It's been a whirlwind of activity for our public schools since the new school year kicked off a couple weeks ago — particularly at Keonepoko Elementary.
Last year, Keonepoko was shuttered due to the Puna lava flow that was steadily creeping toward Pahoa town.
Students and staff were relocated to other schools and to a temporary campus of portables — "Keonepoko North" — erected in record time on the grounds of Keaau High.
When the lava threat subsided earlier this year, the Department announced
Keonepoko would reopen for the 2015-16 school year. But there's a lot more to reopening a school than simply unlocking the doors.
We caught up with Keonepoko Principal Kasey Eisenhour, right, to see how the transition back has been. She was newly assigned to the school this year, after serving as vice principal at Pahoa Elementary, which absorbed many of Keonepoko's students and staff during the emergency. Eisenhour is a 23-year Hawaii DOE educator, with 10 years on Hawaii Island.
Q&A with Principal Kasey Eisenhour
How have the first few days of school been?
Actually, great. Probably the hardest part was getting everyone back in, moving house — it’s a long, tedious task. Thinking about all the work, it’s remarkable how happy everyone is. It’s like being back at home.
But it really was a lot of work. Now that school's under way, we’re thinking of ways to show some appreciation to the teachers and especially the custodial staff who went
above and beyond. Closing a school like this, there are tiny infrastructure fixes all over the place — minor water leaks and others. There's of course significant cleaning, scrubbing out the mold. Also, when the school closed, they took out everything and anything that might be taken during the closure — piping, wiring — so all of that is being put back together.
We still don’t have a functioning cafeteria, so the food is being prepared and brought over from Pahoa High School, and that's been going smoothly. It’ll take a while for all the working parts to be back to normal, but we're on our way.
You were vice principal at another impacted school (Pahoa El) during the lava emergency as well as
Hurricane Iselle before that. What has been your approach to help create a stable learning environment in the midst of emergencies?
It’s just to keep moving forward and to present that to the kids. They're looking to us for that. Our focus is learning, and we want to give the students the opportunity to do that. We had the hurricanes, and then the lava flow — but always the focus has been on the learning with the least amount of disruption, despite the disruption. It’s worked.
Are you still seeing fall out from those emergencies, even with kids and staff returning more or less to “normal” conditions?
We're still keeping an eye on our student population. Originally when the school closed, public housing wasn’t as available as it was before. It’s picking up again, but it definitely impacted our student numbers. Some families moved out of the community. Others stayed because they didn’t want their kids to go through that transition. We're doing our student count now, and we're only a little short of what we expected.
But the kids, the families, the community, the staff — everyone's really happy to be back.
When Keonepoko closed, the kupuna helped the kids and staff through the emotions of it by tying messages for Pele to the school gate. Are those still there?
We talked with the kupuna and did a blessing on the first day of school. We asked about removing the messages, we want to do it in an appropriate way. The messages will be placed into a time capsule by the ahu (stone shrine), which is at the piko (center) of the school. That’s what everyone was saying to the kids when we came back — "See, your messages worked! Pele listened!" That was a good day.
If you could wave a magic wand and get exactly what your school community needs right now, what would that be?
Everything is running well. I’m amazed at how happy the teachers are, I think they have a new appreciation for their home here. Space was pretty tight at the transitional campus. Also, it was sad for the community when Keonepoko was closed: you could see the mold was building up, the grass was growing up. We're very happy to be back. It’s a beautiful campus, it needs to have students in it.
If I could wave a wand, I'd say a fully staffed and functioning cafeteria, and playground equipment for our upper elementary students.
What goals are you setting for the school year?
We're focused on learning and focused on our support systems, so that students can do more than just learn — they should excel, show growth. And also, to maintain some normalcy this year. I don’t want to throw anything new at staff. We need a year of balance.
Anything you’d like to add?
I'm just happy to be here. With Keonepoko, I can now say that I've worked at all the schools in the Pahoa Complex, so I have a really good picture of the community. This is my home, it’s the community I want to serve. I’m going to be here a long time.