Lahaina teachers say more help is needed for West Maui’s struggling schools

This article was originally published in Honolulu Civil Beat.

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

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

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

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Teachers in Lahaina are also asking for more counselors and mental health services for students next school year.

The union is now mobilizing to push the superintendent and the Hawaii Board of Education to meet teacher requests, including pay increases for Lahaina teachers and expanded paid leave benefits.

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

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

Personnel 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 $5,000 annual bonus Lahaina teachers have received since 2020 due to severe staffing shortages in the area.

The union has asked DOE to increase the annual bonus to $8,000 in response to the rising cost of living on Maui. The department said in March it would not comply with the request, although Superintendent Keith Hayashi said Thursday it is an option he now wants to consider.

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

Earlier this month, the department hired five teaching positions at Princess Nahienaena Elementary, King Kamehameha III Elementary and Lahainaluna High School. The department said funding for Lahaina schools will not drop dramatically next year, but did not specify whether it will hire fewer teachers than normal because of the reduced number of students.

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 staffing needs.

Andrea Eshelman, deputy director and chief negotiator for HSTA, said she is concerned that more teachers will leave their jobs at the end of the year because of West Maui’s severe housing shortages and DOE’s lackluster response to supporting teachers 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 denied the requests.

In response, HSTA has started a petition asking DOE to start a program that would allow teachers to donate their sick days to teachers in Maui affected by the fires. On Thursday, the petition received more than 600 signatures from union members across the state, and more than 20 teachers testified at Thursday’s BOE meeting, asking the department to establish the leave bank and provide additional support to teachers.

The bank would allow Maui teachers to take paid leave to deal with the aftermath of the fires.

During Thursday’s meeting, Lahainaluna teacher Michelle Abad Brummel said she lost her home to the fires and is temporarily living in South Maui. Her family spends nearly $500 on gas every month, and she takes advantage of sick days to visit her home in the fire zone because DOE did not offer additional leave to teachers affected by the fires.

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

Ashley Olson, a teacher at Lahainaluna, said DOE also needs to provide more mental health services to staff and students. DOE has made crisis counseling and mental health providers available to Lahaina staff, but Olson said she would like to see professionals consistently reach out to teachers and proactively offer their help.

“I’m quite impressed with the progress we’ve made,” Olson said. “Do better for all of Maui.”

BOE members agreed Thursday to teachers’ requests and said they would provide more support next school year.

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

Alternative learning options

Before the August fires, Lahaina’s four public schools had about 3,000 students. Next year, their combined enrollment is expected to drop to about 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 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 classes out of Door of Faith Church in Lahaina, but moved in March to the space previously occupied by Kapalua’s Pineapple Grill restaurant.

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

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

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

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

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

“If our children walk away happy this year, we’ve done enough,” Kamohalii-Dew said.

Other families are still uncertain about the future of their children.

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 been attending classes at the temporary campus for King Kamehameha III Elementary.

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

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

This story was originally published on Honolulu Civil Beat.