School destroyed by 2018 Kīlauea eruption trying to raise $2 million for permanent location

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Students with Kua O Ka Lā Public Charter School in the forest during class prior to the 2018 eruption. Photo Credit: Kua O Ka Lā.

When the 2018 eruption hit Pāhoa, Kua O Ka Lā Public Charter School’s Development Director Susie Osborne lost her home. But she also had to worry about relocating 280 elementary and high school students.

The school was destroyed, too, after a finger of lava broke away and covered the campus in 80 feet of lava.

“Civil Defense called me and said we could have two hours to go in and get our stuff,” she said. “They helped us set up some lights as it was almost dark.”

That was the last time she saw the school, which took 20 years of raising money and building it from scratch because charters do not receive public facility funding, she said.

Now, five years later, Osborne is hoping Kua O Ka Lā can once again have a permanent campus. Fundraising is underway to secure $2 million to buy and renovate 5 acres at Nani Mau Gardens outside of Hilo. The school is now leasing that area.


Following the eruption, the charter school was relocated, with the high school students housed at the Boys and Girls Club in Hilo and the elementary students set up in a church.

Kua O Ka Lā’s other elementary school in Nānāwale survived the lava flow. They also have an island-wide online hybrid school program and a hybrid program in Miloli‘i.

Within a year, the school’s leadership leased an area in Nani Mau Gardens, where they’ve been operating their main campus ever since. But the facility was not big enough to accommodate high school students.

The investment will give the children a permanent place to learn and focus on the school’s mission of providing Hawaiian culturally-driven, values-based and place-based educational experiences through pilina ‘āina (relationship with land), pilina kānaka (relationship with each other) and pilina ‘uhane (relationship with spirit).

It also will provide a larger school, with the ability to add students and expand the educational opportunities.


Now, the school has 214 students and a waitlist of about a year.

Osborne is in the process of rezoning and subdividing the area to purchase the 5 acres for the development of the permanent campus. She is working with Nani Mau’s new shareholders, who she says have been “very supportive.”

She anticipates it will take about two years. She is applying for $500,000 through the next wave of relief funds from Hawai‘i County’s Kīlauea Recovery Grant Program.

Applications for funds are expected to begin next month after Hawai’i County Council adopted Bill 56, introduced by Puna Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz. The bill establishes standards for how the county awards the rest of the $20 million in flexible funding it received in 2019 from the Hawai‘i State Legislature to assist with recovery efforts, as well as any future relief funds.

Osborne said during the first round of assistance through that fund, the school received $500,000 of the $625,000 it applied for. Most of that money was used to bring the Nani Mau Gardensʻ facilities up to code, she said.


She said when they relocated, the zoning was compliant for the school’s operation, but the building codes were not so they had to invest in upgrades to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and to create required fire exits.

Volunteers also helped to make the place suitable for children.

“It was in pretty rough shape,” Osborne said. “There was early termite infestation. The Rotary Club of Hilo and its international organization convened and raised $80,000 and [provided] 3 weeks of manpower. They completely replaced walls and put in air conditioners and got the kids ready for the first day of school. They were our savior.”

If awarded the $500,000 grant in the second round, she intends to use it as a down payment for the land. She is trying to raise another $1.5 million to build more classrooms, a second greenhouse, to add more students and expand its project-based learning opportunities.

Classes now include kilo observation, in which students assess, reflect and collect data on their natural surroundings, as well as a culinary class, and more.

Students with Kua O Ka Lā Public Charter School in class pounding poi. Photo Credit: Kua O Ka Lā.

Kua O Ka Lā is also hoping to bring back their high school education and is going back to their charter commission to request consideration for next year to have high school grades added during the next three years for a hybrid program.

Currently, the school has a staff of about 30, including a dozen full-time teachers, educational assistants, an educational specialist — and human resources, finance and technology positions.

Pomai Emsley, a teacher at the Nānāwale campus, has been with the school for 14 years. She said there’s been a lot of adaptation since the lava flow, including with their place-based curriculum. With areas taken by the lava, teachers now are researching new mo‘olelo (stories) and coming up with new ways of connecting the children to where they are now. Funding will help with this effort.

“[But] securing the facility at Nani Mau would be the number one thing,” Emsley said. “It’s been 5 years of not knowing and nervousness and anxiety because even though we have had this campus, we could always have to move, too, and that’s not real conducive for the best environment for teaching and learning.

“I think the funds would provide a peace of mind for us kumu (teachers) trying to serve our community and provide a service to these children.”

