Word of Life's closing called a 'sad' ending
By Will Hoover
Advertiser Staff Writer
The school closing was announced at a parent and student meeting at Word of Life Academy on Monday night. That meeting lasted about a half-hour.
Then came a special staff meeting with the school's junior class to explain how Word of Life would assist students in transferring to other schools.
"It was sad and it was emotional," said school volleyball coach Lee Ann Setele. "I think the junior class is taking it the hardest. They want to be together. Now they don't know if they'll all be together and graduate together with their friends — as a senior class."
After 17 years, Word of Life Academy will shut down at the end of this school year because of the economic downturn.
"After much prayer, research, counsel, and deliberation, the board of directors has decided that this will be WOLA's last year in operation," said the school's headmaster, Royce Tanouye, in a statement.
"The economic downturn facing our state and our nation has affected WOLA and our families, and despite the outstanding efforts of the administration and staff, and the significant investment that has been made in the school, dropping enrollments along with declining revenues have made a long-term future unsustainable."
The school on South Street increased its profile among private schools with championship sports teams and advanced media, music and performing arts programs. Graduates won scholarships to top schools. The academy gave out more than $1 million in scholarships.
Royce said the academy will continue to school its 250 students until June 4.
Word of Life senior Jon Sampaga tried to maintain an upbeat attitude.
"We've been taught really well in this school," said Sampaga, 17. "And I think what we can grasp in these last couple of months is how we can keep our faith strong. It's not the end for any of the students. It's just the start of a new beginning. All of the students have a bright future."
Roberta Bishop, associate director of the Hawai'i Association of Independent Schools, said she hadn't spoken to WOLA staff, but added, "knowing our school community, I believe our schools will try to help."
Overall, among association schools, she said enrollment had dropped by 2 percent since last year. But while some schools are struggling during these times, others are holding their own — and a few are even prospering, Bishop said.
One campus in the latter category is Saint Francis School. Sister Joan of Arc Souza, the principal there, said her school had inquiries from students from Word of Life.
"We have had a couple of phone calls from Word of Life students already today," said Souza, whose kindergarten through 12th grade enrollment jumped from 385 last year to more than 420 this year. "I have one boy already enrolled — he came maybe six weeks ago. I guess they kind of knew what was coming."
Small private schools that aren't affiliated with larger institutions or lack a sizeable endowment are at a disadvantage in this tough economy, Souza said. Unless the economy takes a marked turn for the better in Hawai'i — which she doesn't see happening any time soon — she said Word of Life Academy might not be the only one to shut its doors.
"Unless the school has some outside income it would be very difficult," Souza said. "The tuition is going to have to be significant. It's going to be rough.
"Some schools that are real tiny might not make it."