GTP 2011 - 2012

“Our environment matches the philosophical understanding about the way children learn. And it fosters a love of nature. They can be immediately in the outdoors. It recognizes the importance of play.”

Omidyar K - 1 Neighborhood

The Omidyar K – 1 Neighborhood is transforming education for Punahou’s youngest scholars. First-grade parent Bonnie Viernes says her daughter Ansley can’t wait to get to school each morning, barely waving goodbye as she dashes into the central courtyard, kicking off slippers on the way, and running barefoot across the bright green grass. “It’s truly a dream learning environment,” says Viernes.

The 24 teachers – two in each of the 12 classrooms – see happy children all day long as the youngsters move easily from indoor to outdoor environments, start a soccer game, study bugs, move rocks around in the bioswale, pluck fresh tomatoes from their garden boxes, chatter together about the butterflies and compost bins, and work together at tables that are constantly regrouped to enhance individual learning.

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The $26 million project – completed in 2009 after four years of planning and 18 months of construction – is grounded in cutting-edge neurological research that was utilized both in the design and in the curriculum. The research findings of how young children learn played a major role in the creation of an environment that’s flexible and nurturing while also offering exciting spaces to explore. It was named to honor Pierre ‘84 and Pam Omidyar who contributed the leadership gift. Another $6 million in endowment raised beyond the project's costs will provide ongoing support for the Neighborhood.

“This whole place radiates joyfulness, and kids learn when they’re joyful,” says Junior School Principal Mike Walker. “In creating this concept we anchored the educational program in the latest brain research. We’re tapping into their innate curiosity so they don’t see the difference between science and math and painting and play. Art, music and P.E. are essential and prominent parts of the curriculum, and they strengthen math and science. Neurologically they’re essential. Movement releases proteins in the brain that predispose it to learn. So if you want to improve scores in math and science, give them more art and P.E.”

Peter Balding, the Neighborhood’s P.E. teacher, calls the K – 1 environment a reflection of a simpler, old-fashioned time. “It’s really like an old neighborhood of the past, where we’re all taken care of, and work together and find ways to play and have fun.” On a regular basis Balding takes the children hiking through campus or up on Rocky Hill both as a fitness exercise, and a way to explore the outdoors. “The by-product is we get to be active,” he says. “We walk everywhere. You can’t help but fall in love with this place. It’s heaven up here!”

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Adds first-grade teacher Caryn Chan Carlone: “Our environment matches the philosophical understanding about the way children learn. And it fosters a love of nature. They can be immediately in the outdoors.It recognizes the importance of play.”

Kindergarten teacher Becca Kesler agrees: “Teachers are seeing the out-of-doors as a place of learning instead of just the interior classroom. There’s an embracing of the outdoor environment as a valuable place for learning. That’s one of the fundamental shifts that has occurred.”

At the same time, the Neighborhood is a model of sustainability, with 60 percent of its power generated by photovoltaic panels on the roofs, motion-sensor classroom lighting, water-saving flush toilets, and a catchment system that channels rainwater through the bioswale. On rainy days water swoops like a living stream around the courtyard and collects in rain barrels that provide water for the gardens that every classroom plants, tends and harvests.

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The Neighborhood was designed to achieve LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Platinum status for water efficiency, energy conservation and indoor environmental quality. For example, mornings often begin with classes dialing up the web-based dashboard to check on how much power their neighborhood of 301 children used overnight, and is using now as part of the schoolwide effort toward a more sustainable campus.

The Neighborhood has now seen three groups of kindergarteners pass through its brightly-colored rooms that open onto the grassy courtyard. The classrooms are arranged in pairs, with each kindergarten class next door to a partner first-grade classroom, and connected by a project room. This structure creates utmost flexibility for both collaborative learning and mentoring between the two grades so each child advances at his or her own pace. During every six-day cycle there is also at least one full day when teachers are working with children in small groups of six. This partnership generates additional emotional support for youngsters during these first two years at Punahou.

“They thrive on consistency, regularity, and having that safe community where they can feel secure,” says K – 1 Supervisor JoAnn Wong-Kam. “First-graders start the year faster, coming back to known friends and spaces. We’ve tried to make a big school have the feel of a small school. It’s been a wonderful transition.”