Montessori Hale O Keiki (MHOK) has been part of the Kihei community for decades. Teachers there have been educating our keiki since 1991. More recently, they’ve been educating my keiki, in the Primary class at the North Kihei school, which is on a small parcel of land, leased from Trinity-by-the-Sea church.
MHOK, which serves preschool through 8th grade students, wanted to grow and secure land to call its own, but that was easier said than done. After pursuing nine different properties over the years that didn’t work out, school leaders learned about 14 acres for sale in Ukumehame, off Honoapi’ilani Highway between Kihei and Lahaina.
And this was no ordinary seller. The property was owned by musician and entrepreneur Sammy Hagar and his wife Kari. With mountain views, it included a two-story, 1550-square-foot bamboo house, fenced areas for animals and irrigation for gardens. After researching traffic, land use and permits, MHOK’s board members made Hagar an offer. They could hardly believe what they got in return.
“He had a vision for this property of his own, with agriculture and sustainability. I think when we told him we were interested and we told him what our school does and what the focus of our school is, both in Montessori and in environmental stewardship, he got really excited, and immediately offered us a chance at our dream,” explains MHOK Head of School Jessica Thompson. “He committed to a donation of $250,000 this year and continued support in the future.”
MHOK purchased the 14 acres for $1.49 million, closing on the land in May 2015. The school’s realtor and board member Dave Richardson and his firm Hawai’i Life also made a sizeable $38,000 contribution, donating all commissions and closing costs. MHOK has also secured a $75,000 grant from Atherton Family Foundation to help develop the land into a school site.
Sammy and Kari Hagar’s donation was put into action right away, for planning, permitting and design costs associated with building a school structure. School officials say it’ll have an initial capacity of around 96 students, kindergarten through 8th grade, and will be situated near the existing bamboo home, which will likely house administrative offices, gathering spaces and resource classrooms for art and music.
“The Ukumehame property is really special,” explains Sammy Hagar, adding that he and his family camped on the land before building the bamboo house, to see what it felt like out there. “I think it’d be a great place for children to be able to have animals on the property, to have gardens to grow vegetables and fruit and things like that, which I think are very important in the world today, to learn how to be self-sufficient without having to go to a grocery store if you don’t have to. Walk across the street and catch your own fish, grow your own food.”
MHOK students are already taking field trips to the site, preparing the ground for vegetable gardens and a pumpkin patch. School leaders have been in contact with several local organizations, including the food bank, since they plan to donate some of the harvest to those in need. This also happens to be a cause close to Hagar’s heart.
“I’m a big fan of supporting food banks because I think that food is the most important thing for people. Without nutrition, you’re done; you can’t even go out and look for work,” Hagar says, whose family foundation and Maui airport restaurant Sammy’s Beach Bar & Grill raises money for local food banks, kids and nonprofits. “So I think if they grow food on that property and support food banks, that’s as good as it gets. It makes me even happier.”
Other plans for the property include raising goats and chickens, tending existing citrus and coconut groves, expanding the school’s Marine Science and Environmental Stewardship programs, planting native species, and creating natural playgrounds built into the landscape.
“Ukumehame is all about living off the land, protecting that land, so it’s an amazing thing for the kids and the teachers and staff,” says MHOK Lower Elementary teacher Lindsay Wurtzel, who explains part of founder Maria Montessori’s educational vision known as ‘Erdkinder.’ “She taught about teaching kids real-life experiences, actually learning how to take what they grow and they plant and bring that to the table. That’s the whole point of Montessori, is that farm-to-table, that living off the land, learning about the world by building and creating.”
The new classroom structure will house four main classrooms, for Primary (ages 3-6), Lower Elementary (1st-3rd grade), Upper Elementary (4th-6th grade) and Middle School (7th & 8th grade). The classrooms will be 900 to 1,200 square feet in size. There are also plans for a multi-purpose room and commercial kitchen. An outdoor stone pizza oven is already built in the yard.
