On the wet, windward side of the Hawaiian island of O’ahu, the community of Kᾱne‘ohe (pronounced kah-nay-OH-hay) is lush, green and beautiful. There, nestled in the flatlands below the mountains and above the water, is Saint Mark Lutheran Church and School, perfectly situated in a diverse community of many native Hawaiians, military families and others who enjoy the beauty of Kāne‘ohe and call it home.
As beautiful as it is, of course, no place is perfect, and Kãne‘ohe isn’t exempt from challenges.
For Saint Mark, one of their community’s struggles became an incredible opportunity for them to serve their neighbors with the love of Christ.
“Many parents want a more closely monitored environment at the schools here in Hawaii,” explained Dr. David Gaudi, head of school at Saint Mark Lutheran School. “If you can believe it, though, there is just one school district for the entire state of Hawaii, just one, so all of the money for the public schools is allocated by the state legislature.”
What this means, added Gaudi, is “lots of bureaucracy and lots of layers – decisions aren’t made at the site level, but at the state level, with politicians making decisions about the state’s money.”
A worthy undertaking
The school was established in the 1950s, and although there are more than 100 private schools in Hawaii – a handful of which are within a mile of Saint Mark – the 162-student school fills a need in the community for sound, Christian education.
But the community needed even more.
“We were getting multiple inquiries week in and week out,” shared Gaudi, “with people even walking in and asking us if we had a preschool. Many other K-8 schools had preschools and we did not – so we both saw a need and strategically felt it would be a very good thing for us long term to sustain the school.”
The school also conducted a study that verified there were two students ages three to five for every early learning seat in the community, confirming the need for more access to early childhood education in Kãne‘ohe.
A preschool project would be a worthy undertaking, but it meant the staff and families would have to endure several months of displacement – not to mention that the school would have to navigate some complex Hawaiian laws.
“Building in Hawaii is tricky and challenging,” explained Gaudi. “There are antiquated laws and red tape. But [it’s also important to] make sure that the timing is right. We [previously had] paused our campaign for several years following the economic downturn that began in 2008. When we resumed our campaign [in 2013] and began soliciting the financial support from funders, they told us that our pausing demonstrated our thoughtfulness and restraint, which gave them faith in us.”
The greatest reason
Since this project had been a long-time coming, Saint Mark forged ahead and prayerfully embarked on a sizable project – tearing down their current one-story building and erecting a two-story structure in its place, an 11,000 square-foot building that would house three preschool classes on the bottom floor and administrative offices on the middle floor. Upstairs would be for older students, a teachers’ workroom, a collaborative learning space, a technology room and another flexible meeting room. To top it all off, they planned for an outdoor learning lanai and playground.
Next, Saint Mark contacted Lutheran Church Extension Fund (LCEF) to partner with them to make their plan a reality. They received grants from the Sam and Mary Castle Foundation and Harold K.L. Castle Foundation in December 2013 that allowed them to explore more serious planning and hire an architect. A few months later, they began working with Bill Swift, the LCEF district vice president for The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) California-Nevada-Hawaii District.
“Saint Mark and LCEF were a good match because we both share the same mission,” Gaudi said. “I trusted LCEF because they’re associated with the LCMS, competent and professional, and I was really impressed with everyone I talked to at every level. But the greatest reason [we chose to work with them again] was that we had a mortgage with them before, and they treated us fairly and supported our mission in ways that a local bank couldn’t do.”
A safe haven
When the newly constructed preschool opened in August 2019, it immediately had 34 children enrolled out of a 60-student capacity. Enrollment has since been steadily increasing, and Saint Mark is careful to keep that growth measured by “growing the school as need arises and increasing the workforce as need arises,” said Gaudi. “Even though our facilities are phenomenal, and we have loving Christian teachers, we’re being careful not to overstaff.”
The early childhood families at Saint Mark are extremely thankful to have a quality Christian school within reach.
“We adore the faculty and staff at Saint Mark,” said Ryan and Katie Tanaka, parents of a new Saint Mark preschool student. “Our son is learning about God’s word, grace, fellowship and love for others, along with a solid academic foundation. On top of that, the new early learning center is spectacular. The classrooms are incredibly spacious, and every detail has been thoroughly executed including several toddler-sized bathrooms, play centers and a top-shelf outdoor playground. It has provided a safe haven for our son to grow, make mistakes and develop life-long relationships.
“Plus,” they added, “it’s fantastic that we don’t have to drive to Honolulu and fight the traffic to find a loving place for our kids to get a Christ-based quality education.”
These days, the most beautiful thing in Kāne‘ohe isn’t the scenery – it’s the Gospel being shared with the children at Saint Mark day after day, many of whom had never before even heard of Jesus. According to Gaudi, “Only a small minority of the kids, about 5% or less, are Lutheran. A significant number of them are unchurched, so we have a pretty special opportunity. It’s a joy to see the little ones when their eyes light up as they learn about God.”