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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, June 6, 2010

A bittersweet graduation

By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Word of Life Academy 2010 graduate Arden Lomboy signals his pleasure as he clutches his diploma during the school's final commencement ceremony.

ANDREW SHIMABUKU | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Lea Dildy stacks lei on her nephew, Word of Life Academy graduate Adrian Devkaran.

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Word of Life Academy's final graduation ceremony yesterday was a bittersweet affair for 22 seniors heading off to the next phase of their lives and more than 300 underclassmen who will spend their remaining high school years at other schools, but there was more celebration than sadness at the event itself.

The private religious school in Downtown Honolulu closed Friday after 17 years, another victim, founder Art Sepulveda said, of Hawai'i's economic downturn.

At its peak a few years ago, the school had a total enrollment of about 500 students spread out over three campuses. By the time the school closed its doors for good, that number had dwindled to just 325.

"It's bittersweet, but we see it as one door closing and another opening," Sepulveda said. "There are mixed emotions. It's very sad, but in everything we've done, we've succeeded."

Yesterday's ceremony featured several musical performances, video messages from each graduate, and addresses by headmaster Royce Tanouye, Sepulveda and Sepulveda's wife and fellow pastor Kuna all enhanced by the school's impressive high-tech camera and projection system.

Roughly half the students at the academy are members of the church, Art Sepulveda said.

"They could go anywhere for the education," he said. "What they got here was a focus on character and belief. These parents were looking for something that resonated deeper in the human soul."

Tuition for the school was just under $9,000 per year, a difficult burden for many of the parents.

"It's very hard to turn away hearts," Sepulveda said. "We probably offered more scholarships than we should have, and that's part of the reason we're closing."

New graduate Cory Okinaka said students were "devastated" when news broke in March that the school was closing.

Okinaka transferred to the school three years ago because of its affiliation with the Interscholastic League of Honolulu. He plans to attend community college for a year before transferring to the University of Hawai'i-Hilo to study pharmacy and play baseball.

His father, Dwayne Okinaka, said he valued the school's innovative approach to education.

"They're very forward looking with their use of technology," Okinaka said.

"Everything was really different. It was an excellent school."

New graduate Samantha Ford, who had attended the school since seventh grade, said she enjoyed going to the school because it offered a loving environment and the opportunity for daily prayer.

"I just feel happy right now," she said. "I don't feel any of that sadness."

As Arden Lomboy stood sweating under the weight of a dozen lei and five inner tubes, he looked plaintively at the swirl of classmates and family in the auditorium.

His younger brother Daren, a sophomore, will transfer to Kailua High School next year.

"It's sad because the school is closed and all of our friends will be scattered around the island," he said. "As alumni, we're not going to have anyplace to come back and visit."