LAHAINA - Alumni say the Boarding Department at Lahainaluna High School is struggling, with 43 students currently enrolled in the 178-year-old program and difficult questions on how to keep it sustainable for the future.
Richard "Noosh" Nishihara, a director with the Lahainaluna Boarders Association, said the program has lost a key element: giving students the opportunity to learn technical and vocational skills outside of the standard Hawaii Department of Education (DOE) curriculum.
The association hopes to work with the school; DOE; state lawmakers; businesses and organizations, such as the Makana Aloha Foundation; and the University of Hawaii Maui College to reinstitute relevant programs that could attract students from around the state to enroll in Lahainaluna's Boarding Department.
Potential programs include agriculture, marine science and renewable energy, said Nishihara, a boarder in the LHS Class of 1962.
With Lahainaluna's huge, rural campus, UHMC is intrigued with the idea of creating a lab that could benefit students from both schools, Nishihara said.
When asked how the Boarding Department can be revitalized, LHS Principal Emily DeCosta said, "The Boarding Department has evolved immensely throughout the years from its beginning over 180 years ago from having a dairy and chicken farm to a strong agriculture program.
"But through the years, we have seen many difficult changes. The most recent include the cutting of funds and the transition to the weighted student formula."
In the formula, the amount of money distributed to a school is based on individual student need, not enrollment, with a specific dollar amount allocated to educate each student.
At $500,000 per year, the Boarding Department is a special line item in the state DOE budget.
If the LHS administration wants to create a new renewable energy program for boarders, for example, it would come out of the student weighted formula, Nishihara explained.
Going into the 2014-15 school year, funding for the department is an issue.
"As always, funding is our greatest challenge; and as you know, funding affects staffing and programs," DeCosta commented.
Through living together in a dorm at LHS, punching in at 6 a.m. and working hard around the campus, students learn teamwork, camaraderie, responsibility and self-reliance at a pivotal time in their lives, Nishihara said.
"It teaches discipline and teamwork - you cannot understate that," he added.
DeCosta also emphasized the Boarding Department's positive impact on students.
"The Boarding Department's philosophy for community living centers helps students develop a sense of unity, involvement, shared responsibility, mutual-interdependence and help, as well as love, loyalty and companionship," she noted.
"Students learn leadership skills, the importance of following rules and how to collaborate on solutions to problems in a group setting. The program's structure allows first-year boarders to learn from more experienced boarders, who mentor younger students in all of their community living experiences," DeCosta continued.
"Key objectives are to teach boarder students desirable work habits, self-sufficiency, self-discipline and an understanding and acceptance of responsibility. The Boarding Department provides an optimal environment to expand students' horizons vocationally, socially, and culturally."
Lahainaluna Boarders Association President Craig Murakami explained that the Boarding Department was once self-sufficient and profitable, with boarders working in an agriculture program and running a farm with chickens, cows and pigs.
In Nishihara's day, LHS had a huge garden to supply fresh vegetables to the cafeteria. The surplus was sold to local markets and businesses.
Boarders in the carpentry program built farm structures, and students in the machine shop learned skills that prepared them for jobs at Pioneer Mill and area businesses after graduation.
"Kids wanted to come to Lahainaluna for its strong vocational program," Nishihara recalled.
The dairy closed in the 1970s, and raising poultry and the agriculture program for boarders ended in the 1980s.
With the DOE's change in emphasis to curriculum-driven learning, vocational and technical programs were made part of standard class offerings at Lahainaluna and canceled in the Boarding Department, Nishihara said.
"When (boarders) stopped doing farm work, it took away what was the underpinning objective of the Boarding Department," Nishihara said.
"The Boarding Department lost its ideology in the 1980s."
Traditions remain, but the students lost the valuable skills training not offered in "cookie cutter" Hawaii Department of Education instruction, Nishihara said.
Today, the Boarding Department students handle routine maintenance on campus. "It's a disservice to the kids," said Nishihara, who is frustrated because the department is an untapped opportunity for real learning for the boarders.
He acknowledged that times have changed. The Lahainaluna administration faces challenges in funding the Boarding Department, fitting it into the Department of Education framework, staffing dorm attendants to live with the boarders, liability, the education system's focus on standardized test scores and other factors.
During the recession in 2010, state lawmakers considered killing the program. In successfully fighting for the Boarding Department, the Lahainaluna Boarders Association joined faculty and staff to educate lawmakers on why it's unique and important.
The Lahainaluna Boarders Association wants the governor and Hawaii Legislature to authorize a task force comprised of stakeholders to determine how the boarding program can be sustained with support from the school's administration and the Department of Education.