At Connections Public Charter School on Wednesday, Jazarei Murphy, third from right, a junior, helps third-graders Colin Calip and Matthew Cole as they read one of the "I Spy" series of picture riddle books. In background, 11th-grader Pomai Padilla, second from left, reads with third-graders Tama Mareko and Hua Uehara. - William Ing/Tribune-Herald

Hilo's newest high school

Connections PCS will graduate its first class in 2008

by John Burnett
Tribune-Herald Staff Writer

With the beginning of the school year, there are a lot of new faces at Connections Public Charter School in Hilo. But this year, many of them are older than in years past.

Connections, the state's first charter school, has added a high school to go with its established kindergarten to eighth-grade school. Connections opened its high school a week ago with 75 ninth through 11th graders, and will evolve into a four-year high school next year with about 100 students. Connections has about 330 students in kindergarten through 11th grade, according to school Principal John Thatcher.

"We're trying to develop a small high school that will be a comprehensive high school where (students) are going to get an excellent education in a way that kids are not going to just be going through rote activities, but actually educating them for their future," Thatcher said. "Abstract thought, experiences with the real world, experience with governance, experience with running the school, experiences with teaching other kids -- the purpose is for the kids to take a leadership role in how their school is going to be, so it's really their school. And that's very difficult to do in a large school."

Connections' high school is headquartered at Nani Mau Gardens, while their K-8 school is in the Kress Building at 174 Kamehameha Ave. downtown. CPCS High was established through the Coalition of Essential Schools' Small Schools Project, a five-year initiative made possible by an $18.7 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The aim, according to a statement issued by CES, is a nationwide network of more than 50 schools which embody the CES ideal of small, personalized, intellectually vibrant and equitable learning environments.

"These schools will make a difference in the lives of children and families who haven't had access to an intellectually challenging and meaningful high school education," said Small Schools Project co-director Mara Benitez in the statement. "Not only will this open up a lifetime of opportunities for these students but it will also drive the national conversation around effective school reform, propelling the small schools movement towards high quality, intellectually challenging and equitable schools."

Thatcher said that Connections will receive about $1,000 per student from the CES Small School Project grant, as well as technical assistance provided by Harmony School, a small, private CES mentor school in Bloomington, Ind.

"This peer-to-peer approach takes advantage of CES's 20 years of experience in educational innovation to launch the next generation of exemplary high schools," CES national Executive Director Lewis Cohen said in the release.

"One of the reasons this is significant is that in Hawaii, we have such large high schools," Thatcher added. "There is 40 years of research that has shown that large schools are difficult for kids who are socioeconomically disadvantaged. The quality of education is very difficult to deliver at a larger school.

CES schools share a common set of beliefs about the purpose and practice of schooling, known as the "CES Common Principles." Based on decades of research and practice, the principles call for all schools to offer personalized instruction to address individual needs and interests; small schools and classrooms, where teachers and students know each other well and work in an atmosphere of trust and high expectations; multiple assessments based on performance of authentic tasks; democratic and equitable school policies and practices; and close partnerships with the school's community.

"We're really trying to go out into the community with the kids and to have them involved with projects," Thatcher explained. "We're trying to work as much with (the University of Hawaii at Hilo) as we can, establishing a marine science program. We're trying to get involved with what we call the 'sustainable industries' on this island -- agriculture, tourism, marine science, astronomy. So we really want our kids to get exposure to all these areas."

Thatcher said that two new teachers have been hired, with several of Connections' middle school teachers moved to the high school level. He added that some of the students are taking a part of their school program via distance learning using NovaNET by Pearson Digital Learning.

"It's the same program that many of the high schools here are using for credit recovery," Thatcher said. "We're trying to use it for more than credit recovery. There are some good materials there, so we're having kids use it for some of their course work. Math is a good example. In high school, there are a lot of kids whose skill level in math is all over the place. So if you're trying to teach to kids where the skill is almost at an individualized level, that's kind of difficult (in a traditional classroom setting). So this is a way of getting the kids to work at their skill level, whatever it might be for them, that will serve their purposes much better."

John Burnett can be reached at


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