“Since we found this, we’ve been thinking, ‘What a great opportunity to make Montessori available to West side families, and then give our Kihei folks an opportunity for something outside of a more urban landscape,’” says Thompson.
MHOK’s presence in Kihei will remain strong, as it has been for the last 25 years. Once the Ukumehame campus is operational, its site in North Kihei will transform into an early childhood center. Plans include a second Primary classroom; MHOK recently received a $15,000 grant from the Castle Foundation to support new materials for that addition. The school will also add a Toddler Program for eight to 12 students, ages 18 months to three years.
“There’s a definite need for the infant-toddler, I know there are so many working families; the demand is so high,” says Misty Pasco, who would help lead MHOK’s Toddler Program in Kihei. “Getting that one-on-one bond with the parent and child, and making them feel comfortable, loved and a positive environment for them.”
The Kihei campus also plans to serve as a school bus hub and after-school care site for Ukumehame students.
“We absolutely felt it imperative to stay in Kihei, stick with our roots,” says Thompson. “Our foundation has always been Kihei, so rather than leave Kihei for this site, we’re just going to expand.”
As for the Ukumehame campus, which is about 12 to 14 miles from Kihei or Wailuku and 10 miles from Lahaina, architectural drawings are in the works as the special-use permit process continues, which may take a year or more. Leaders say the school opening could happen as soon as the Fall 2017 school year.
Current MHOK parents have been invited to tour the property and share their ideas. On a recent field trip in February, the group was greeted by Nēnē geese.
“I keep thinking about when I was a kid, and what if I had a wish list of what my school could have been? This place checks most of list,” says Pito Javier, who has two sons enrolled at the school. “It’s just beautiful. You feel secluded but not too secluded, the lighting’s great, I can’t wait to see the sunset. We got ocean on one side, the base of the mountain, you can’t plan it any better!”
Students who’ve gotten to experience the site have shared their own ideas for the school, ranging from zip lines and tree houses to ATVs and cross-country tracks.
“I just like how it’s so much more open and there’s so much more ground,” says MHOK 4th grader Miles Rappenecker. “I just kinda like it ‘cause there’s more things to do and it’s more active.”
MHOK has an acclaimed Marine Science program where a naturalist works in each classroom and students 4th grade and older are snorkel- and PADI dive-certified. Snorkel and dive trips occur monthly, and leaders say being so close to the beach will provide invaluable opportunities for learning about the land and sea.
“Having the Marine and Environmental Stewardship program, I think that’s what’ll give the kids that sense of place, and the proximity to the ocean and the reefs, the proximity to the mountains, I just think it’s perfect,” Thompson explains. “I think that’s what got the board really excited and the other people we’ve been consulting; it’s just so unique and the opportunities are really endless.”
The school has also enlisted the insight of Hawaiian cultural practitioner Kimokeo Kapahulehua, who leaders say has been a real supporter from the start.
“He’s helped us see, along with the other research we’ve done, that this is a great site,” says Thompson. “I’m looking forward to working with him to build our cultural component and bless this land and get it ready for the kids.”
Sammy Hagar says he’s planning to visit the future school, and can’t wait to see this new chapter unfold on a vibrant property bustling with students, gardens and animals.
“It’s gonna be so cool,” he smiles. “Our family’s always talking about how excited we are that once it’s built out, we’ll probably be over there more than we were when I owned it!”
The school will celebrate 25 years of Montessori education in South Maui with a fundraising dinner on Saturday, March 19. The event is open to the Maui community, and will help support MHOK’s future plans and current services. “Tinsel Town Nights” will be a Hollywood-themed, red-carpet affair with food stations staffed by chefs from several Maui restaurants, live and silent auctions, “Flapper Style” dance troupe and afterparty dancing with music from DJ Dan Weisman. The celebration starts at 5:30 p.m. at Manoli’s Pizza Co. in Wailea.