S.P.A.C.E. School – alternative education

“I could hear kids laughing and playing all the way from my house at Bellyacres and I really wanted to be a part of it. I begged my homeschooling mom for weeks to go to Kua Kalapana school at S.P.A.C.E. She finally agreed and my wish came true. On my ninth birthday I got to go to school for the very first time. It was the best present EVER! I love my school, my teachers, and my friends. I get to learn things like Japanese, ukulele, recorder, singing, hula, Greek mythology, English, history, and my very favorite…math! We are also taught to be kind to each other and the earth and to respect all living things. The best part of school is getting to ride there each morning on my unicycle! Some days I think I must be the luckiest girl in the whole world. Yeah, I’m actually pretty sure that I am!”Bailey Givens Testimony extracts from the Hawaii Planning Commission – May 3, 2012


It all began in April 2008, just four months after the Seaview Performing Arts Center for Education (S.P.A.C.E.) opened in rural Puna on Hawaii Island. A group of young idealistic educators with a dream asked me about using our brand new facility. The County Planning Department was kicking their alternative school out of the unpermitted facilities they were renting. Our board immediately agreed to accommodate the 26 students and their dedicated teachers. It was a no brainer for me, I had been a strong advocate of alternative education since qualifying as a teacher myself. The Charter School movement was a much needed recent change in the Hawaii State education system and I stood fully aligned with all the people struggling to improve the options for our local families. Chris Yuen, the Planning Director at that time, gave S.P.A.C.E. the green light by confirming that we were permitted as a school facility as long as the program included performance arts. His letter of approval was priceless and unsurprisingly circus has been part of the S.P.A.C.E. school since it’s inception.

Our school kids on parade

Our school was first organised under the Waters Of Life public charter and from the earliest days everyone was super excited knowing we had the opportunity to grow and create something very special. The founders wanted it to be a co-creation process so invited parents and community members to participate helping to manifest a vision together. The school’s original mission was to creatively promote local, sustainable childhood education that was holistic, Waldorf-inspired and meeting the needs of the community and each individual child. The teachers aimed to build a strong academic base of core subjects, including Japanese and Hawaiian studies supplemented by the resources S.P.A.C.E. was able to offer including classes in circus, music, dance, drama, video production, stage production, crafts, gardening and sustainable farming. We also provided transport using our circus van and had plans for building a commercial kitchen so they could teach cooking and provide school lunches to students, most of whom come from low-income families and qualify for free or reduced-cost lunches.

The first classroom

The courageous founding teachers were Megan Cannon (grades 1-2), Scott Widdifield (grade 3), Tashina Woodyard (grade 4) with part-time teacher Kristen O’Guin. They added specialist staff: Kyle Hawkley (music and art), Rosa Ahrens (movement), Graham Ellis (circus arts) Val Colter ( art, language arts and drama), Robin Krakauer (gardening, math). The S.P.A.C.E. school enrolment continued increasing each of the following school years as new development brought more families with children into our lower Puna community and currently has over fifty students. Early on the school was named the ‘Pueo Learning Space’ and days began with a very focusing yoga session led by Megan. Classes were held in the pavilion, under our trees and on our lawn and this arrangement continued until the dissolution of the Waters of Life Charter School in the summer of 2009.

The same group of passionate teachers then made a pitch to the Pahoa based Hawaii Academy of Arts and Science (HAAS) – led by Steve Hirakami – asking to pursue this beautiful innovation under their charter. Steve accepted that the need for a feeder school in our area had been proven and saw how it could add to the HAAS vision of innovative local learning environments. We all considered it a blessing to join the HAAS Ohana hui network and resonated with their attention to the specific needs of individual children in our eclectic community. For the upcoming 2009-10 school year HAAS built a little school classroom adjacent to the S.P.A.C.E. pavilion. We then had two classes taught by Nancy Rogers (grades 2-3) and Kristy Hoppy (grades 4-5). Our HICCUP circus classes were very popular while the strong volunteer participation and communal support solidified to become a tradition.

In our contract with HAAS we gave them a super sweet deal for a public school. They got use of the S.P.A.C.E. pavilion, the S.P.A.C.E. Green Room plus land for gardening and recess activities. They also got limited access to to Bellyacres trails, orchards, gardens and livestock including chickens and horses as well as our ceramics kiln, recreational and circus equipment, costumes and props, seating, staging, lighting and sound equipment. We also added a free vendors table at the weekly farmers market, a table to sell concessions at our Movie Nights and at some other S.P.A.C.E. events and offered to promote school events in our S.P.A.C.E. newsletter. It became an excellent example of a community collaboration.

