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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, June 1, 2006

Puna student scores improve

By Kevin Dayton
Advertiser Big Island Bureau

Kea'au Middle School eighth-grader Kaeo Eggers, right, works on math in the computer lab. The school has an enrollment of 634.

KEVIN DAYTON | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Where: 16-565 Kea'au-Pahoa Road, Kea'au

Phone: (808) 982-4200

Principal: Jamil Ahmadia, three years

School nickname: Greenwaves

School colors: Green and yellow

History: Kea'au Middle School was originally founded as an elementary school called 'Ola'a School more than 100 years ago. In 1939 it became a K-9 school. It later became known as Kea'au Elementary and Intermediate School. In the 1980s the ninth grade was transferred to the high school, and in 1997 the elementary and middle schools became two separate entities. In 1998-99 the elementary school began occupancy of its new campus; it fully completed the transfer at the end of 1999. Since 1998, the middle school has been recognized as Kea'au Middle School, and includes sixth, seventh and eighth grades on the site of the original campus.

Testing: Here's how Kea'au Middle students fared on the most recent standardized tests.

• Stanford Achievement Test: Listed is the combined percentage of students scoring average and above average, compared with the national combined average of 77 percent. Eighth-grade reading, 71 percent; math, 73 percent.

• Hawai'i State Assessment: Listed is the combined percentage of students meeting or exceeding state standards, and a comparison with the state average. Eighth-grade reading, 29 percent, compared with state average of 38.2 percent; math, 21 percent, compared with 20.5 percent.

Enrollment: 634 students, in a school built for 831

Low-income enrollment: 76 percent

Computers: Approximately 72 computers located in classrooms, and three computer labs

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Kea'au Middle School is rebounding, said principal Jamil Ahmadia. The curriculum has been changed, scores are improving, behavior on campus is improving, students are more upbeat.

Perhaps most important, parents and the rest of the Kea'au community are more deeply involved in the children's education.

"I see now the community took more ownership of the school," Ahmadia said. "They are not looking, pointing fingers at Kea'au Middle, look at all the problems, look what's going on. Now, they're looking at it as Kea'au Middle is part of our community, and whatever is happening at Kea'au Middle is a reflection of the community."

Ahmadia recalled "a low point" several years ago when three students at the Puna school were caught with guns on campus in three separate incidents in a single school year. All three cases were "show-and-tell" incidents in which students brought weapons to show to friends, he said, but the potential for harm was frightening.

"This is when I called the community and said I need help," he said. He contacted businesses, churches, the police, the Family Court. "We sat down and I told them, we are facing some serious issues at this school, and I need help. The whole community got involved with this school."

Since then the Boys and Girls Club of the Big Island has taken over two classrooms and begun providing tutoring, homework coaching, sports activities and other services. The school is now looking for more space to expand the popular program.

Churches and community groups come on campus to paint, to build a new basketball court, or to help replace 150 gym lockers. The 'Ola'a Community Center comes on campus to offer activities such as face painting, art activities, cooking classes and gardening.

The Salvation Army provides counseling and anger management for troubled youths, and the Big Island Substance Abuse Council has a counselor on campus to help sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders who have drug or alcohol problems.

There is more: The National Guard this year started a program for Kea'au Middle students to teach them work skills and other ways to help them prepare for school or jobs, and the students are paid for performance. If they skip out or misbehave, they lose money.

The Army's Pohakuloa Training Area brings motivational speakers to the school and contributed money for books.

All that combined with the efforts of a dedicated staff is challenging students and showing results, Ahmadia said.

"I want to see every parent in our community be proud of Kea'au Middle School and feel that's the school that's going to meet their kids' needs," he said.

What are you most proud of? The faculty's commitment and dedication to the students.

Everybody at our school knows: Auntie Mercy Keopuhiwa, our school security attendant, who has been at Kea'au Middle for more than 20 years. She has wonderful rapport with everyone. As a strong mother-figure on campus, she's firm and respected by all, Ahmadia said.

Our biggest challenge: The school draws from a geographical area of 111.1 square miles, so a large majority of the students are bused to school from as far as 22 miles away. As a result, transportation makes it difficult for students to participate in after-school programs and activities.

What we need: One need is a covered pavilion to provide students with shelter from the rain. Another need would be to increase parent awareness of our school's programs and initiatives.

Reach Kevin Dayton at kdayton@honoluluadvertiser.com.