Emsley said she’s been grateful for the staff and Principal Vanessa Dilcher during this transitional time.

Emsley said one of the challenges has been the commute for meetings at the new main campus. Osborne added that transportation is another area of interest they are looking into because children are commuting 40 to 45 minutes from Kalapana to the Nani Mau Gardens campus each day. The school received a grant to purchase a school bus and pay their bus drivers’ union wages.

“I will try everything I can,” Osborne said about raising the rest of the money.

All charter schools are owned by nonprofits, she said, and they are not allowed to go into debt and also do not receive funding from the State Legislature. As a result, funding raising is imperative to its program.

Many people have great memories of the school before the eruption.

Students with Kua O Ka Lā Public Charter School look at plants during class in the forest. Photo Credit: Kua O Ka Lā.

Jessica White said her now 12-year-old daughter was in first grade when the lava flowed. She recalled her practicing hula there and being invited up to the volcano to dance. Due to her daughter’s culturally-based education, White said she seemed to have more of an understanding of what was happening — and was really into the fact that Tūtū Pele was creating new land. Her daughter would use hula moves to describe it to other people.

White remembered her daughter participating in traditional ceremonies, and the ancient fish pond right on school grounds. She remembers the huge monkeypod tree that hawks lived in and the school’s huge garden that they would harvest to make food.

Osborne said the former school sat on 600 coastal acres. It was one of the most intact Ancient Hawaiian fishing villages with 40 acres of archaeological sites, anchialine ponds and a rare lowland rainforest.

“It was an incredible living laboratory for learning,” she said.

White said her daughter still remembers those things about the school and misses them. The abrupt transition left little time to mourn or grieve the moments created in that space.

“Our hearts are still there,” she said.

But as the school begins to secure a permanent location, it’s a reminder of the new memories to come. On Thursday, White was helping with the new greenhouse at the school.

“It’s important to keep that solid base, the root of what the school is founded on,” she said.

Emsley said while it’s bittersweet to see the transition out of Pāhoa, she knows it’s a part of life.

“It’s very real. That’s how lava is. It’s not fair, not perfect, but it is life and teaches you a lot about yourself and about your community,” she said. “There’s a lot to learn about being flexible when the lava isn’t.”

Kua O Ka Lā Public Charter School prior to 2018 eruption. Photo Credit: Kua O Ka Lā.

Osborne said the school is also important for Hawai’i Island keiki because it offers students a place to learn and participate in their culture at the same time. She added that many of the Hawaiian charter schools across the islands have worked together for the past 20 years.

“And while we have our own mission ambitions, we all have committed to education with aloha,” she said. “That’s our theme, education of aloha. We create small, caring, nurturing environments for our children.”

Along with academic excellence, students at the school also learn and practice values, which she said served well during the traumatic event of having to relocate schools and homes.

“Those values, those things that we share with the kids, that relationship with our ʻāina and each other is like a spiritual anchor in life to help you weather a storm,” she said. “We can go through these traumas with a sense of grounding so we aren’t thrown off a ship of life when challenges come our way whether they are big or small.”

Osborne said her heart goes out to those in Lāhainā suffering at this time and remembers what it was like when Pāhoa’s tragedy occurred.

“It was not nearly as bad as Maui, and we didn’t lose any lives, but it was certainly very traumatic,” she said. “And, you know, the school is a grounding place where you can ensure you have your meals and you have your relationships to lean on and be established and we were the only school taken by the eruption and that was traumatizing for 282 families.

“But that was why it was critical for us to reestablish ourselves and take care of our families through trauma-informed care.”

Those interested in donating to the school can visit its website or reach out to Osborne at [email protected].

For more information about the disaster relief, visit this website.

Editor’s note: This story is the fourth in a series about recovery efforts from the 2018 Kīlauea Eruption. Next week, the final story in the series will be about how Puna residents are protecting their properties from future lava flows. Hawai‘i County posts regular updates about their recovery efforts at

Megan Moseley
Megan Moseley is a full-time journalist for Pacific Media Group. Her experience ranges from long and short-form reporting to print, digital, radio and television news coverage. In Hawaiʻi, she's worked for local media outlets and has covered a wide range of topics including local and state politics, environmental affairs, Native Hawaiian issues, travel, tourism and education. She covers the West for Restaurant Hospitality.

She's a 2010 graduate of the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University, with a Bachelor's of Science degree in Magazine Journalism and specializations in Geology and History. She's currently working on her master's degree from New York University in journalism and is focused on conflict resolution and peace practices in indigenous cultures in the Pacific.

Megan can be reached at [email protected].
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