Terry Walker

When Terry Walker came aboard as the new lead teacher in 2010 we were trying to keep the Waldorf tradition of keeping the same teachers with students as they moved grades. For the next two years Terry and Kristen took the lower grades while my friend Suzette joined Kristy with the upper grades.

In 2012 we discussed options that would allow kids from 1st through 6th grades to be able to attend. I had been a passionate homeschooler for many years teaching various kids I’d lived with and was participating in a program with my own daughter and a group of her peers. I also knew that there were families with similar educational views in our neighbourhood but they lacked the skills and confidence to cope with all the demands homeschooling requires. So with my encouragement Terry and Kristen designed a unique new program offering assisted homeschooling to local families. HAAS agreed to our proposal and then I brought in Joe Hoffman to build a teachers resource room for Terry to use for grades 1st-3rd. HAAS decided to hire a new teacher for the combined upper grade class who operated out of our adjacent GreenRoom which converted nicely into a spacious airy classroom. I was totally blown away when they announced the new teacher would be Shannon Smith who grew up as a HICCUPer and had been a star performer in our flagship ‘Naturally High’ program for several years. Our program had completed an education circle.

S.P.A.C.E. was greatly appreciated by teachers, parents and the kids for offering much more than a normal school facility. They regularly attended our community events, weekly farmers market and cultural performances and took advantage of our Bellyacres ecovillage to get a first hand experience of permaculture, solar systems, chickens, horses and fruit orchards. They also developed their own school garden. With help from our community and interns we constructed a playground with unique and wonderful equipment.  And naturally, the S.P.A.C.E. pavilion itself served as a well-equipped theatre space for celebrating school festivals, performances, and events.

A typical S.P.A.C.E. school recital

After Shannon’s 5th and 6th graders moved on to high school. We had an empty classroom that was used by Kua O Ka La, another Charter school, for one school year. They had an online program that they were developing for High School students who could attend whenever they needed teachers support or internet service. S.P.A.C.E. provided our facility until they completed building their own campus in lower Puna next to the warm pond the following year.

Terry and Kristen settled in to play a huge role pioneering the development of the new assisted homeschool program and it proved to be a great success serving grades K-6. Many local parents wanted to have an input into their children’s education but lacked many of the teaching skills or the educational materials required. With this program they taught their children at home using the individualised curriculum the school supplied and then once a week parents and children attended S.P.A.C.E. for teacher/student/parent meetings and specialist classes. No longer were homeschool parents alone, they had real ‘teachers’ to set standards and request accountability which allowed them to concentrate purely on guiding and motivating their kids. Terry and Kristen, supported by HAAS, invested heavily in building the relationships that gradually grew the experiment into a formidable program. Other resource teachers provided classes in Hawaiiana, arts and crafts and, of course, there has always been circus taught by a number of instructors including myself, Noah, Tristan, Joe and now Morgan.

My personal role in the academic S.P.A.C.E. school was initially significant as the board President for S.PA.C.E. but later was limited to being a parent, providing support and encouragement. While helping educate the next generation has been my passion and life assignment I had exhausted my patience with pushing kids along the college path during my time as teacher and Principal at Tapion School in St. Lucia. Free from the shackles of compulsory attendance, State testing and helicopter parents I travelled another route and created the HICCUP circus school. By teaching juggling, stilt walking, unicycling, acrobatics and clowning as an extra-curricular activity and by putting kids on stage I was able to nurture personal development and self-esteem skills that government schools struggle to accomplish and I loved my renegade career.

Without the stress and competition of school our HICCUP programs excelled in building confidence, persistence and emotional resilience in kids, some of whom lived in really tough circumstances. Circus necessitates learning organization skills and team work and has led to a HICCUP ohana of lifelong friendships. Our circus curriculum had the flexibility to match the needs of individual students while addressing the challenging demands of physical training and performance. Without any winners or losers I cherished the fact that our fun activities created a supportive and uplifting learning environment promoting independence, interdependence and self-motivation. Our HICCUP circus youth training program not only supplemented regular education experiences like the S.P.A.C.E. school but for a host of kids it was a significant source of real life experiences and they’ve gone on to live successful lifestyles – some very conventional, some alternative and a few definitely renegade.

The S.P.A.C.E. school continues today playing an important role in our isolated rural community and is a valuable model needing help. Check out this wonderful 2022 video to see more – Aloha nui.

Published by Graham Ellis

As a child of the '60's with a wanderlust spirit I just followed my dreams and opportunities as they arose. My journey took me to some of the brightest and darkest places imaginable. I met amazing people on the way, some were famous and some are infamous. Some are just great friends with stories that blended with mine as we traveled together on land, on the sea and in the sky. We all share the renegade spirit !

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