New school Puu Kukui closing in on capacity

WAILUKU – Puu Kukui Elementary School has yet to open it doors for the first time but is already just 50 students shy of its capacity.

Principal Chad Okamoto joked last week that he already has plans on where he is going to place his portable buildings on Maui’s newest public school campus in Wailuku.

The $37.1 million school, which is 95 percent complete, will open Aug. 5 and accommodate students in kindergarten through 5th grade. It has a capacity of 550 students and sits on 14 acres mauka of the Ohia subdivision on property provided by Kehalani Mauka LLC. The school was designed with plans in mind to ease overcrowding at other Central Maui schools.

Okamoto said that Puu Kukui absorbed 200 students from nearby Wailuku Elementary School and about 100 students from Pomaikai Elementary School in Kahului.

It seems likely Puu Kukui could reach the 550-student capacity easily, as Okamoto said “there is a stack” of applications from parents who live out of the school district who want to enroll their child at the new school.

The high enrollment apparently doesn’t come as a surprise to Okamoto, who expects his enrollment to reach 700 in two years. While on a tour of the campus, he pointed to other future housing developments in the area.

Less than two months before its official opening, enthusiasm is building about the new school as it has been seen by parents and students who live in the district, which includes those in the Kehalani development area, Wailuku Heights, Waikapu, Maalaea and Ukumehame.

“We have been eagerly awaiting the school’s opening as we watched the school’s development when we walked our beagle in the neighborhood. We as parents are jealous that our daughter gets to go to a brand-new school,” said parent Kyle Ginoza in an email.

Although Ginoza admitted “it was a difficult choice” to move his daughter from Wailuku Elementary to her new school under the redistricting plans. He wrote that his family has had “excellent experiences” at Wailuku Elementary and commended Principal Beverly Stanich for her leadership.

Ginoza and his wife, Kim, have another daughter, Kylie, who just finished the 5th grade at Wailuku Elementary and will be attending Iao Intermediate School.

But Kyle Ginoza added: “Our daughter Karissa, who will be a 3rd-grader at Puu Kukui, is excited for the new school, but will miss many of the friends she has made who are remaining at Wailuku Elementary.”

Kyle Ginoza is also interested in Puu Kukui’s STEAM program.

According to a STEAM website, the acronym stands for Science and Technology interpreted through Engineering and the Arts all based in Mathematical elements.

Okamoto said that students will also learn from the approach of “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.”

Waikapu parent Lisa Keene, is also excited about her 5-year-old son, Tyce, who will be entering kindergarten at Puu Kukui.

Keene hopes that the new school will offer different curriculums and educational experiences.

“Usually new things come with changes,” she said.

As a new parent to the public school system, Keene commended Puu Kukui in keeping parents informed with monthly emails about the school’s progress and what kinds of programs the school will be offering.

She also was pleased with Okamoto’s welcoming personality and information he provided when she went to register Tyce at the school’s temporary office at Iao Intermediate School.

Currently Okamoto and one staff member still have an office at Iao Intermediate, but he said that Puu Kukui is expected to be turned over to the state Department of Education around July 1.

From there, Okamoto hopes staff and faculty will be able to move into the school’s eight-building complex, which includes a library and media center, a cafeteria, a covered basketball play area and a two-story building that will house 4th- and 5th-graders.

The school is named after the summit of the West Maui Mountains and defined as “hill of enlightenment.”

Its colors and mascot have not been determined yet, as Okamoto said he’ll leave it up to the students.

“I want the kids to take ownership of the school.”

Puu Kukui is certified with a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Silver rating as required by state law. But Okamoto said that the state is shooting for a higher gold rating.

The LEED rating system is the nationally accepted benchmark for the design, construction and operating of high-performance green buildings.

The school has energy-saving air-conditioning in which colored lights tell teachers when they should close the windows as the air-conditioning is running and at other times another light will go on telling teachers to open the windows as the weather conditions outside are favorable.

There is also natural lighting in the school buildings in which skylight tunnels shine into the classrooms with the classroom lights adjusting brightness according to the amount of natural light coming into the room.

In the future, there will be five windmills on the school’s south entrance.

While Okamoto said energy will be generated by the windmills, they will mostly be a teaching tool for the students as there will be a windmill monitoring system which students can learn from.

The school was designed with lots of meeting and office space for faculty and staff.

The cafeteria has a stage and can accommodate 400 students. It will be a serving-only cafeteria as the cooked food will come from Pomaikai Elementary.

The campus is also landscaped with plants including dryland taro and hibiscus. It contains differently designed buildings that are painted an assortment of colors, such as green and various shades of orange. The administration building has a cupola and there is a kukui leaf design at the front of the building.

Okamoto said that the different looking buildings and paint colors are all part of the design as, he was told, when someone looks at Wailuku, not all the buildings and roofs look the same and not all homes are the same color.

The school will have around 50 employees, about half are teachers, Okamoto said.

He said he has many longtime experienced teachers who have applied for jobs and will be moving from other island schools.

There will be five classes each for kindergarten through 2nd grade and two or three classes each for grades 3 to 5.

Okamoto has more than 20 years experience in the state Department of Education, with his most recent job as principal at Pukalani Elementary. He was also a vice principal at Kihei Elementary.

The Wailuku resident said that he usually does not work in the community where he lives.

“Now I want to give back to the community I live in,” he said.

For almost a year, Okamoto has been at the helm of the new school, dealing with construction and making sure things are on track for the new facility.

“It’s an exciting challenge,” he said.

For more information about the school, call the temporary office at 984-5610, ext. 232.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at