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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, April 27, 2006

Down-to-earth education in Kona

By Beverly Creamer
Advertiser Education Writer

Stacey Breining and Josh Awa plant a koa seedling during a reforestation trip to Mount Hualalai on the Big Island, part of West Hawai'i Explorations Academy's Aloha 'Aina Project.

West Hawai'i Explorations Academy photo

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Where: 73-4460 Queen Ka'ahumanu Highway, No. 105, Kailua, Kona; near the Natural Energy Laboratory at Keahole Point in North Kona on the Big Island.

Phone: (808) 327-4751

Co-Directors: Curtis Muraoka and Heather Nakakura

School colors: Silver, white, blue and green

History: The West Hawai'i Explorations Academy began as a school-within-a-school focused on science at Konawaena High; in 1994 it opened at the Natural Energy Laboratory with 53 students. In 2000 Explorations Academy became one of Hawai'i's first charter schools, and the state's first charter high school with grades 9-12. It has since added grades 7 and 8.

Testing: How West Hawai'i Explorations Academy students fared on the most recent standardized tests.

  • Stanford Achievement Test: Listed is the combined percentage of pupils scoring average and above average, compared with the national combined average of 77 percent. Tenth-grade reading, 76 percent; math, 80 percent.

  • Hawai'i State Assessment: Listed is the combined percentage of pupils meeting or exceeding state standards, and a comparison with the state averages. Tenth-grade reading, 36 percent, compared with state average of 42.3 percent; math, 25 percent, compared with 19.6 percent.

    Enrollment: 155, at capacity

    Low-income enrollment: None

    Recent awards: The 2005 Intel and Scholastic Schools of Distinction Award for Science Achievement — that earned the school $250,000 in prizes — and the Blue Ribbon Lighthouse Schools award. Both programs focus on recognizing innovative schools.

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    When 10th-grader Taylor Vail goes to school each day, she might head down to a Kona beach for a snorkel survey of the coral growing offshore as part of a long-term project with other students to follow the health of the reef.

    Or Taylor might work on a project with classmates to build a remote robotic underwater submersible with a motor and camera and capable of performing tasks.

    Or she might assist on a project to assess the intelligence of an octopus said to be that of an average house cat and determine whether it can be taught to open a jar and eat a hunk of frozen squid inside.

    Taylor's experience at the West Hawai'i Explorations Academy, a public charter school based at the Natural Energy Laboratory at Keahole Point in North Kona on the Big Island, isn't unique to her. The science-based school's 155 students have a vast selection of opportunities, from designing their own seahorse-breeding projects to building airplanes, collecting plankton, creating electric cars and much more.

    "I'm always excited to come to school and find out what new things my projects will throw at me," said Taylor, 15, who has been interested in marine biology since she was 4 and plans to make it her career. "You take charge of your own learning here and I'm excited about that."

    In its 12-year history the explorations academy has seen its enrollment triple, had two national awards land on its doorstep, and had 15,000 children from Hawai'i and other parts of the world visit on field trips.

    Academy students are expected to present their projects to visiting students. As a result they become experienced public speakers used to sharing knowledge and discoveries with others.

    What are you most proud of: "We're proud of the fact we're so different and that our kids like school," said co-director Curtis Muraoka. "We have kids who say, 'I hated school until I came to WHEA.' They like that they have a choice in what they learn. They propose project ideas and anything they can propose that they can make happen, they can do it here as long as there's a science element. A lot (of the students) end up being scientists."

    Best-kept secret: "Our school," Muraoka said. "We kind of get ignored by everybody because we're so different." Along with the science projects, students take courses in history, math and art.

    Everybody at our school knows: "Every child knows every adult and vice versa," Muraoka said. "Because we're a small school, everybody knows everybody."

    Our biggest challenge: "Adequate funding and facilities, as it is with all charter schools."

    What we need: "$8 million to build a new campus," Muraoka said. "The Energy Lab has a 5-acre parcel set aside for us when we raise enough capital." The lab hopes the school will eventually become part of an alternative energy research consortium that will offer a closer partnership.

    Special events: The 15,000th visitor to the campus as part of the Aloha Kai Project, which was developed in partnership with the University of Hawai'i's Sea Grant Extension as an elementary science resource. Long-term student-driven projects include a 9,600-gallon reef simulation tank and a 14,000-gallon shark lagoon.

    Reach Beverly Creamer at bcreamer@honoluluadvertiser.com.