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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Thursday, September 30, 2004

Wai'anae teen works to realize a cool dream

By Treena Shapiro
Advertiser Education Writer

If students on the Wai'anae Coast feel a little cooler in the classroom, they might have Jesse Johnasen to thank.

Name: Jesse Johnasen

Age: 17

School: Wai'anae High School

Grade: Senior

Johnasen, 17, a senior at Wai'anae High School, is the inspiration behind state Rep. Maile Shimabukuro's efforts to outfit 500 hot Leeward classrooms with fans.

Johnasen, a self-proclaimed "regular, average kid," has spent three years collecting signatures and lobbying for air-conditioning at his school. While only the school's hottest portable classrooms and two buildings have since received air-conditioners, his efforts have put the spotlight on classroom conditions for students in his district.

"It is impossible to try to do our work in the heat," Johnasen said.

It all started as playful banter between Johnasen and a friend during their freshman history class. Since the heat in their portable classroom made it hard to think during exams and quizzes, they joked that they should circulate a petition or go on strike until the room was air-conditioned.

Teacher Jeanne Harris overheard, and encouraged Johnasen to start a petition. "She told me that in my future she could see me doing important things for the community, and that made me feel obligated to do something for my school," he said.

Within three months, Johnasen had collected more than 1,000 signatures and was attending community meetings to generate interest in cooling the classrooms.

Initially rebuffed by school officials and lawmakers, Johnasen persevered, and in 2002 caught the attention of Shimabukuro, D-45th (Wai'anae, Makaha), while pleading his case at various community meetings.

"It was very moving to see this sophomore get up in front of these adults and very confidently make an announcement," she said. "He is very mature and very articulate."

Shimabukuro soon had an opportunity to feel the heat first-hand when she went to the high school campus to speak to the students. "I was just dying," she said. "My clothes were sticking to my skin. The heat was really unbearable."

She remembered Johnasen and had him fax the petition to her office, which she keeps as a reminder that something needs to be done.

In August, she started a drive to put at least two fans in every classroom in her district. So far, Makaha and Leihoku elementary schools have received fans. Johnasen's former church, the Wai'anae Assembly of God, donated $200 and two air-conditioners to Wai'anae High, where about 40 fans have been installed.

Johnasen said he's proud his petition made an impact, but he's still hoping for air-conditioning in the classrooms. The fans help, but not necessarily the whole classroom, he said. "Students are very selfish with fans. They want to keep them (pointed at) themselves."

Who helped you?

Jeanne Harris, freshman history teacher. "She inspired me," Johnasen said.

Do you have any advice for other kids who might want to follow your example?

"If they want to do something for the school, don't give up," Johnasen said. "If you follow your heart, good things will happen."

Reach Treena Shapiro at tshapiro@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8014.