Harry Kukkinen teaches 2nd grade students in class at Connections public charter school located the Kress building in downtown Hilo, HI 10/29/13 ©PF Bentley/Civil Beat

HILO, HAWAII — Downtown Hilo looks like it’s frozen in time. Low, modest buildings are deteriorating relics of the sugar plantation era. The streets are usually quiet and free of traffic. Palm trees line a main boulevard that runs along the normally calm Hilo bay.

Hilo’s plantation heyday is hardly more than a memory. The Big Island’s last sugar plantation closed in 1995, and since then the area has for the most part found itself in a prolonged slump. Today, Hilo has the lowest percentage of married-couple families in the state, according to a UH Center on the Family study. It is home to a large number of “idle teens” — those age 16 through 19 who are not in school or employed, and UH data indicates that more than half of teenagers in the area grow up without sufficient parental supervision. Nearly one in four children lives below the poverty level, many of them in single-mother households, according to U.S. Census data. For children under the age of five, that percentage rises to nearly 30 percent, which is double the state average.

And then there is the material impact: the median household income in the town is about $53,000, $14,000 less than state’s median, Census data shows.

It is enough to make people wonder what, if any, future the children here will have. “A fundamental question that all of the Big Island asks is, ‘Will our youth be able to live and make a living on the Big Island?” said Jim Shon, director of the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s Hawaii Educational Policy Center.

Hilo, he added, is “a town that seems to want to fade.”

The challenge at Connections, a high-poverty K-12 charter school partially housed in downtown Hilo’s 81-year-old Kress Building, is to help make sure that doesn’t happen. It is no easy task. After all, about three-fourths of the school’s 359 students are low-income and eligible for free or discounted lunches, and many are from broken homes without positive male role models, according to the principal, John Thatcher.


Photo Credit: PF Bentley of Civil Beat