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Lahaina Teachers Say More Help Is Needed For Struggling West Maui Schools

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Lahaina Teachers Say More Help Is Needed For Struggling West Maui Schools

May 24, 2024 | 8:19 am ET
By Megan Tagami/Civil Beat
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Students began returning to Lahaina schools in mid-October, but some parents chose to enroll their children elsewhere for the academic year. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
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Students began returning to Lahaina schools in mid-October, but some parents chose to enroll their children elsewhere for the academic year. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

Teacher retention and student safety are top of mind for West Maui families and school and union leaders as an academic year marked by deadly wildfires comes to a close. 

Since August, enrollment at Lahaina’s four public schools has dropped by roughly 1,000 students. Some families are still hesitant to return their children to the campuses next year, citing concerns around emergency preparedness and the mental health toll of attending classes near the burn zone.

In addition to a declining student population, the teachers’ union predicts that Lahaina schools may face greater challenges recruiting and retaining educators next year. Some teachers say the Hawaii Department of Education has failed to support its employees after the fires by not offering additional leave and flexibility for teachers who needed to find housing and move out of West Maui. 

Lahaina teachers are also asking for more counselors and mental health support for students next school year.

The union is now mobilizing to push the superintendent and Hawaii Board of Education to fulfill educators’ requests, including pay raises for Lahaina teachers and expanded paid leave benefits.   

DOE had already designated Lahaina as a hard-to-staff location in 2020 due to the area’s high number of teacher vacancies and emergency hires. 

“It’s just incredibly stressful for so many people,” said Jarrett Chapin, an English teacher at Lahainaluna High. 

Staffing Challenges

Even before the fires, hiring teachers in Lahaina was difficult, Chapin said. Housing was scarce, and the cost of living was high — even with the annual $5,000 bonus Lahaina teachers have received since 2020 due to severe staffing shortages in the area. 

The union has asked DOE to raise the annual bonus to $8,000 in response to the rising cost of living on Maui. The department said in March it would not fulfill the request, although superintendent Keith Hayashi said Thursday that it’s an option he’s now willing to consider.

Hayashi added that the department has provided mental health support to students and teachers through staff trainings, partnerships with the Department of Health, online platforms and more.

Earlier this month, the department was hiring for five teaching positions at Princess Nahienaena Elementary, King Kamehameha III Elementary and Lahainaluna High School. The department said funding for Lahaina schools will not drastically decline next year but did not specify if it will be hiring fewer teachers than usual because of reduced student enrollment. 

In Wailuku, Iao Intermediate is currently hiring seven teachers for next year, while Wailuku Elementary is hiring four teachers. Schools in other parts of Maui are facing similar hiring needs.

Andrea Eshelman, deputy director and chief negotiator for HSTA, said she’s concerned more teachers will leave their jobs at the end of the year because of severe housing shortages in West Maui and DOE’s lackluster response to supporting faculty after the fires. HSTA previously asked DOE to provide post-disaster leave or mileage reimbursement to teachers who lost their homes in the fires and relocated from West Maui, but the department rejected the requests.

In response, HSTA has begun a petition asking DOE to initiate a program that would allow teachers to donate their sick days to Maui teachers affected by the fires. As of Thursday, the petition received over 600 signatures from union members across the state, and over 20 teachers testified at Thursday’s BOE meeting asking the department to establish the leave bank and provide additional support for educators.

The bank would allow Maui teachers to take paid time off to address the aftermath of the fires.

During Thursday’s meeting, Lahainaluna teacher Michelle Abad Brummel said she lost her home in the fires and is temporarily living in South Maui. Her family spends nearly $500 each month on gas, and she’s resorted to using sick days to visit her home in the burn zone since DOE didn’t offer additional leave to teachers affected by the fires. 

“There will be one less good teacher in a school already in need,” Abad Brummel said.

Ashley Olson, a teacher at Lahainaluna, said DOE should also provide more mental health support to staff and students. DOE has made crisis counseling and mental health providers available to Lahaina staff, but Olson said she would like professionals to consistently check in with teachers and proactively offer their help.

“I’m pretty unimpressed with the progress we’ve made,” Olson said. “Do better by all of Maui.”

BOE members agreed with teachers’ requests on Thursday and said they would offer more support in the next school year.

“We heard you loud and clear,” said board member Makana McClellan.

Alternative Learning Options

Before the August fires, the four Lahaina public schools served around 3,000 students. Next year, their combined enrollment is expected to drop to roughly 2,000. 

In November, DOE estimated that most of the students who had not yet returned to Lahaina campuses had enrolled in other public schools on Maui. A smaller percentage of students had moved out of state or enrolled in Hawaii schools outside of the DOE.

Rita McClintock, who lives in Kaanapali, has no plans to return her daughter to Lahaina Intermediate in the fall. In September, McClintock enrolled her daughter in Hawaii Technology Academy, a charter school that began offering hybrid classes in West Maui within a month of the fires.

The school initially offered instruction out of the Door of Faith Church in Lahaina but moved into the space formerly occupied by Kapalua’s Pineapple Grill restaurant in March.

McClintock said she believed DOE campuses had safe water and air quality after the Department of Health completed extensive testing on the schools in the fall. But she worried about whether DOE had adequate safety plans in place if another fire began near the schools. 

“I trusted the science, but I didn’t necessarily trust they had a plan in place if they got bad news,” McClintock said. 

Now, McClintock said, she plans on keeping her daughter at HTA until eighth grade. She doesn’t want to disrupt her daughter’s education, she added, and she’s found a place that offers her family stability. 

Ginny Kamohalii-Dew, community coordinator for HTA’s Lahaina campus, said they expect approximately 60% of students to return to the school next year. Many families are moving out of West Maui, she added, and can no longer make the commute to campus. The school enrolls roughly 115 students.

The charter school placed a strong emphasis on children’s mental health and recovery this year, she said, adding that she’s especially proud of students’ end-of-year projects that reimagined what Lahaina could look like once it’s fully rebuilt.  

“If our kids leave happy this year, we’ve done enough,” Kamohalii-Dew said. 

Other families are still unsure about their children’s futures. 

Before the fires, Miriam Keo’s two children attended the Hawaiian immersion program offered at Lahaina Intermediate. Since March, Lahaina’s Hawaiian immersion students have attended classes at the temporary campus for King Kamehameha III Elementary. 

The department hasn’t decided if Hawaiian immersion students can remain on the temporary campus next year, and Keo said she’s still considering her family’s options for next year. Like McClintock, she’s not convinced students would be able to evacuate safely during emergencies but wants her children to remain in the same school as their peers.

“I just want to keep my keiki wherever the majority goes,” Keo said.

Civil Beat’s education reporting is supported by a grant from Chamberlin Family Philanthropy.