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Upcountry school rooted in farming, Hawaiian culture

Nonprofit gets green light to build classroom buildings at Ulu Pono Farms

Ke Kula ‘O Ho‘omakuapono learning school students pick persimmons Thursday morning. Run by fourth generation farmer and longtime teacher Licia Sakamoto, the school educates kids about Hawaiian culture and farming sustainability. Recently the Maui Planning Commission voted to allow Sakamoto to construct seven, one-story classroom buildings at Ulu Pono Farms for the school. — The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

For a fourth-generation farmer and longtime teacher, creating an indoor and outdoor classroom space for keiki to learn both academic and life skills is a dream come true.

Licia Sakamoto, executive director of nonprofit Ke Kula ‘O Ho’omakuapono, runs a bilingual, Hawaiian cultural and farm sustainability learning school, with hopes of expanding it into an “experiential private school” that would eventually take up 4.7 acres of a 6.24-acre parcel on Ulu Pono Farms, located at 892 Pulehuiki Road in Kula, just down the road from Hashimoto persimmon farm.

The Maui Planning Commission last week voted 7-0 to issue Sakamoto a special use permit to construct seven, one-story classroom buildings at Ulu Pono Farms. Each classroom, which will be built in phases, will be about 396 square feet each. Six of them will serve as classrooms to support farm learning and one will include bathroom facilities.

“Our vision for this school is to provide a safe, nurturing environment for kids to come to every day and learn,” said Sakamoto during her presentation to the planning commission. “We want to balance the newest learnings, and have learning be fun, and have their learning stick and retain the old wisdoms that the stories and the mo’olelo and the kupuna have shared about how to live a good life.”

The permit allows Ulu Pono Farms to continue operating as a producing farm while also providing Maui’s kindergarten through eighth grade students, as well as early development and preschool students, an opportunity to “balance their fast-paced life of technology and slow it down with learning the cultural arts, the weaving, the pounding, the crafting.”

Kumu Licia Sakamoto, the school po‘o, picks persimmons with students Thursday. She said the goal of the school is to “Get kids happy and enjoying school again. To give them tools for life and connecting them with the animals and the land.” — The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

“We want them to learn how to work their body hard, to know what it’s like to work hard and see the offspring of all of their hard labor, and we want to have a farmstand where they can practice business sense and real life,” Sakamoto said. “They can have a safe place where they can try new things, see how it grows, see how it sells and not be afraid of failure.”

The curriculum includes the essential fundamentals, like math, science and reading, but also hands-on learning about agricultural sustainability; preserving Hawaiian culture, history and language; and conserving the island’s resources.

“When we apply life teachings to our academic learning, and the kids see how it’s intertwined and why they have to learn these things, it not only makes learning fun for them, but we’re also reaching a lot of those kids that don’t do well in traditional learning models,” she said.

Her idea of starting a farm-based experiential school spurred from her background as a state Department of Education teacher for over 12 years and a fourth-generation farmer.

Sakamoto acquired Ulu Pono Farms, formerly known as Wright’s Persimmon Farm, from her parents upon her father’s passing in January 2016.

“When my parents passed, I developed a strong desire to share this lifestyle with others,” she said. “I got to see how much love and positivity they put into the land and how the trees and the fruits and the vegetables respond to that energy — the fruit tastes sweeter, it’s more abundant, the animals are thriving and are so happy.”

That’s why the location of the farm is important, she added, because when the kids go and learn in that environment, they feel “that same energy and they thrive on it.”

She continues her family’s legacy by running the farm today, mainly producing and marketing persimmons, which takes up 44 percent of the parcel. Goats and sheep are also grazing in these areas.

The other usable farmland is flourishing with macadamia nut, chestnut, loquat, avocado, orange and fig trees.

There are two existing buildings on the property — the main house and a cottage.

The proposed school was initially projected to open in January 2020 using the existing house as a classroom space and then building the elementary classrooms as needed based on enrollment, Sakamoto said.

Due to the length of the process, they opened as a homeschool instead, which yielded just a handful of kids under a Family Childcare Home License from the state Department of Human Services.

“They helped us to harvest, prune, fertilize, compost and do so much more,” Sakamoto said. “It was such a sight to see these kids come together and figure out how to catch the wild chickens, how to fix the broken pipes and then really reap the joys of the produce that they gathered.”

Once zoning permits are approved, Sakamoto plans on applying to the Hawaii Association of Independent Private Schools and then apply for accreditation from The Western Association of Schools and Colleges.

Ke Kula ‘O Ho’omakuapono would eventually grow to about 75 students over the next few years, once all structures are built, leaving the class sizes at a maximum of 12 students.

There would be about five teachers and one part-time Hawaiian language teacher; staff will increase as the student population increases.

The office hours of operation would be from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Though there were some concerns regarding added traffic and congestion during pickup and drop-off hours, Sakamoto said that there are three parking areas available and that most parents coming to campus will use a constructed one-way roundabout route on the property that will keep cars off Pulehuiki Road.

On rare occasions when there may be a need for more parking, a neighbor is allowing the school to use their empty field, which can hold more than 100 cars, she said.

“We don’t foresee traffic being a problem,” she added.

To address neighborhood concerns regarding noise, recess areas were moved more inland away from the road. Louder voices, including singing or laughter, are oftentimes drowned out by other farm noises like tractors and weed wackers, which are “well below the noise permitted levels for our agricultural zone,” she said.

Charles Chandler, who lives just makai of the farm, said during testimony that this is the type of school that a community should want because it will make “a positive impact” for the rising generation.

Chandler added that it would be “a pleasure to hear” kids playing, singing and having fun.

One of the main concerns of the planning commission was safety, considering that drivers of Pulehuiki Road tend to exceed the 20 mph speed limit, commissioner Jerry Edlao said.

Other commissioners were concerned about Maui Fire and Police Departments being able to access the property via the narrow road in case of an emergency.

However, Sakamoto agreed to support additional signage notifying drivers of a school zone and adding speed tables, as well as receive additional recommendations from the Fire Department.

When the whole community living off Pulehuiki Road was contacted about the school, Sakamoto received 11 emails and written letters of support. Two neighbors’ concerns were resolved, she said.

In addition, more than 30 letters of support were received by other farmers, cultural practitioners, teachers, kupuna, families and community members.

“We want to be a respectful part of the community and teach our students to do the same,” Sakamoto said.

Commission Chairperson Christian Tackett, Vice Chairperson P. Denise La Costa and commissioners Kellie Pali and Kim Thayer voted in favor of the permit for the school.

Commissioners Ashley Lindsey, Kawika Freitas and Edlao still had safety concerns but also backed the permit. Dale Thompson and Mel Hipolito Jr. were excused.

“We want to prepare these kids not only for a career, but we want to prepare them for life and have the tools on how to flourish,” Sakamoto said.

* Dakota Grossman can be reached at dgrossman@mauinews.com.

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