Island paradise has its troubles Hawaiian schools: Public education in the 50th state has benefited from a single, centralized system. But funding worries and social problems are far from confined to the mainland.

The Education Beat

March 10, 1996|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

NAALEHU, Hawaii -- It wasn't altogether paradisiacal here at the southern point of paradise last Monday morning. And schools in America's tropics aren't immune from the problems of the mainland.

It had rained cats and turtles for two days, followed by flooding and vicious winds. Route 11 east of Naalehu was closed. Teachers at Naalehu Elementary, the southernmost school in the United States, were complaining they should have had the day off, too.

They'd heard on the radio that all schools in the neighboring island of Maui had been closed. (Hawaii's 176-day school year doesn't include rain days.)

"They've got a lot more sense in Maui," grumbled one teacher.

Principal Peter A. Volpe was concerned. He visited classrooms, told the teachers to keep the kids inside during recess and warned the students to shield their eyes when they walked the 100 feet outside to the school's cafeteria.

Monday's menu at Naalehu, on the southern tip of the Big Island of Hawaii, was a chicken patty with mashed potatoes, peas and corn. That was also the menu some 400 miles to the northwest at the public school on Niihau, westernmost of the inhabited Hawaiian islands.

The state of Hawaii is also the school district of Hawaii, with one finance formula for all 243 schools, a common curriculum, a new set of learning "performance standards" not unlike those in Maryland and even a common cafeteria menu.

About the only thing they don't do commonly in the schools of the 50th state is call off school in the aftermath of a monsoon.

"There's a lot of beauty in having a centralized, single school system," said Mr. Volpe, a 50-year-old Massachusetts native who came to Hawaii in the 1960s to train for the Peace Corps and never left.

"We don't have to quarrel over who's getting more state aid, and we don't have to be raising taxes to float bonds. Teachers can concentrate on curriculum and not be bothered with irrelevant concerns," he said.

This means that Naalehu School, with 80 percent of its students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, gets the same state aid for each pupil as a wealthy school in suburban Honolulu. "And we do very well with what we have," said Mr. Volpe, ticking off several academic awards won by his students.

But Hawaii isn't heaven in the classroom. The down side is that schools are generally not well supported, and the state is in a 2-year-old budget crisis. Hawaii's schools spent about $5,700 on each student last year, $400 less than Maryland. But the cost of living in Hawaii is 20 percent to 35 percent higher. Teacher turnover approaches 50 percent a year in some schools, and the average teacher salary, $37,000, isn't enough to attract and hold talented instructors. Hawaii has been recruiting heavily on the mainland, hoping that young teachers will stand the "paradise penalty" in return for basking in warm year-round trade winds and always being minutes from a palm-fringed beach.

Some schools, Naalehu Elementary among them, provide housing for a few teachers, who pay $250 a month plus utilities. There's no expense for heating in Hawaii, of course, but electricity is extremely expensive, and regular gasoline sells for $1.75 a gallon.

"Hawaii is going through some tough times financially," said Greg Knudsen, communications director for the state Education Department in Honolulu, and those tough times were evident in far-away, remote Naalehu.

Mr. Volpe and his staff were preparing for the closing later this month of one of the islands' last operating sugar mills, which will bolster the area's already high unemployment rate. Lono, the native Hawaiian god of harvest and fertility, hasn't been kind to the Hawaiian sugar industry, which has seen much of its business flow to the Third World.

There have even been cuts in the budget for the grandmother who comes to Naalehu School three times a week to teach the culture and language of native Hawaiians, who constitute about 40 percent of the student body. (Whites make up 33 percent and Filipinos about 15 percent.) "The kids are pretty well behaved here," said Charmaine Keanu, who is in charge of discipline at Naalehu. "But like everywhere else, we're experiencing the problems of dysfunctional families, families where there's no communication."

Masako Sakata, a veteran teacher, blamed television for what she sees as an increase in violent behavior among Naalehu students. Ms. Sakata works in the school's Title I program, which provides federal money for schools with students from low-income homes. Television didn't come to the southernmost point of the United States until the early 1960s, she said, and experienced teachers can plot the deterioration in student behavior from that time on.

"Yes," said Mr. Volpe, "we're poor, we have high unemployment, high alcoholism, a high drug rate, a high abuse rate in families. All the things you have on the mainland. When I came here we didn't know what a drug baby was. Now we have several of them, and we have to deal with that.

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