A concerned community rallies to perpetuate Queen Liliuokalani’s legacy in Kaimuki

Barb Forsyth

KAIMUKI—As one of the older schools on Oahu, and bearing the name of Hawaii’s beloved last reigning monarch, the prospect of closing Queen Liliuokalani Elementary is a source of great concern to many within Kaimuki. The school is being considered for closure due to overall budget problems and underutilization within the Kalani Complex of elementary schools, of which it is a part. The threat of closure has been looming for about 30 years, which, ironically, has likely led to the reduced enrollment and cutting of programs that are cited as reasons for consolidation. Today, it’s looking like the 2010-11 school year really could be the school’s last unless the community can win the battle to save it. 

Queen Liliuokalani is said to have personally dedicated the school on April 12, 1912, shortly after she created the Queen Liliuokalani trust. 

In keeping with the spirit of the Queen, the school’s mission has been to guide and nurture students to be caring, healthy in body, mind, and spirit, successful in living and learning, and to have strong inner character. Her mottto was “E onipa’a ka ‘imi na’auao” (Be steadfast in the seeking of knowledge).

Former principal Karen Tsuki told me the story of how, as legend would have it, Queen Liliuokalani would walk around with a skirt full of pockets filled with treats for the children. The Queen is remembered for her generous heart, intelligence, musical ability, and unrelenting dedication to the children and people of Hawaii.

While Tsuki was principal at the school, she continued to observe her spirit in the commitment of the teachers, staff, parents, and children that comprised the school. One highlight of her tenure there was in 1997, the 85th anniversary of the school, when it received the Public Schools of Hawaii Foundation Good Ideas Grant, thanks to the hard work of one its teachers, Julia McCullen. This grant enabled the creation of 10 Hawaiiain quilts created from students’ designs (each class picked the design they liked best) representing stories of the Queen. 

McCullen was also largely responsible for a traditional Hawaiian garden on campus, which sadly no longer remains, as well as the grant for the famous mural to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the school’s dedication in 1992. Technically a mosaic, the myriad tiles that comprise the work were each designed by a student or staff member and together form a likeness of the Queen. 

Having been involved with the school for many years, both as a principal and now with the Kaimuki Lions Club and the Kaimuki Business and Professional Association (KBPA), Tsuki feels passionately that the campus should continue to personify the legacy of the Queen and reflect the wishes of the current families at the school. The school is integral to the vibrant Kaimuki community, having been a part of its rich history for so long, she explains.

A school that offers this kind of a history within a tight-knit community such as Kaimuki is not going to close quietly.

A sense of history and nostalgia is a persistent theme in the current fight to save the school. One current parent, Lori Simao, sends her four year old, who marks the fifth generation of her family to attend the school, which began with her husband’s grandmother. She met her husband at the school, to whom she has now been married for fourteen years. A school that offers this kind of a history within a tight-knit community such as Kaimuki is not going to close quietly. In Simao’s words, “[she] is not just lying back and waiting for it to close.”

I called the current interim principal, Dr. Raelene Chock, to get her thoughts on the likely consolidation. Chock came to the school in July 2010 to facilitate the consolidation process. Her primary concern is to make sure the children at Queen Liliuokalani school have a “positive and productive” school year despite the uncertainty about the future. She pointed me to the recent Department of Education consolidation study for the Kalani complex of elementary schools, which includes Kahala, Liholiho, Waialae, Waikiki, and Wilson, as well as Liliuokalani. 

To read the consolidation study for the Kalani complex of elementary schools, click here

All of these campuses have consistently met their academic requirements, yet all of them are below capacity, with the exception of Wilson. Queen Liliuokalani is the smallest of the six. However, enrollment figures are not the only factor considered for consolidation. The study also examines aspects such as facilities, programs, achievement scores, proximity of the schools to each other, potential financial savings, alternative uses for the campuses, demographic projections, and the social impact of consolidation.

The idea is to find out how consolidation can occur in such a way that students within the area will be serviced as well or better than before. For example, larger campuses can support a wider variety of programs and educational opportunities, which can benefit students so long as the small classroom size is maintained. On the other hand, one of the strengths of the schools in the Kalani complex is their small size, which offers a feeling of “family,” so that is also being taken into consideration.

The comparison to family is apt because in many ways, consolidation can feel like divorce to the children who attend. Children spend a large percentage of their lives in school, and many eat the majority of their calories within their walls. Moving to a new school requires a series of adjustments that can negatively affect performance—at least in the short term. Consolidation also causes a reshuffling of teachers, administrators, and support staff within the district. Some have to leave the district to maintain employment. Others lose their jobs entirely. 

Schools are also charged with emotional energy, so that even the smoothest of school consolidations present disruptions to the community. An empty campus creates an awkward vacancy within the neighborhood, which can have an adverse effect on the morale of nearby businesses, some of whom cater to the students and parents or have children attending the schools themselves.

A group called Friends of Queen Liliuokalani School has formed to galvanize the community and develop a strategy to perpetuate the school’s rich tradition. While there is not yet a single set course of action that has been decided upon, there is a petition to save the school that is circulating and many alternative options to closure proposed. 

According to Simao, the School Community Council (SCC) is on board to save the school. The SCC is comprised of a school’s stakeholders—principals, teachers, school staff, parents, students, and community members—who form the major part of the leadership structure.

Regular meetings have been held to decide what path should be taken to preserve the campus as a school. The idea is to gather enough consensus and resources from within the community to strengthen their case. One idea that has garnered a lot of support is to transform the campus into a charter school or magnet school, possibly a middle school, with a specialty such as technology, performing arts, or Hawaiian studies. There is also an initiative to “greenify” the campus, adding solar voltaics and the like. Various grants will be pursued to this effect. 

A date for a public hearing will be set soon, at which the arguments for against consolidation will be presented, after which the decision rests with the superintendent. Chock recommends that concerned parents share their desire to keep the campus as an institution to serve children and gather the appropriate data to support their position. Maintaining the status quo may not be a viable option, but the stronger the case for preservation as a school or educational facility of some kind, the better chance we’ll have of seeing it carry on the Queen’s legacy.