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Montessori Hale O Keiki planning expansion to Ukumehame

Montessori Hale O Keiki has bought 14 acres of agricultural property in Ukumehame from rock ‘n’ roll musician and entrepreneur Sammy Hagar and his wife, Kari.

Located on about 3.5 acres of leased property at Trinity-by-the-Sea Church on Kulanihakoi Street in Kihei, the school has barely enough space for the current 65 students and seven teachers. There are two 700-square-foot modular buildings, and the school has needed more room for growth and space for years.

After investigating nine different properties over the years and learning in 2014 that the Hagar property off Honoapiilani Highway was available for sale, school officials explained their plans to the musician.

“He had a vision for this property of his own, with agriculture and sustainability,” said Montessori Head of School Jessica Thompson. “I think when we told him we were interested, and we told him what our school does and what the focus of our school is, both in Montessori and in environmental stewardship, he got really excited, and immediately offered us a chance at our dream.”

The school paid $1.49 million for the property, closing the deal in May. Hagar has committed to making a $250,000 donation this year and to making continued support in the future, Thompson said.

Work already has started on an application for a special use permit, she said, adding that the new school would have a strong agricultural component.

“We want to have a working farm,” she said. “That’s why we chose an agricultural area.”

Plans call for students to grow vegetables and raise goats and chickens.

Students and teachers are excited about the new property’s potential.

“I just like how (the new land) is much more open, and there’s so much more ground,” said 4th-grader Miles Rappenecker. “I just kinda like it cause there’s more things to do, and it’s more active.”

Lower elementary teacher Lindsay Wurtzel said: “Ukumehame is all about living off the land, protecting the land, so it’s an amazing thing for the kids and the teachers and staff.”

Wurtzel explained part of founder Maria Montessori’s educational vision known as “Erdkinder,” which involves teaching children real-life experiences such as learning how to take what they grow and plant and bring that to the table.

“That’s the whole point of Montessori, is that farm-to-table, that living off the land, learning about the world by building and creating,” she said.

Building plans for the Ukumehame site are being developed with an architect and the school’s Building Committee, Thompson said.

An early idea is to build a structure for four main classrooms – one for primary students, ages 3 to 6; another for lower-elementary students in the 1st through 3rd grades; a third for upper-elementary students in the 4th through 6th grades; and a fourth for middle-school students in 7th and 8th grade. The classrooms are envisioned to be 900 to 1,200 square feet. An outdoor stone pizza oven already is on the property.

The Ukumehame property also has a two-story, 1,550-square-foot bamboo house, fenced areas for animals and irrigation for gardens.

Once the Ukumehame campus is operational, the Kihei site on Kulanihakoi Street will become an early childhood center, in which a toddler program (ages 18 months to 3 years old) will be added to the current preschool program. The Kihei campus also will serve as a school bus hub and after-school care site for Ukumehame students.

Thompson said that the school bought the Ukumehame property at the listing price, but “the bonus was the fact that by making an offer on the land and starting a relationship with the Hagars we found this common mission.”

The school purchased the property with the help of a loan from the United States Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development program. The school’s Realtor and board member Dave Richardson and his firm, Hawaii Life, donated $38,000, which included all commission and closing costs. The school also secured a $75,000 grant from the Atherton Family Foundation to help develop the land into a school site.

Students have already taken field trips to the new property, where they have gathered leaves for mulch and prepared the ground for vegetable gardens and a pumpkin patch, although students will only periodically visit the site until more work is done, Thompson said.

Montessori Hale O Keiki opened as a preschool in September 1991 in Kihei, and later added upper-grade levels and rented in many spaces before settling at its current Kulanihakoi Street location. Montessori education has been described as being based on self-directed activity, hands-on learning and collaborative play.

The new property will allow the school to increase its enrollment over five years to 150 students – with 65 to 75 of those remaining at the Trinity-by-the-Sea property in Kihei, and the rest attending classes at the new campus at Ukumehame, she said. Parents will have the option to have their children take a 15-minute bus ride from Kihei to Ukumehame.

In a video that Hagar taped for the school, he said: “The Ukumehame property is really special. I think it’ll be a great place for children to be able to have animals on the property, to have gardens to grow vegetables and fruit and things like that, which I think are very important in the world today, to learn how to be self-sufficient without having to go to a grocery store if you don’t have to. Walk across the street and catch your own fish, grow your own food.”

While Thompson, her staff, parents and students are excited about the new opportunity, there is still more work to do, including fundraising and developing the new site and its programs.

“We still need to make this happen,” Thompson said. “We have so many great ideas to develop our agriculture program out there. We will be expanding the classrooms and building (a new classroom). We are still in consultations with our architect.”

To assist with purchasing the land along with sustaining the school’s financial aid program and other general school services, Montessori Hale O Keiki will be holding its annual fundraiser, this year titled “Tinsel Town Nights,” at 5:30 p.m. March 19 at Manoli’s Pizza Co. in Wailea.

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

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