Students at Kahului Elementary go back to class

A Nov. 24 fire over the Thanksgiving break charred classrooms, damaged waterlines

Kahului Elementary School Principal Keoni Wilhelm (right) greets families and staff Monday morning as students returned to class following a suspicious fire Nov. 24 on the campus. Grandmother Teresita Natividad (from left) was dropping of her grandson, Evan Damaso, 8, (not pictured). Walking behind Natividad is teacher Tiffany Matsui and her daughter, kindergartener Mia Matsui. Natividad called the fire “sad.” The Maui News / MELISSA TANJI photo

Kahului Elementary School Principal Keoni Wilhelm (right) greets families and staff Monday morning as students returned to class following a suspicious fire Nov. 24 on the campus. Grandmother Teresita Natividad (from left) was dropping of her grandson, Evan Damaso, 8, (not pictured). Walking behind Natividad is teacher Tiffany Matsui and her daughter, kindergartener Mia Matsui. Natividad called the fire “sad.” The Maui News / MELISSA TANJI photo

KAHULUI — Students returned to Kahului Elementary School on Monday morning after being out of class for more than a week following a suspicious fire that destroyed six classrooms, damaged waterlines and forced Central Maui’s largest elementary school to find classroom space for displaced students.

“Today I feel really excited,” said Principal Keoni Wilhelm as he greeted students and parents before the start of school Monday in the school’s drop-off area.

Wilhelm was excited to see the students, who have been out since the Thanksgiving break began Nov. 23. The fire occurred on the night of Nov. 24 with the school closed for the holiday.

“They are really the bright light in the school,” he said of the students.

Wilhelm said that the 137 displaced 2nd-, 3rd- and 4th-grade students will be placed in other classrooms and in a space in the library. On Monday morning, he held a private assembly with the affected students in the cafeteria.

Kahului Elementary School Principal Keoni Wilhelm stands next to F Building on Monday morning, which was damaged in a fire on Nov. 24. The burned areas of the building were boarded up Monday and the building was fenced off.

Kahului Elementary School Principal Keoni Wilhelm stands next to F Building on Monday morning, which was damaged in a fire on Nov. 24. The burned areas of the building were boarded up Monday and the building was fenced off.

He could be overheard telling the students that they are all loved. Signs saying “welcome back” hung on the outside of the cafeteria. Retired Kahului School teachers also pitched in and helped direct affected students to the cafeteria.

Wilhelm said that the students are resilient, but that there are counselors from the Department of Education on hand if students needed them. Some parents mentioned their children being brought to tears by news and video of the fire.

“Of course, they will still have challenges throughout the day,” Wilhelm said of the students. “But we are going to check in with them intermittently today.”

The teachers have been resilient as well, he said. “They have embraced the challenge,” Wilhelm said.

Police have opened an arson investigation into the fire, which caused an estimated $1.2 million in damage to the structures and contents. This included the four classrooms in F Building and two portable classrooms.

There were no updates Monday with the investigation ongoing, said police spokesman Lt. Gregg Okamoto. Detectives, along with Juvenile Crime Prevention Division investigators, are following up on all leads, he said.

F Building was boarded up so students could not see the blackened areas of the roof. There were large dumpsters next to one of the portables damaged by the fire near the Maui High School parking lot.

A row of H Building classrooms, which front F Building, was closed off because of effects of the fire, such as smell and residue, Wilhelm said.

The fire damaged waterlines running above ground, which had to be capped to avoid leaks before the full system could be restored, DOE officials said. This was one of the issues that held up the opening of the school, Wilhelm said. The school originally was announced to reopen last Thursday.

To make up for the lost classrooms, the department is working on the details of putting up portable classrooms. School officials have said the portables need to be transported and situated before power and utilities are installed.

Last week, state Rep. Justin Woodson, whose district includes Kahului school and who has children attending the school, said that a trailer classroom was coming from Makawao Elementary School and that approvals have been secured for four modulars, which are structures somewhere between permanent classrooms and portables. They are cheaper and can be set up more quickly, he said.

Woodson said Monday that the Makawao school trailer will not be brought down to Kahului school because it is not American with Disabilities Act compliant.

In a nod to added security, Wilhelm said that security cameras, which had been in the works prior to the fire, are scheduled to be installed today. Woodson indicated last week that the security camera installation was expedited after the fire.

This may ease fears that some parents have about safety at the school. In addition to the fire, a lifeless body was found near the campus a week prior to the fire. Police said the two incidents are not related.

“It made me scared,” said Jacky Tapuro, whose 4th-grade son’s portable was damaged in the fire.

She was even thinking about moving her son to another school over the two incidents.

“It was a bit scary for us parents,” Tapuro said. “I think it’s going to be OK with all of the other students (around).”

Her son, J.R., was disappointed that his class could not go on a field trip to the Maui Ocean Center on Nov. 27 because school was canceled that day.

As for the fire, “he was crying; he was worried,” she said.

Armando Pascua was concerned for his son’s safety and wondered if more lights could be placed on the campus.

His 8-year-old son, Armando Jacob, was eager to get to class and was happy to be at back at school, “because I’m excited to learn.”

Shanelle Nemoto, who has a kindergartener at the school, said a combination of her son’s grandfather and being able to take her child to work one day filled the child care gap. Other parents interviewed Monday did not express any difficulty finding child care during the extended Thanksgiving break.

The Nov. 24 fire damaged a wing of classrooms next to another set of classrooms that were damaged in a 2010 fire. One teacher had classrooms damaged in both fires, Wilhelm said.

Last week, Woodson said construction on the old classrooms that burned down seven years ago will begin soon. Those classrooms are to house art, dance and science programs.

Wilhelm said the school has received a lot of emotional and financial support. Even schools on Oahu and the Big Island provided support, he said.

Donation efforts are being channeled through an online GoFundMe site. The site says funds raised will be used for student and classroom supplies and teaching materials as well as rebuilding the classrooms or temporary classrooms. On Monday afternoon, $7,870 had been raised out of a $100,000 goal.

If people have questions about other fundraising efforts for the school, they should contact Vice Principal Marcia Balinbin by calling the school office at 727-4700.

If parents have any questions, Wilhelm said they may call him at the same number.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

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