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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, September 14, 2006

Students can hear her now

Video: Ala Wai Elementary copes with noise from nearby sewer work

By Robbie Dingeman
Advertiser Staff Writer

Ala Wai Elementary School teacher Mae Kuba explains a math concept to fifth-grader Jesse Fujita while wearing a wireless microphone so other students can hear despite sewer-line construction noise.

BRUCE ASATO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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A sound meter measures the noise from sewer work near the school at 83.7 decibels.

BRUCE ASATO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Ala Wai Elementary fifth-grade teacher Mae Kuba talks to her students using a wireless microphone that transmits her voice to a wall-mounted amplifier/speaker, allowing the whole class to hear her above the noise of sewer construction just yards away from her classroom.

BRUCE ASATO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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For 10-year-old Robianne Tucker, a new donated sound system means she can hear her fifth-grade teacher decode fractions even with a construction generator humming about a hundred feet away.

"It's very clear. It's not like she's whispering. You can hear and you can understand," Robianne said.

When the city's emergency sewer work coincided with the start of this school year, the students at Ala Wai Elementary School had trouble.

"We couldn't hear our teacher. We kept asking her, 'What? Huh?' Now we can hear. It's much more better," Robianne said.

For her classmate, 10-year-old Jesse Fujita, the difference was simple: "You can hear much better and you don't have to yell."

The noise had plagued Ala Wai Elementary since late July, but help came the next month from a group of local businesses that donated money for the new sound system under a plan coordinated by the city.

The city sewer project follows the March 24 rupture of a major sewer line through Waikiki just across the Ala Wai Canal from the school which forced the city to dump 48 million gallons of raw sewage into the canal. The contractors have since installed an emergency bypass line that could be used to prevent such dumping in the future and are working on a pipe to replace the 42-year-old pipe that broke.


The city and the construction managers set up a baseyard along the canal and behind the elementary school, which is attended by about 260 students in grades kindergarten through five, with some preschoolers.

School principal Charlotte Unni said she became "very, very, very worried" when construction workers fenced off a playfield the students use.

Teachers and staff getting ready for the school year to start heard the pile-driving, which continued for the first two days of school, July 27 and 28. "It was very rough the first day of school," Unni said. "It was very, very loud."

Unni said the pile-driving noise drowned out the teachers and students, so the school first tried closing the doors and windows, which made it too hot. Then they evacuated the classrooms closest to the construction for the first two days of school, shuffling students to the library so that learning would continue.

The construction crews track the noise constantly with meters. A spokesman said levels just outside the classroom nearest the pile-driving pit indicated an average noise level of 77.4 decibels, below the state's maximum permissible level. But that still compares to having a garbage truck doing pickup on your street all day.

To help the school, nine companies came forward several connected to the sewer construction project and donated $18,500 to the McCully-Mo'ili'ili school. The donations came from Hawaiian Dredging Construction Co., Healy Tibbitts Builders, Bank of Hawaii, First Hawaiian Bank Foundation, Hawai'i Hotel & Lodging Association, Servco Pacific Inc., M & E Pacific, Hilton Hawaiian Village Beach Resort & Spa and Ho'akea Communications.


Fifth-grade teacher Mae Kuba used the wireless microphone to teach a lesson in comparing and ordering fractions yesterday.

"It's helped the students focus a lot better on their reading and writing and math," Kuba said. Students can hear her easily without raising her voice.

"I can be anywhere in the classroom and be heard," she said.

Unni said the sound system will remain for years after the construction ends, which won't happen until the end of the year at least.

She said the systems were installed in 21 rooms, which adds up to most of the school's classrooms and all of those requested. She said the school determined the systems didn't work for kindergarten and a specialty class but installed them in all the others.

Unni said the school first learned of the tech possibilities with hearing-impaired students but found that some systems squeaked or didn't work. The school is very happy with what they have now. "It's awesome," she said.

She said the equipment filters out all kinds of distractions "from the kids playing in PE outside, or the birds chirping or the construction noise or the grass cutters."

Ten-year-old Christina Lipa said the speaker system helps her learn. "The construction was very noisy," she said. "We're happy. I wish they had it sooner."


Mayor Mufi Hannemann thanked the schoolchildren and their teachers for their patience with the noise. "We had that major terrible sewage spill here at the Ala Wai," he said by way of kid-friendly explanation.

He said he was happy that the private companies were able to help pay for equipment to help keep the noise out of the classroom. He knew the sewer work would have an impact on the school and told city officials to work with contractors to help.

Schools superintendent Pat Hamamoto also thanked the donors. "We all thought air conditioners were the answer," Hamamoto said. But the portable audio system worked out to be "the next best thing," she said.

"How many of you think you can hear your teachers better now?" she asked more than 250 students seated in the cafeteria. Hands flew up across the room.

Unni praised the companies that donated the money, both for the gift and for the care and support they showed. She said construction manager Jim Wanner of M&E Pacific went to the school every day "to make sure our ears were not being damaged."

Hannemann told the kids to remember that they could grow up to be mayor someday, like he did after attending three public elementary schools in Kalihi.

"Good things happen to people who are patient," he said.

Reach Robbie Dingeman at rdingeman@honoluluadvertiser.com.

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