For a fourth generation farmer and longtime teacher, creating an indoor and outdoor classroom space for the keiki to learn both academic and life skills is a dream come true.
Licia Sakamoto, executive director of the nonprofit Ke Kula ‘O Ho’omakuapono, runs a sustainable bilingual, Hawaiian cultural and agricultural learning school, hoping to expand it into a “Private experimental school” which would end up occupying 4.7 acres of a 6.24 acre plot on Ulu Pono Farms, located at 892 Pulehuiki Road in Kula, just down the road from Hashimoto Persimmon Farm.
The Maui Planning Commission voted 7-0 last week to issue Sakamoto a special use permit to construct seven one-story classroom buildings at Ulu Pono Farms. Each classroom, which will be built in several phases, will be approximately 396 square feet each. Six of them will serve as classrooms to support agricultural learning and one will include bathrooms.
“Our vision for this school is to provide a safe and nurturing environment where children can come every day and learn” Sakamoto said during his presentation to the planning committee. “We want to balance the most recent learnings, and make the learning fun, and their learning fits and retains the old wisdoms that the stories, mo’olelo and kupuna have shared on how to live a good life. “
The permit allows Ulu Pono Farms to continue to operate as a production farm while providing Maui K-8 students, as well as early developmental and preschool students, the opportunity to “Balance their hectic technological life and slow it down by learning cultural arts, weaving, hammering, crafts”.
“We want them to learn how to work hard, to know what it is to work hard and to see the offspring of all their hard work, and we want to have a farm stand where they can practice the business acumen and real life “ Sakamoto said. “They can have a safe place where they can try new things, see how it develops, see how it sells and not be afraid of failure.”
The program includes essential basics, such as math, science and reading, but also hands-on learning about agricultural sustainability; preserving Hawaiian culture, history and language; and conservation of the island’s resources.
“When we apply life’s teachings to our school learning and kids see how it relates and why they need to learn these things, it not only makes learning fun for them, but we also reach a lot of those kids who don’t do well in traditional learning models ”, she said.
Her idea to create an experiential farm school arose from her experience as a teacher in the state Department of Education for over 12 years and as a fourth generation farmer.
Sakamoto acquired Ulu Pono Farms, formerly known as Wright’s Persimmon Farm, from his parents upon his father’s death in January 2016.
“When my parents passed away, I developed a strong desire to share this way of life with others”, she said. “I got to see how much love and positivity they put into the earth and how trees, fruits and vegetables respond to this energy – fruits taste sweeter, they are more abundant, animals thrive and are so happy. “
This is why the location of the farm is important, she added, because when children go to learn in this environment, they feel “that same energy and they take advantage of it.”
She continues her family’s legacy by running the farm today, producing and marketing mainly persimmons, which make up 44% of the plot. Goats and sheep also graze in these areas.
The other exploitable agricultural land is flourishing with macadamia nuts, chestnuts, medlars, avocados, orange trees and fig trees.
There are two existing buildings on the property – the main house and a chalet.
The proposed school was originally scheduled to open in January 2020 using the existing house as a classroom and then building elementary classrooms as needed based on enrollment, Sakamoto said.
Due to the length of the process, they opened as a homeschool, which only resulted in a handful of children licensed in family day care from the state social services department.
“They helped us harvest, prune, fertilize, compost and much more” Sakamoto said. “It was such a spectacle to see these kids come together and find out how to catch wild chickens, how to fix broken pipes, and then really reap the joys of the produce they’ve collected.”
Once zoning permits are approved, Sakamoto plans to apply to the Hawaii Association of Independent Private Schools and then apply for accreditation from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges.
Ke Kula ‘O Ho’omakuapono will eventually reach around 75 students over the next few years, once all structures are built, leaving class sizes to a maximum of 12 students.
There would be about five teachers and a part-time Hawaiian language teacher; the staff will increase as the student population increases.
Office hours would be 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
While there were some concerns about additional traffic and congestion during pickup and drop-off hours, Sakamoto said there were three parking areas available and most parents coming to campus would use a one-way roundabout built on the property that will keep cars off the Pulehuiki road.
On the rare occasions when there may be a need for more parking, a neighbor allows the school to use their empty lot, which can hold more than 100 cars, she said.
“We don’t expect traffic to be a problem” she added.
To address neighborhood concerns about noise, recreation areas have been moved further inland, away from the road. Loud voices, including chanting or laughing, are often drowned out by other farm noises like tractors and weeders, which are “Well below the noise levels authorized for our agricultural zone”, she said.
Charles Chandler, who lives right in makai from the farm, said during his testimony that this is the type of school a community should want because it will “a positive impact” for the rising generation.
Chandler added that he would “A pleasure to hear” children play, sing and have fun.
One of the main concerns of the planning committee was safety, given that drivers on Pulehuiki Road tend to exceed the speed limit of 20 mph, Commissioner Jerry Edlao said.
Other commissioners were concerned that the Maui Fire and Police Department could access the property via the narrow road in the event of an emergency.
However, Sakamoto agreed to support additional signage advising drivers of a school zone and adding speed charts, as well as receiving additional recommendations from the fire department.
When the entire community living near Pulehuiki Road was contacted about the school, Sakamoto received 11 emails and written letters of support. The concerns of two neighbors have been resolved, she said.
In addition, over 30 letters of support were received from other farmers, cultural practitioners, teachers, kupuna, families and community members.
“We want to be a respectful part of the community and teach our students to do the same” Sakamoto said.
Commission Chairman Christian Tackett, Vice President P. Denise La Costa and Commissioners Kellie Pali and Kim Thayer voted in favor of the school permit.
Commissioners Ashley Lindsey, Kawika Freitas and Edlao still had safety concerns but also backed the permit. Dale Thompson and Mel Hipolito Jr. have been excused.
“We want to prepare these children not only for a career, but we want to prepare them for life and have the necessary tools to flourish” Sakamoto said.
* Dakota Grossman can be contacted at [email protected]