Fresh start for Laupahoehoe school

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Tribune-Herald staff writer

The bus sat facing southward along the mauka side of Mamalahoa Highway at about 6:30 a.m. as its driver carefully walked a circle around the vehicle. She stopped at a point near the rear left tire and produced a rag from her pocket, giving the yellow siding of the bus a vigorous scrubbing to remove a bit of mud that had been kicked up on the rainy Wednesday morning.

In a matter of minutes, the summer would officially come to an end for another bus load of Hawaii Island keiki as they boarded and headed off for their first day of school.

For many kids, it can be a nerve-wracking experience. But for the Salomon-Torres sisters, the first day at the newly launched Laupahoehoe Public Charter School was an occasion to celebrate.

Ciani, 12, Ciana, 13, and Carina, 14, all walked to school together and stood at the entrance at about 6:40 a.m., waiting for the doors to be unlocked at 7 a.m.

“We wanted to be the first here, so we could see who’s going to be new,” Carina Salomon-Torres said. “We’re excited. But it’s also kinda scary, because we don’t know what to expect with all the new teachers.”

Carina, a high school freshman, added that she was happy that school was back in session, as life had gotten pretty boring for her during the summer months.

Ciani, a seventh-grader, agreed.

“I was waiting for school all summer,” she said with a smile.

Ciana, an eighth-grader, wasn’t as thrilled to be saying goodbye to her summer months of leisure.

“I was just fine not going to school,” she exclaimed.

Even so, she was looking forward to “learning new things, making new friends, and hanging out with my old friends.”

Twelve-year-old Shyla Nobriga, a seventh-grader, said she was looking forward to learning how to play the ukulele.

Once the doors were unlocked by educational assistant Gina Dallagher, the students filed inside and were hit with the smell of new paint. Railings, stairs and other spots inside the building shone with fresh layers of Seasider blue and gold.

Smiling teachers and staffers welcomed them and helped students find their homeroom assignments, directing them to lists that had been posted on bulletin boards along the back wall of the cafeteria.

“We’re all ready, and everybody’s excited,” Dallagher said of herself and the other staff and faculty. “This is a fun day.”

David Riser, who came on board as the principal just last month, said he was looking forward to the next few days as the new faculty got acquainted with their young charges, and vice versa.

“We’re going to start the day out in homeroom, and then we’ll have an assembly to welcome them (the students) and have a school blessing,” he said.

Later in the day, students would be split up into “ohana teams” to undertake various school beautification projects.

“They’ll be cleaning up, planting native plants, building team cheers, banners and logos. It’s about bringing them together and building school spirit,” Riser said. “That’s the point today.”

Before the first bell sounded to begin the academic day, a few parents sat in the cafeteria with their kids, waiting to meet their teachers.

Troy Rodillas and his wife, Terri, sat with their three boys, Troysen, 7, Tyrese, 8, and TJ, 9.

Speaking of the school’s transition to a charter school, Troy Rodillas said he was optimistic about the new direction for Laupahoehoe.

“From what we’ve heard, it could be a really good year,” he said.

It’s been a long and bumpy road for the charter transition, with many parents and teachers opposing the change as organizers went through the various steps to make the school a reality. But, organizers say, as the new year quickly approached, many parents’ fears have been calmed, and enrollment climbed steadily in the days leading up to Wednesday.

“We’re just over 200 now,” Riser said of the school’s enrollment, putting it just shy of where it was last year.

Going forward, the charter school’s goal is to provide Laupahoehoe area students, and others in surrounding areas, with quality education “characterized by experiential learning in a values-based environment, intimately connected to the community from which it springs,” according to the school website,

School organizers and Laupahoehoe’s cadre of mostly new faculty members will aim to provide students with plenty of hands-on learning experiences through partnerships with East Hawaii businesses and organizations. For instance, students will have the opportunity to learn from experts from the U.S. Forest Service, the Gemini Telescope, and even local ukulele masters.

Email Colin M. Stewart at