School prides itself on closeness
By Mary Vorsino
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Mary Vorsino
The 512 students who attend Ka'u High and Pahala Elementary School on the Big Island commute from across a massive rural school district, which is geographically as large as the entire island of O'ahu. Some start the day with a 40-minute bus ride.
But for many, the difficulty in getting to school is the least of their academic barriers. Many come from low-income households, and 16.5 percent speak English as a second language. Nearly two-thirds qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, a common measure of poverty.
"We're faced with many challenges," said school Principal Sharon Beck. "But what I've really noticed is the students and teachers are problem-solvers."
And the size of the school decreases the chances of students falling through the cracks. At the first sign of a student in trouble, Beck said, teachers and counselors move into action. "The students and families know the staff personally. The teachers are part of this community," she said.
"Everybody knows everyone. You're not one of 1,000."
The school was founded in 1881 to serve children whose parents worked at nearby sugar plantations. It moved to its current location in 1936, the same year it started admitting ninth-graders. Today, the school and its sprawling, 33-acre campus, with a county swimming pool and a public and school library, is a gathering place for families from Pahala to Na'alehu and Hawaiian Ocean View Estates.
Connie Hand started as a student activities coordinator at the school 15 years ago, after falling in love with the Big Island during vacations from Oregon.
She said the beauty of the school is in the people, students, teachers, staff and community members, all of whom try to make the campus a warm, nurturing environment. "I love it here," she said. "The kids are wonderful."
For Beck, who became the school's principal in July, one of the biggest challenges is ensuring the school meets requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act.
The campus has struggled to meet the federal mandate and was put into restructuring, the most serious sanction under No Child Left Behind, in the 2003-2004 school year.
Recently, the school was forced to cut its high school elective offerings so teachers could focus more on remedial math and reading courses. At the elementary school, students got more English and math instruction.
Reach Mary Vorsino at email@example.com.