Posted on: Thursday, November 1, 2001

Our Schools | Connections Public Charter School
Move to Hilo proves vital to Connections' K-12 students

By Hugh Clark
Advertiser Big Island Bureau

HILO, Hawai'i — After her son registered at Connections Public Charter School in downtown Hilo, Makanani Kaaua said she saw "a rainbow at the end of the tunnel."

Tom Helm, chief educational officer; administrative staff members, Carol Martin and Sandy Kelly, in front of Connections

Hugh Clark • The Honolulu Advertiser

She believes "it is the best thing that has happened to 15-year-old Kealii."

She is not alone in recognizing what the school is doing for its students.

Eve Kaikala — left to raise three grandchildren following her daughter's death in a car crash — has found enrolling her two granddaughters there "was an excellent choice."

The school struggled for seven years in mauka Puna until gaining charter school status and moving to the former Kress department store in downtown Hilo. Since then, enrollment has doubled.

Why is a relatively unknown kindergarten-to-high school operation suddenly so popular when just a year ago it faced an uncertain future, hanging on in the face of administrative challenges and finally asked to leave the Mountain View Elementary School campus — where it operated as a school within a school —Κfor space reasons.

"They think out of the box," said Clifford Kapono, whose four daughters are enrolled there.

Tom Helm, chief educational officer at Connections, believes three key factors are at work.

• A smaller school is more effective for students.

• There is more 'ohana or family feeling once the faculty is allowed to interact without shackles.

• Parents want something better and different for their children, and Connections provides it as one of Hawai'i's relatively new charter schools, public schools that are freed from many of the rules and regulations to experiment with their own curriculum.

Connections has 23 faculty members — most are former DOE teachers — plus nine other paraprofessionals, meaning class sizes are kept small.

Parents say some school staff will even pick up children from home and get them to school. And parents are encouraged to share their concerns, said Kaaua.

Finally, the school's drive toward student competency is working, with students showing improvement on tests measuring performance in both mathematics and English, said Helm.

Kapono transferred his children to Connections, except for a son who attends Kamehameha Schools on O'ahu, because of John Thatcher's teaching style and philosophy. Thatcher, whose own children attend the school, is the equivalent of a vice principal. He is expected to take over Connections' management next year.

"They have a comforting, safe place; the students come first," said Kapono, a pharmaceutical consultant and former teacher.

Helm said the school's reputation is growing; in fact, Connections did no advertising to build its staff or student body.

"It was all word of mouth" based on the vision of competency, said Helm, who worked in a half-dozen Mainland states in the Southwest and as a county superintendent in northeastern California before coming to Hawai'i and Connections in 1996.

The school's students come from all over — Puna, many Hilo neighborhoods and as far away as 40 miles north to Honoka'a.

The student body is scattered throughout the building, a restored art-deco structure that also houses four Wallace Theatre screens and an ice cream store. A small, 1950s-style neon sign announces Connections' presence in the building.

The youngest children are on the first floor, the middle school on the second and the high school on the third. Helm's office is perched on a small top floor with a view of bayfront palm trees overlooking Hilo Bay.

Downtown Hilo is pleased to have the charter school, which moved there permanently in August. Stewart Hussey, president of the Hilo Downtown Improvement Association, wrote to school board president Donald Hughes:

"Since the school has opened (here) there has been a noticeable change in the downtown area ... We've just scratched the surface in making a positive difference together."

Parents of Connections students also like the changes fostered by the school.

Kaikala, a retired graphic artist, believes nurturing is the difference.

Makanani Kaaua said she finds the school "has an endless basket of tools."

Her son is involved in producing the school's first yearbook. She doubts he would have taken part had he stayed at Hilo High, despite seeing Connections as a "junk place" before enrolling.

"They do think out of the box," Kaaua said. "Your kid can have long hair or baggy pants. They (teachers and administrators) are more interested in the school."

• • •

Connections at a glance

• Where: Kamehameha Avenue in downtown Hilo

• Phone: (808) 961-3664

• Chief educational officer: Tom Helm

• Enrollment: 359 students, with 360 considered maximum

• History: Began as a school-within-a-school at Mountain View Elementary, and moved to Hilo in August

• Computers: At all levels, about 50 in all