Halia Locke-Nascimento is as much at home on the wild trails surrounding her Kealakekua charter school as she is in any classroom.
She is at home with the plants — can rattle off their names — and knows that rocks that have been in place a long time tend to gather white moss. She has learned many chants and knows how to use them to ask guardian spirits if she may enter the forest.
“Chanting is another way of praying and asking permission to my Hawaiian ancestors,” she said.
The teachers and family at Kona Pacific Public Charter School would have it no other way. The publicly funded school of about 220 students blends a Waldorf curriculum with agricultural practices and Hawaiian culture. Saturday, groups of students led parents, teachers and the public on hikes through a densely forested section of the 40-acre campus. The interactive hikes were part of the school’s Earth Day celebration and included a farm-to-table picnic fundraiser.
“A lot of times we come out here, not every day but as a reward for being good. Sometimes we just need to run,” said fifth-grader Aurelia Rangel-Givens, hiking briskly through coffee, ginger, ti and thimbleberry plants, wearing a fern haku lei that she had braided from fronds just moments before.
Locke-Nascimento said the school is trying to preserve the old system of stone walls, which is why she didn’t want any of the hikers to walk on the rocks. Students would like to know the age of the system and what function it served. They know that coffee was grown here and that a round circular structure was a pig trap, possibly dating from the early part of the 1900s.
“We’re learning to regrow what was lost, healing our earth one step at a time by growing plants,” said seventh-grader Ethan Aldridge, hiking through a dense system of tree roots and rocks. He has his own garden plot at the school where he has battled bugs and weeds to grow eggplant and radishes.
“I’ve had more fun than any other school I’ve been in. We get the whole place to roam,” said Aldridge, who lived in Alaska prior to moving to Hawaii in 2009.
“Nature is a great conduit to opening creativity and intellect,” said teacher Anna Tosick, whose seventh-grade class has been comparing the Italian Renaissance with the more modern Hawaiian one. “You just have to take your children out. You don’t have to teach them. They are guided through their own observations.”
Tosick was inspired to move to Hawaii by her own fourth-grade teacher in Indiana, whose presentations on the islands stuck with her vividly. Her teacher died just before Tosick moved here six years ago to help get Kona Pacific going.
The outdoors and the sense of creative possibility resonated with Kailua-Kona resident John Corbin, who was hiking with his wife and two young children.
“My kids don’t like to be in the house,” he said.
Corbin had another motive for the day outdoors. He has been scoping out his options for schools for his two children, the oldest of whom is finishing preschool this year.
“It seems like a really good idea to not necessarily have kids trapped in a classroom all day,” he said. “It’s good to be able to go outside, learn from nature and free yourself. That’s why I had a hard time in school, being trapped inside all day. Teachers want you to do something but your mind is somewhere else. There were a lot of conflicts between teachers and students when I was growing up. There was no taking kids outside.
“I can tell they have the sense of inside and outside, nature, and when is the time to learn and not to learn,” Corbin said. “I think this is right for my son, if he is anything like me.”