LAHAINA - Lahainaluna High School supporters dressed up in school colors of red and black Saturday morning to rally for the preservation of the school's 174-year-old boarding program.
A protest on Honoapiilani Highway fronting the Lahaina Cannery Mall drew about 150 supporters, while a crowd nearly double the size turned out in front of the Queen Ka'ahumanu Center in Kahului. The rallies were organized after the state Senate Ways and Means Committee in Honolulu last week indicated it would not support the longstanding Lahainaluna work-study program in the state budget.
West Maui's state legislators - Sen. Roz Baker and Rep. Angus McKelvey - have pledged to fight to keep funding in the budget for next year's program, which cost about $600,000 this year.
The Maui News / AMANDA COWAN photo
Dozens of protesters line Kaahumanu Avenue on Saturday morning as they fight to keep the boarding program at Lahainaluna High School.
In the meantime, the school's boarders and their families and supporters were urged to speak out about their wish that the state's only public school boarding program be preserved.
Dorm attendant Susan Yap said challenges to the program's funding come up every year during state budget deliberations. But she said this year is different.
"It's never reached this degree of seriousness. We get told all the time, 'You're going to be on the chopping block'; but then it doesn't happen, and so we just thought this would never happen," she said. "The boarding program is a part of history; it is history."
Irene Naeole, the grandmother of two current boarders, said she believes the problem stems from a perception that the boarding program is some sort of pet project for the school.
"It's about community. It's not just a program," she said. "I feel like the big city doesn't know what a community means."
Naeole said the boarding program has made dozens of alumni more successful in their lives, and the community has benefited from their contributions.
Malama Watson, a 2000 Lahainaluna alumni, said his father and his grandfather have both been active in the boarding program, serving as farm foremen in separate terms.
"The boarding program is not a program - it's a life-shaping experience," Watson said.
Taking out the program would be "like you're taking the heart out of our town," Watson added.
Lahainaluna's Boarding Department accepts students from around the state, throughout Micronesia and even youth from the Mainland. In return for their spots at the school and in the Boarding Department, students do various jobs around the Lahainaluna campus.
In its history, Lahainaluna's campus has included a small agricultural center with plants, vegetables, and small livestock such as chickens and pigs.
Kekoa Mowat, a 1988 four-year boarder graduate, lived on Molokai before he enrolled as a boarder.
"It straightened me out big- time," he said. "I used to be in a lot of trouble as a young kid."
Now a Lahaina resident, Mowat and his wife, Surficia, and sons, Connor, 12, and Holden, a Lahainaluna senior, all participated in Saturday's rally on Honoapiilani Highway.
"We wanted to give back to the school and the community that has given us so much," said Mowat, who now serves as an offensive line coach for Lahainaluna's football team and is employed as an executive in the housekeeping department at the Hyatt Regency Maui Resort & Spa.
Mowat said he understands that in austere times, state officials can support only so many programs and that those that sustain themselves are more likely to survive state cuts. That's why Mowat wants to recommend that the boarders go back to raising small livestock and perhaps grow vegetable gardens so that they can earn money to help pay for their expenses.
Gloria Gonzales, a 1972 Lahainaluna graduate, signed a petition Saturday along with dozens of others calling for restoration of funding for the boarding department.
"The boarding program is very important to the community," she said.
As a day student, Gonzales said, she idolized the boarders because of the sacrifices they were making by being away from their family to earn their high school diplomas.
"It certainly builds character, and that's what we want in our community," she said.
As a three-year boarder, junior Veronica Coston was impressed by the rally turnout in Lahaina. She was able to attend after getting a weekend pass to leave the campus, but most of the nearly 100 boarders were busy working around the school Saturday morning.
"I just love to see how the community has come out and supported us," she said.
Coston's dad, John, graduated in 1989 as a boarder and now works as a landscaper. Her mother, Gloria Coston, also earned her high school diploma from Lahainaluna as a day student in 1990. Coston's brother, Joshua, is a freshman boarder.
"The tradition here at Lahainaluna is more of a family, and we wanted that for our kids," Gloria Coston said. The family resides in Kahakuloa and chose to enroll Veronica and Joshua in the Boarding Department instead of driving every day to and from their residence.
"It's taught our kids how to take care of themselves," Mrs. Coston said. "It's preparing them for the future."
Coston said she believes that the state's investment in the boarding program could be shared by a private-public partnership and suggested that hotels in West Maui could be asked to contribute to the expense. She also said that lawmakers should look for other ways to cut costs in governmental operations, such as cutting out the use of air conditioning in government vehicles.
* Claudine San Nicolas can be reached at email@example.com.