a federal grant in 1995. At the time, it was one of only two such schools in the country. After several developments, it became a full-fledged charter school two years ago.

Myron B. "Pinky" Thompson, a longtime Bishop Estate trustee heavily involved in education, had died around that time, and Oshiro, a longtime friend of Thompson and his son Nainoa, proposed the school be named for him.

"We shared the same dreams for Hawai'i's kids, and I thought it would be a nice way to remember him," said Oshiro, who said Thompson now has 622 students in grades K-12 statewide, including about 300 in grades 9-12.

Students register and are given an orientation at the academy's South Street location downtown, then are issued laptop computers to take home. Lessons and assignments are given over the Internet by instructors, and students e-mail homework and participate in "chat room" class discussions.

Students also can visit the downtown facility any time between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. on weekdays for tutoring or counseling.

"It's more family-like, and because it's small, you're somebody, not just a number," said Josh Musick, a senior on the basketball team. "Everybody knows everybody on a first-name basis."

Of course, that's when they see each other, which can be rare. That's where basketball comes in.

"Most of them are on a laptop all day, so this is a reason to get out and play," said Aki, who played basketball for Mililani before graduating in 2002.

Participation the key

Ironically, although the Sharks have struggled miserably on the court (losing 72-16 to Mid-Pacific in the preseason), some coaches see Thompson as a potential threat because of its unique structure.

Unlike traditional public schools, Thompson's student base has no geographic boundaries. Musick, for example, lives in Kahuku. Abrams and junior Aja Muncie live in Kailua, and brothers Lance and Justin Chang are from Wai'anae.

That opens the possibility of attracting top players from around the island.

"That's the spooky part about basketball: You only need three or four really good guys," Toyama said. "It could have happened on Maui last year, when those guys (from Maui High's state semifinalist team) talked about going to a charter school in Kihei."

But Oshiro said "our intent was never to do that" — to build a basketball powerhouse. Watching the three Thompson players who showed up for practice yesterday at Manoa Gym, nobody would argue with her.

"Our kids now probably would never be picked (for another team)," Oshiro said. "We're far behind, but the positives outweigh the negatives. The key is their being able to participate."

Abrams said: "(The MPI game) was my first actual game, and I didn't know what to do. The other (opponents), they're cool, most of them. I think they feel sorry for us. They're way better than us, but we can learn from them. I wanted to play sports, and even though our skill level is not there, it's still fun."

Reach Wes Nakama at wnakama@honoluluadvertiser.com or 535-2456.