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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, September 17, 2004

Charter school popularity up

By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Education Writer

Enrollment in Hawai'i's charter schools increased by nearly 15 percent this school year, as more parents chose the experimental schools as alternatives to traditional public schools.


Hawai'i's public-school enrollment declined marginally this school year, by 537 students, to 181,897 students. Here are some of the largest schools by grade level, according to the state Department of Education.

High schools: Farrington (2,490); Waipahu (2,458); Mililani (2,411); Kapolei (2,162); Campbell (2,009); Moanalua (2,008).

Middle schools: Mililani (1,833); Kapolei (1,699); Waipahu (1,361); Ilima (1,246); Wai'anae (1,137).

Elementary schools: Holomua (1,428); August Ahrens (1,276); Kapolei (1,173); Lihikai (1,108); Waipahu (1,060).

More than half of the growth was from the conversion of Kualapu'u Elementary School on Moloka'i into a charter school in June, but some of the state's other charter schools also reported surges in enrollment.

The Myron B. Thompson Academy, the state's only e-school, where students work from home on the Internet, had a 50 percent enrollment increase. Ka Waihona O Ka Na'auao, a Hawaiian-themed charter school that moved this year into the former Nanaikapono Elementary School site along the Wai'anae Coast, had a 60 percent increase.

"There seems to be a lot of interest in this kind of environment," said Diana Oshiro, the principal at Thompson Academy, which had more than 400 new applicants this year and had to turn away many potential students, particularly on the Neighbor Islands. The academy has several schools-within-schools that give students different paths to learning.

Alvin Parker, the principal at Ka Waihona, said parents seem drawn to the school's blend of academics and Hawaiian culture. The school now has a kumu hula on staff. "They're ecstatic," Parker said of parents. "I have a waiting list."

Charter schools, approved by the state Legislature in 1999, are exempt from most state regulations but must meet the same academic standards as traditional schools. The state school board has an oversight role in charter-school performance and can issue or revoke charters.

Total enrollment in Hawai'i's public schools declined marginally this school year, by 537 students, to 181,897 students. Enrollment has held steady for the past few years after reaching an all-time high of 189,281 students in the 1997-98 school year, according to the state Department of Education.

Schools in the Leeward District, the state's largest, saw enrollment grow by 1.5 percent, as the population continues to shift as people buy homes in burgeoning West O'ahu. The Leeward Coast was the only pocket of growth. Schools in the Windward District had the largest enrollment decline — 2.6 percent.

Charter schools, both here and nationally, have come under increasing scrutiny as educators debate their effectiveness. In Hawai'i, charter schools have had equal or higher standardized test scores for the past two years than traditional schools.

But several of the schools have struggled financially and are still trying to find their way academically. Jim Shon, a former state lawmaker and associate director at the Hawai'i Educational Policy Center, replaced Dewey Kim as executive director of charter schools after Kim resigned in June, citing a conflict of being an advocate for the schools while still under the umbrella of the state Board of Education.

Gov. Linda Lingle and state lawmakers will likely discuss whether the state's 27 charter schools are adequately financed — and whether a cap on new startup charter schools should be lifted — during the next session. The DOE has reached the limit of 23 startup charter schools under state law, so the only room for substantial growth is through the 21 remaining conversion-school slots. During the past year, two elementary schools have publicly considered converting, a decision that requires strong school and community support.

Charter-school enrollment grew by 14.8 percent this school year, up to 5,167 students. "I think charter schools are getting a better reputation, getting a little bit better known in the community," Shon said.

Debra Medeiros, whose two daughters are part of Thompson Academy, said it can be challenging at first, especially for parents not familiar with home-schooling or computers. The academy's elementary-school students are mostly taught at home by parents, she said, while middle and high-school students take courses online.

"I enjoy the flexibility," said Medeiros, who lives in Waipahu. "My children work best in the morning and they accomplish most of their school work by noon, so it frees up more time for us to do family activities."

Reach Derrick DePledge at ddepledge@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8084.