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West Hawaii Explorations Academy campus nears finish line


The new West Hawaii Explorations Academy campus is racing toward completion.

About 40 workers swarmed the 4.7-acre site Friday, framing concrete curbs and sidewalks, running grading equipment, and framing and finishing roofs on the buildings. Since actual construction began in mid-March, five main buildings and three bathroom structures have risen, the walls of a 20,000-gallon reef and shark tank have been put in place and an amphitheater area has been graded.

“These guys have been going blazing fast setting the school up,” said Curtis Muraoka, co-director of the sixth- through 12th-grade public charter school.

The campus is on line to get its certificate of occupancy in July, Muraoka said. Initial projections this spring were that the high school portion of the campus would not be finished until October.

The 1,600-square-foot buildings will house classrooms, labs, administration and other functions in a flexible manner that serves as a reminder the school is focused on educating students outside, Muraoka said, standing on a mound of pahoehoe lava and scrutinizing the construction.

The site, across from the Gateway Center at the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority, will serve 250 students. The $3.7 million first phase takes up 1.7 acres of the campus, and space remains for future build out. WHEA plans to add 15 to 20 students each year, growing incrementally and adding a classroom building each time it can secure funds, Muraoka said. About 130 prospective students are on a waiting list.

“The buildings are all wired, the focus now is on the finish,” said Mike Nearman, a superintendent with Quality Builders. “The drywall is done in most of the buildings. There is bamboo wainscoting and bulletin boards everywhere. We plan to finish the STEM and flex building by the middle of June so they can start moving into those buildings.”

The effort was bolstered by a recent $100,000 grant from the Change Happens Foundation to support the school’s new science, technology, engineering and math building. The building, to be named the Change Happens Classroom, will house a variety of heavy shop equipment and the robotics program.

Grace Sundberg, a WHEA 10th-grader, said she is looking forward to using the new center.

“It’s cool,” she said. “It’s a lot bigger and it has real bathrooms.”

Sundberg was demonstrating a pinhole camera she made at the school’s current campus in the makai area of NELHA. The campus — pieced together over two decades — is located in a tsunami evacuation zone.

High school teacher Liana White said the new campus is a blank slate, with loads of potential.

“We’re going to take our philosophy and our curriculum up there,” White said. “We’ll still be based outdoors, but we’ll have a state-of-the-art facility.”

Muraoka stood on the edge of the school’s shark tank and watched a whitetip reef shark and a blacktip reef shark cruising among other reef fish. Like most of the facilities on the campus, the tank and a nearby touch tank were the inspiration of students.

About 1,500 elementary school students visit the tanks each year.

“The idea was to transplant everything to the new campus, to honor all the work these students have done,” Muraoka explained. “There have been about 2,500 students who have come through here and helped build this school. I don’t think there are any other schools built like this, by students and parents.”