Middle school students at Kohala Mission School examine crystals formed by salt and vinegar as they hypothesize how they formed during science class. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO| SPECIAL TO NHN)
Cristal Matsumoto gives a science lesson to her fifth and seventh grade class at Kohala Mission School in Hawi. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO| SPECIAL TO NHN)
Kohala Mission School elementary school students crush cereal to simulate chewing as they learn about the digestive system using a hands on, visual, demonstration. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO| SPECIAL TO NHN)
Elementary school students at Kohala Mission School learn about the digestive system using a hands on demonstration, a chalk drawing maze gives a visual of the process. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO| SPECIAL TO NHN)
Kohala Mission School, a small private Christian school in Hawi, teaches students from kindergarten to eighth grade. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO| SPECIAL TO NHN)
Chris Larson works with student Alika Wejrowski, 6, as they read together at Kohala Mission School. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO| SPECIAL TO NHN)
Elementary students at Kohala Mission School in Hawi read together during class. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO| SPECIAL TO NHN)
Volunteer Kelli Larson reads with student Kai Daum at Kohala Mission School. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO| SPECIAL TO NHN)
“I’m the principal, lower grade teacher, bathroom cleaner and handyman,” said Chris Larson of his role at Kohala Mission School in Hawi, a private Christian school for kindergarten through eighth grade students in multigrade classrooms.
“It’s amazing how well this works. Multigrade teaching accommodates differences in learning styles,” said Larson. “One student might do better reading with third graders, but perform better in math with second graders.”
In an average school year, Larson said, KMS students advance two years in reading and 1 1 ⁄2 in math.
Not uncommon in rural areas in Hawaii and around the world, multigrade schools combine resources, allow flexibility and often have a low student-teacher ratio. At KMS, where Larson teaches the lower grades and partner Christal Matsumoto teaches grades 5-8, the student-teacher ratio is 8 to 1.
Along with its academic curriculum, KMS offers robotics programs, arts, physical education exercises every day and lessons in nutrition, cooking and health. All students learn to swim at the pool, and try their hand at playing ‘ukulele. They experience community service, visiting and singing for patients at Kohala Hospital, often followed by bingo games.
Established in 1975 by a group of mothers looking for Christian-based education for their children, KMS is the only school in the Seventh Day Adventist School system that has never been in the red, but remained sustainable, according to Larson. The majority of KMS families at present are actually not members of SDA Church.
“Parents bring their children here for the personal attention and academics,” said Larson. “Most are pretty strong Christians.”
SDA is second only to the Catholic school system in size, with 7,800 schools, colleges and universities, 87,000 teachers and 1,680,000 students in 145 countries around the world, according to its website. The Adventist education philosophy promotes mental and physical health, spiritual and intellectual growth, and service to humanity. Educators focus on each student as an individual, with an individual path to follow and their own contributions to make.
“My parents were Baptists,” said Larson of his own path. “And then when I was 19, I went on kind of a hippie adventure.” Larson said he had at least 30 different jobs before he started teaching.
“When I was about 30, I gave my heart to the Lord and over the next six months, realized He was calling me to be a teacher,” he said.
Larson’s career began in Fairbanks, Alaska, and took him to Idaho, Michigan, Oregon and Kauai before coming to Kohala. He received his teaching certificate in 1986, a masters of education in 1996, and has earned what he calls a “PhD from home-school.” But, with small exceptions, Larson says children across the country are more alike than different, and teaching them works in much the same ways wherever they are.
“Kids are kids,” said Larson. Changing times impact education, however. And Larson said that one big difference is the amount of “screen time” kids have today, compared to when he started teaching.
“We encourage them to limit screen time (computers, TV, smart phones) to about one hour a day, or five hours a week,” he said.
No easy task, but for a sound reason.
“Screen time is different from nature, in the way it affects the architecture of brain structure,” said Larson. “Brain architecture is determined by sensory input, and if it’s all screen time, the structure of the brain is different.” Larson said it might be challenging at first, but, “When kids get into nature, they quickly realize how much cooler it is walking outside, or being in the ocean.”
To start things off naturally, in the right direction, the school year begins with a three-day campout.
“We are a smaller ohana. The parents come camping; the big kids help little kids,” said Larson. “The learning process is different from regular school.”
Multigrade, multitasking, multipurpose education seems to feel natural here. As the olelo says, “Aole pau ka ike i ka halau hookahi.” Not all knowledge is learned in one school.
KMS refers to itself as a “true mission school,” depending on contributions from church and other supporters to supplement tuition. For more information about the school, or to make a donation, please, contact Kohala Mission School: P.O. Box 99, Hawi, HI 96719, 808-889-5646, firstname.lastname@example.org