A Brief History

slideshow16Envisioning the Dream

In 1990, a team of Advanced Placement Physics students from Konawaena High School designed, built and raced a solar-powered car across the Australian Outback, becoming the first high school team to finish the World Solar Challenge – the premier solar energy auto race in the world.


The following year, the 1991 Solar Car Team raced through Europe in the Tour Del Sol. In 1993, the team traversed the U.S. mainland from California to Delaware, becoming the first solar car to cross North America.

The team’s teacher, Bill Woerner, a veteran educator and visionary, realized that hands-on learning was missing in the traditional classroom setting. He believed that students needed meaningful, real-world experiences in order to succeed.

In 1993, Woerner assembled a team of educators, and together with input from students, formed a project-based curriculum. On a hardscrabble lava field, the first students of  West Hawaii Explorations Academy (WHEA) began to construct their school-without-walls.

Partnerships with several key groups in Kona helped to build the school’s infrastructure over time. Students, parents, staff, mentors and community volunteers poured cement, built a 3,000 square-foot workshop pavilion, put up 6,000 square-feet of shade cloth project space, constructed a 9,600 gallon reef simulation tank and a 14,000 gallon live shark display, built benches, assembled bleachers, painted, patched and pitched in to create one of the most distinctive schools in the world.

slideshow12Learning by Doing

WHEA was Hawaii’s first public charter school, originally created as a school-within-a-school at Konawaena High School. It is accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) and includes a middle school (grades 6-8) and a high school (grades 9-12). With a current student body of over 300, WHEA’s waitlist is steadily growing each year.



WHEA’s focus is simple: to cultivate critical thinkers who are able to solve real-world, complex problems. The school offers a project-based curriculum that emphasizes independent learning, technical writing, and building understanding through practical research.

The school’s motto is “No Child Left Indoors,” which reflects a focus on getting students outdoors and into the community to participate in meaningful hands-on educational experiences. Most student projects are marine, malama aina (taking care of the land), or energy related.

slideshow3Located at the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority at Keahole Point, WHEA is within walking distance of tide pools where organisms are often collected for study and research. Additional features of the school include an octopus tank, shark tank, bat ray tank, electric car exhibit and a green house area.


According to Hawaii State assessment scores, charter students appear to perform better on standardized tests, benefiting from small school settings and hands-on practices. At WHEA, smaller learning environments and dedicated faculty and staff help students to feel safe, important and cared for. Students also are empowered to take an active role in their education by providing a voice in the selection of issues and the means by which those issues are addressed.

WHEA’s efforts have been recognized positively within the education and business communities. In 2005, it was among 20 outstanding schools recognized by Intel and Scholastic for displaying exemplary educational practices. In addition, Blue Ribbon Schools selected WHEA to receive the high school Schools of Distinction Award for Science Achievement.

Adapting to Change

Since it was first created, WHEA has practiced what it teaches by being independent and self-sufficient when possible. However, facilities and funding issues continue to challenge the school’s mission and the ability to respond to students’ needs in a constantly changing world.

As a charter school, WHEA is able to operate independently of the Hawaii Department of Education and exercise autonomy in operations, curricular approaches and governance. The school values its good standing in the community and therefore, its board and administration continue to follow its standards and best practices guidelines, including transparency on all governance matters.

Although charter schools are public schools, they do not receive facilities funds. All charter schools, including WHEA, must pay lease and utility fees out of its instructional funds, even though they are constitutionally entitled to support from the state.

Unfortunately, sharp budget reductions have resulted in significant decreases in the “per student” allotment, while enrollments at charter schools continue to rise. As a result of the inability to receive state funding for facilities, installation of WHEA’s infrastructure took place little by little, over a long period of time.

The original campus was often affected by inclement weather and noise. A need for a science or wet lab, as well as more opportunities to provide STEM learning (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) in a classroom setting was desired. The students, faculty, staff and parents came together to envision a new education center to address many of these issues, and provide students with a more dynamic, cutting edge campus.

Ground Breaking on Friday February 1st, 2013
West Hawaii Explorations Academy Ground-Breaking, Friday February 1st, 2013

“The School for Tomorrow”

When buildings go up first, ideas come most often as afterthoughts-very few good ideas are intended to fit inside four walls. For WHEA, the ideas came first and since 1994, they have been tested and proven by teachers and students.

Based on the efforts of the previous capital campaign, WHEA students and faculty moved into the current campus in the 2014 school year – a campus and model environmental education venue, centered around big global ideas. With a vision in place as bold as the ideas behind it, WHEA is now ready to move forward as the School for Tomorrow.

The new campus now accommodates the needs of students by providing a meaningful and personally relevant education in real-world settings. Indoor and outdoor spaces allow for a variety of experiences, while also mitigating issues related to noise and bad weather.


Campus Project 1Campus Project 2

Click on the pictures to view a higher resolution.


Preparing our Students for the next Era of Innovation

Today, the West Hawaii Explorations Academy campus continues to be a point of pride in the Kona Community and the NELHA park, promoting environmental stewardship with a “green” building and module design. Elements of the Hawaiian culture and way of life are present throughout the campus as well, including the study of sea life with the new aquaculture area, and green houses and agricultural areas that feature indigenous plants.

Now, it is time to allow WHEA to serve as a model for project-based education to a larger audience. Community involvement and partnerships have been strengthened by the creation of WHEA as an outstanding example in the fields of science and technology education (STEM), as well as arts and humanities.

What West Hawaii Exploration Academy Needs Now –  and How You Can Help!



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