In 2004, winter storms dropped 6 to 7 inches of rain in California’s Death Valley, the hottest place on Earth and driest place in North America. The rain, which was three times more than usual, caused a showy phenomenon the following spring, proving this desert’s name wrong.
“The landscape was not dead, but dormant. Underneath the arid soil were seeds of possibility, which given the right environment flourished and produced hundreds of wildflowers,” said Kona resident Pablo Penaloza. “As with Death Valley and the seeds, I believe children are waiting for the right environment. As parents of young children, my wife and I recognized there was a need to prepare children not just to face the future, but to also make it better. To do that, children need a place to thrive.”
The couple is hoping their new venture is that place.
Alakai Academy is a new year-round preschool and child development center located at 74-5565 Luhia St. in Kailua-Kona. It’s in Kaiwi Square, which is near the Kona International Market.
Alakai Academy received its temporary group child care center license from the state Department of Human Services on Dec. 3. Once it is fully operational, the school will be inspected and eventually be granted a full license, said Penaloza, the owner and administrator.
Enrollment is underway and applications are now being accepted. The goal is to have at least 48 children enrolled by Jan. 6, the first day of school. Alakai Academy will also hold a back-to-preschool party Jan. 4.
The academy accommodates children, ages 2 to 6, in a rich, creative, highly academic, safe environment, with more than 80 unique thematic learning stations. Its staff and programs strive to help create great leaders who possess a balance of intellectual, emotional and social skills, and can excel in a wide range of interactions. The hope, Penaloza said, is that these experiences and the foundation gained at Alakai Academy will “naturally evolve into leadership positions, influential roles and active contributions to family, school and society.”
Examples of great leaders can be found on the school’s windows and doors, where photos of children dressed as Albert Einstein and Benjamin Franklin are displayed with quotes such as: “Logic will take you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.”
This is the first school Penaloza has ever owned. Prior, he was in investment banking and his wife, Luciana, was a stay-at-home mom. They moved from Irvine, Calif., to the Big Island in 2011 because they wanted to be in the right environment to raise their three children. Penaloza is a graduate of Brigham Young University-Hawaii, where he met his wife and got a degree in economics. He also has a master’s degree in business administration.
Alakai Academy follows “a holistic, whole child approach to education” as a way to develop leaders of all ages. It also offers personalized academic curriculum that caters to a child’s strengths and passions, as well as spends time nurturing students’ self-worth and helping them discover their potential, Penaloza said.
To help the students find what they love, the school exposes them to theater, music, gardening, dancing, art and other disciplines. Their experience is also enhanced through Hawaiian language, outdoor play, physical education, yoga, eco-healthy practices, computer education, field trips and problem solving exercises.
On the five-member staff is a Hawaii-licensed teacher who has worked at local elementary and middle schools. That teacher, who specializes in special education, used the state’s academic standards for kindergarten to help create the school’s curriculum and adapted it to age groups, Penaloza said.
Alakai Academy has a full-time chef who prepares breakfast, lunch and snacks daily in a commercial kitchen. These meals are free of charge to enrolled students. The menus are developed in consultation with a registered dietitian with the Hawaii Child Care Nutrition Program, Penaloza said.
Another unique feature of the preschool is toilet training, which is part of the class curriculum for 2-year-olds. Diapering is included at no extra charge.
The school has earned the distinction from the Children’s Environmental Health Network as an eco-healthy child care center, meaning its settings are “as happy, healthy, safe and green as possible.”
Tuition fees vary, depending on age and program. For 2-year-old students, the half-day program costs $180 a week, the school-day program costs $200, and the full-day program costs $220. For students, ages 3 to 6, it costs $160 a week for the half-day program, $180 for the school-day program and $220 for the full-day program. There’s also an annual registration fee of $200 due at enrollment.
Drop-in care is available at an hourly rate of $11, but space is limited and based on the center’s capacity and enrollment levels.
Alakai Academy is open from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. For more information, call 331-8000 or visit AlakaiAcademy.com.