First look at Pu‘u Kukui Elementary


After a groundbreaking nearly two years ago, hundreds of students and their parents got their first official look at Maui’s newest school: Pu’u Kukui Elementary School.

“I feel honored to be principal of this brand-new school,” Principal Chad Okamoto said Saturday morning inside the crowded cafeteria. “How often do you get asked, ‘What would you like at the school?’ and then be able to go out and make those changes. What we’ve come up with as a staff, we hope, will really benefit the kids.”

Following Okamoto’s talk, families were introduced to about 28 teachers, along with a scavenger hunt to help them become more familiar with the 14-acre campus that accommodates 550 students. The $37.1 million school that opens Aug. 5 is located on Kehalani Mauka Parkway in Wailuku.

“I’m excited, because for me this is like making a new huge family,” Okamoto said. “It’s a breath of fresh air . . . and now that I live in Kehalani it’s nice to get to know the community I live in.”

Wailuku resident Travis Toda, who brought his wife and 5-year-old daughter to the open house, said he was impressed with the school, though he was close to sending his daughter to Pomaikai Elementary School.

The couple, whose daughter is entering kindergarten, said they were initially going to send her to Pomaikai for its arts and crafts programs.

“But we heard good things from our friends about what (Pu’u Kukui) was focusing on and . . . it was a tough choice, but I think we feel comfortable now because it’s in our district,” he said. “Pomaikai is also a feeder school to Maui Waena, which feeds Maui High – and I teach at Baldwin.”

Toda, a business teacher with Baldwin’s Academy of Hospitality and Tourism program, said he and his wife have visited Pu’u Kukui countless times since making their decision.

“Throughout the building process we were driving up here looking at the school and the first thing I noticed was the basketball courts,” he said. “It was nice.”

The school’s covered basketball court, which has six baskets, drew countless students peering through a chain-link fence. But it wasn’t the only popular attraction.

The school’s library and media center had more than a dozen Apple desktop computers on display, with a half-dozen more to be placed in each classroom from 1st to 5th grade, Okamoto said. He said a mobile cart with MacBook Air laptops will also be wheeled between classrooms, providing about one device for every two to three students.

“I remember when I was a kid, just touching a computer was a luxury,” Okamoto said, adding that kindergarten classrooms will have about 10 iPads per classroom. “But that’s the world they live in. They take so readily to it so it’s not so much teaching them but providing the technology.

“They might teach me something new.”

Wailuku mother Melissa Santiago found the technological offerings “inspiring,” so much so that she decided to enroll her 8-year-old daughter into the school after home schooling her for nearly two years.

“When this opportunity came up and with all the technology behind it – it felt like a new opportunity,” she said, for her oldest daughter, who is entering 3rd grade. “I was looking for something that wasn’t already established and where everybody was new. I come from a military family where we were always moving, so I always remember being the new kid in class.

“I thought this was an easier way to transition for her.”

Born on a military base in Germany, Santiago spent the first 15 years of her life splitting time in Europe and the U.S. due to her father’s duties in the Army.

“We were moving back and forth every three years,” she said.

Later, Santiago married and lived in Orlando, Fla., until moving to Maui in January of last year.

“We came from a high-city life but thought Maui was a nice place to raise our children,” she said, while her husband was at home taking care of their younger daughter and son.

When asked if her daughter was worried about transitioning to public school, Santiago said “she’s not nervous at all.”

“She’s definitely not the shy home-school student,” she said. “She’s very sociable and eager to learn.”

“I’m excited about making new friends at school and playing on the playground,” Santiago’s daughter, Malia, said. “My favorite thing about school is art and reading books at the library. I love reading because you learn so many things from books.”

Along with making friends among her 26 classmates, Malia said she is excited to learn from her new teacher Judy Locke, who taught at Kihei Elementary School for 20 years.

“It does feel like I’m starting over, but I’m also coming home,” Locke said. “I started at Wailuku Elementary School, so I’ve come full circle.

“It’s an exciting opportunity to work with a new group of kids, with some familiar faces, and a great staff and administration.”

Locke is one of several teachers from throughout Maui – and the country – who greeted their students in their classrooms. Okamoto said the staff includes teachers from “as far away as Texas” with experience ranging from “42 years to brand new.”

Kindergarten teacher Rachelle Sparkman, who taught in Texas before moving to Maui about a month ago, said she is beginning to settle into her new home and classroom. However, fellow kindergarten teacher Tayla Bartlett, who taught in Seattle, is still trying to prepare her classroom before school starts, as she arrived on the island only a week ago.

“I’ve had about 2 1/2 days to set up my classroom so I’m still working on it,” she said. “Only two kindergarten classrooms were shown because we weren’t ready yet, but it was very exciting. After meeting all the parents and students . . . it’s very real.”

The school, which has about 20 to 25 students per classroom – except the 4th grade, which has about 31 – is still without a school logo and mascot that Okamoto said will be decided by students about a month after school starts.

“We want to give kids leadership opportunities, so what a way to be a leader for your school than to choose your own mascot,” he said. “Of course, we might end up with some weird mascot, but that’s OK.”

Okamoto quickly corrected himself, however, and said his choice would be the “weirdest,” as it would resemble the mural of a kukui nut on the floor of the administration building.

“I proposed the nuts, and I would be the head nut and our slogan would be go nuts,” he said. “But I don’t think we want to go there, so I think it’s a better idea if the kids decide.”

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at