As the Lava Flowed: A Rare, Life-Changing Lesson

Between September 2014 and February 2015, the world was transfixed on the rural city of Pahoa, on The Big Island of Hawaii. Lava from the eruption of volcano Pu’u O’o was flowing steadily toward the town, threatening to destroy the entire area. Hawaii Academy of Arts and Science Public Charter School (HAAS) was directly in the lava’s projected path, thirteen miles from the volcano’s origin.

The students and educators of HAAS were still recovering from Hurricane Iselle, which blew through the island on August 7, 2014, the second day of school for HAAS. The hurricane left the area without electricity, waste, phone and other services for up to a month.

And we think we have challenges?

Tough decisions were made. Eight separate lava contingency plans had HAAS moving to several sites to house their K-12 students. In the midst of the heat (yes, a pun), the HAAS community was guided by former Mayor and veteran civil defense chief Harry Kim, who volunteered advice on how to “co-exist” with the lava.

He advised to look upon Pele, the Fire Goddess and Goddess of Volcanoes in Hawaiian culture, not as an evil threat, but as an angel of creation. The HAAS community turned their focus to a rare but life-changing learning lesson.  HAAS STEM students designed utility pole insulation protection, and VOG scrubbers, a water-cooled heat-resistant device to allow cars to drive over still-cooling lava (sold in the local hardware store). Other students created a HOPE FOR HAAS website. Students updated the website daily, providing the world a continuing view of the lava and its proximity to the town and school. HAAS was on national news and recognized in the US House of Representatives.  The lava destroyed one home on the edge of town, and moved perilously close to the school, within just one-quarter mile of the school’s campus.

Yet, throughout this long six months, the HAAS community of learners used positive energy and held mass celebrations to honor Pele and offer her hand-made leis, ancient chants, and songs of appreciation and respect. By coincidence (or maybe not), each time HAAS honored Pele, the lava stopped its advance to the school. Finally, in mid-February, the lava stopped flowing. For me, to see the hardened lava that poured through metal fences and the vacant home, it became unbelievable realty. (Photos below).

Through all of this, the HAAS community stayed focused on offering quality public education to an impoverished rural academy. According to HAAS Founder and Director Steve Hirakami, “We measure educational success in different ways. To our dedicated teachers, staff and families who bonded together during this time, success was measured by the aloha shared during those months to keep the school alive. HAAS will always be an example of taking a life-changing potential hazard and turning it into a once-in-a-lifetime learning experience.”

HAAS’ motto is “Aloha in Education.” Here, “Aloha” can be substituted with “love.”