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Sustainable learning means taking responsibility for one’s self and community at two of Hawaii’s K-12 schools.

Kamehameha and Punahou Schools both sit mauka of the Honolulu plain, high in the Kapalama hills and in the lap of Manoa Valley, respectively. With the still-verdant Koolau watershed at their backs, and facing sea views spliced by skyscrapers, both campuses provide ideal platforms for contemplating what damage we have done to our island environment–and how we might still save it.


Kids need to understand that it’s their responsibility to take care of the environment,” says Dee Jay Mailer, CEO of Kamehameha Schools (KS). “They do that by actually experimenting with different sustainability techniques and seeing the result of their actions,” Mailer adds. For example, she says, when students raise worms that produce clean organic mulch for classroom plants and the middle school garden, “Whoah! They’re totally jazzed that they can make a difference.”

At its three campuses, KS has photovoltaic (PV) panels and buildings are sub-metered so that students can measure energy use–and how to reduce it. But sustainable learning takes place off-campus, too, in hands-on learning and working on KS’s legacy lands, from kalo farms to the Leeward coast, from native koa forest to Heeia fish pond restoration projects–and it’s not limited to KS students, Mailer adds. “Importantly, those lands are open to other students in the community, in charter and public schools.”

The goal is to “provide and extend the lands as classrooms. We are stewards of the lands,” says Kaiulani Sodaro, KS director of enterprise planning and sustainability. Students are learning “why it’s so important to support small, not industrial, farms,” Sodaro says, while the “entrepreneurial spirit of the youth” is sparked by finding ways to make specialty crops, such as vanilla, economically sustainable.

On KS natural lands, Mailer says, students “work with people who live in the area, like the konohiki there, who know the history, lands, genealogy, winds, water, they’re talking about their home to the students. Teachers go with them, and translate the lessons learned on the lands to the classroom.”

While KS students may go to class in PV-endowed buildings, what they learn above all is not to take these things for granted. “It’s not someone else’s kuleana, it’s theirs” to carry sustainability forward, Mailer says.

Going with the flow

Named for the spring that feeds its lily pond in the ahupua‘a of Manoa, Punahou School puts children from grades K through 12 in touch with nature and their place in it. The students teach one another, too, as recently observed on a visit.

At the top of the campus, on the slopes of Rocky Hill, the Omidyar K-1 Neighborhood is abuzz with experiential learning and problem solving. Physically, it’s organized around its own micro-ahupua‘a, or “bioswell,” as Mike Walker, principal of the lower and middle schools, puts it.

It’s all about the water. Rain is caught in gutters and barrels. A stream, aka “the Flow,” runs down a grassy hill, irrigating student gardens. There are native plants and pastel drawings on the floors of lanais with PV roofs. “At first teachers and parents were nervous about the kids climbing and moving boulders in the Flow, getting dirty and wet,” Walker says. But there’s no arguing with the rewards, such as spontaneous artworks, spirals of pebbles laid out on the grass or a flat rock.

And there are the children, relaxed, confident, happy and engaged. One group of first graders is studying soil composition and “nature’s cleanup crew,” meaning insects, placed in dishes for observation, drawing and charting. “Cock-a-roach!” sounds the delighted cry. They identify millipedes (“he might uncoil, maybe?”) sow bugs, “patatoe bag.” They observe. “I saw something now dead, but it once was alive.” “I saw something that was never living.” High school science students assist. “I really like your data,” a tenth grader says to a glowing child.

There are skylights, light wells. There is the cool breeze turning a windmill that powers the pump, and blowing through the open classrooms. “They come out and spill into this greenness,” Walker says.

And so it goes, up through the Academy, where the high school students participate in green community volunteer initiatives with the guidance of the Luke Cener for Public Service, which also invites the public to annual environmental film and food events. The spring is full.