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A Tale of Three Sisters

Will they drop out or graduate? The academic journey of the Pele girls is the first story in our series on dropout prevention.

By Sabrina Holcomb and John Rosales

Honolulu's President William McKinley High School has a tradition so sacred, even teenagers dare not tread on it: Stay off the oval.

Even the redbirds and sparrows perched high on the 100-year-old banyan and palm trees seem to circumvent the ellipse surrounding the eight-ton bronze statue of the school's namesake.

"You're only allowed to walk on the oval as a graduating senior on Commencement Day," explains Tu'uali'i Pele, flanked by her two younger sisters, both McKinley students.

The younger siblings fall quiet and look away. Eighteen-year-old Tu'uali'i, nicknamed Stuki—so smart she skipped sixth grade in her birthplace of American Samoa, who can quote obscure Bible passages at will, and who co-founded a thriving school club celebrating Polynesian culture—will never walk the oval.

Stuki (left) now offers support for younger sisters Miriama (middle) and Beatriz (right).

Stuki dropped out of school in her senior year.

"I started hanging around with the wrong people and trying to please my friends," Stuki explains. "They would call me a loser and a geek for going to class."

Peer pressure, along with language barriers, economic hardship, and culture shock profoundly impede the performance of many Asian American and Pacific Islander (API) students. Though the dropout rate in Hawaii is by most accounts almost 16 percent, the scant data monitoring Pacific Islanders indicate their dropout rate is higher.

The numbers are hard to pin down because more than 50 ethnic groups (representing about 100 languages) are categorized under the umbrella term API. Even Hawaii, with the highest percentage of API students in the country, isn't required to separate the subgroups on its No Child Left Behind state report card.

McKinley's diverse API population has a proud legacy of high-achieving graduates who attend Ivy League schools, military academies, and mainland universities from California to Maine. Yet the picturesque school, whose students and teachers seem to embody the aloha spirit of Hawaii, also has one of the highest dropout rates and ninth-grade retention rates in the state, with nearly a third of the freshman class repeating their first year of high school.

But Vice Principal John Hammond is not deterred. "The kids have a lot more potential than they think," he says. He has seen a direct correlation between students' involvement in extracurriculars and academic performance. "The more involved in school they become, the better they start to do."

The Polynesian Club

At the beginning of her senior year, Stuki was concerned that some API students were skipping school and partying too much. Determined to do something about it, she dedicated herself to founding (with her best friend Hiramo) the Polynesian Club.

"Pacific Islander" is a geographic term that describes inhabitants of the following three sub-regions:  

More than 1,000 islands grouped within a triangle covering the east-central region of the Pacific Ocean, bound by the Hawaiian islands in the north, New Zealand in the west, and Easter Island in the east.

The independent state of Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Fiji, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, and various smaller islands.

This region includes the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, and the islands of Guam and Palau, among others.
"I wanted [Pacific Islanders] to take pride in their culture," she says. But at first, it was hard to get students to attend.

Discouraged, and floundering academically themselves, Stuki and Hiramo started skipping class. They eventually dropped out, just a few months before school ended.

By that time, however, the Polynesian Club was increasing in popularity. It has since become a lifeline for Pacific Islander students, including Stuki's sisters, Miriama, almost 17 and currently enrolled in a "last chance" seniors program, and Beatriz, a 14-year-old freshman who stumbled at McKinley after a stellar record in middle school.

"I was, like, nervous and shy when I first got to school," says Miriama, who has bright eyes and a ready smile. "When I found out there were Samoan kids [at school], I started to know what to do and where to go."

Representing a dozen ethnicities, the club's 60 members meet once a week. Through song, dance, and storytelling, students from Samoa, Tonga, Hawaii, and other Pacific Islands discuss each other's history, language, and cuisine. They've been known to debate, for example, how best to prepare kalua pork, which is slow-roasted in an underground oven and shredded.

"When you come here," says senior Darlene Samau, "you don't feel like a lost Polynesian child."

Before the club, some Pacific Islander students felt like they didn't have an identity on campus, explain staff advisors Akenese Nikolao-Mutini and Clarisse Tuasivi, who are both Polynesian.

"If they don't have strength in the academic areas, they feel shunned," says Nikolao-Mutini. "They feel they're fighting against a stereotype as soon as they walk into a classroom," adds Tuasivi.

Many students stay late to do their homework in the club's classroom, where the floral-scented breezes from nearby orchid gardens waft through the six-foot-tall windows. It's a marked contrast to most students' homes, where there can be two and three generations of family under one roof. Often, teens must help with child rearing, which takes time away from working on assignments.

"The Polynesian Club is helping us do better in school," says Miriama, who along with other members must complete one career and two community projects a year. Last year, members conducted a groundbreaking student survey inquiring about, among other items, whether they plan to finish high school and continue their education. Responses to why they might quit school ranged from "English is hard to understand," to "teachers are racist," to "hate doing homework," and "school is not a priority at my home." Most students indicated either that they plan to continue their education or "have not thought about it."

Safety Nets

Part of a McKinley educator's role is to get students thinking about their futures, says Laverne Moore, the school's curriculum coordinator. "The students who make it have a caring adult following them through their school years to graduation."

Many members of the Polynesian Club, including Miriama, are enrolled in one of the school's nine support programs, which offer different kinds of reinforcement to help students attain the 22 credits needed to graduate. Beatriz will have a harder time than her sister because the class of 2010 will need 24 credits to graduate.

How long does it take to get there?

Six hours by air between California and Hawaii. Hawaii uses the Hawaii Time Zone (HTZ) and is six hours behind U.S. Eastern Standard Time, or three hours behind Pacific Standard Time (PST). Hawaii does not observe Daylight Saving Time.

Five hours by air between Hawaii and American Samoa. The islands are in a time zone (Coordinated Universal Time/UTC-11) that is seven hours behind EST, or four behind PST.

The majority of students enrolled in the programs are English language learners (ELLs). Like most ELL students, Miriama and Beatriz speak their native tongue at home and with friends. They only use English when talking with teachers, they say, or writing on their MySpace pages (where they proudly label themselves "100% certified Samoan").

When students do speak English, it's often a mixture of English and their native language, says Patricia Meyer, transition coordinator and Polynesian Club advisor. Meyer helps place incoming students at the proper grade level and outgoing students find a job, a vocation or other training.

She says when students hear Standard English in school, they don't always understand the teacher.

"They have to think about it and translate it into their language," says Meyer. "If there's no vocabulary for a word or concept in that language, they don't know what we're talking about."

She stresses the importance of early intervention.

"If we can keep them through ninth grade, we can usually hold on to them," she adds.

Barely three months into her freshman year, Beatriz is becoming a poster child for the ninth-grade blues.  "She's like me," says Stuki, who is worried about her younger sister. "We're the kind of people who think we know everything."

When students stumble, school counselors step in, confer with teachers, and determine whether to enroll the student in an immersion program where the same group spends all day with one or two teachers—like the Po'okela Academy, an intensive "last chance" program designed for seniors with fewer than 15 credits, or the Special Motivation Program (SMP). For teen parents, there's even a parenting program with an on-campus day care center where students drop off their babies before class.

When students have options, says SMP teacher Jake Hoopai, it can mean the difference between being employed or homeless.

The Power of Motivation

A half-dozen fans help cool Hoopai's room where about 20 ninth- through 12th-graders work on geography and science projects. Some have sketched in detail rare insects and exotic plants found on their island homelands in Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia. There are also a few first-generation students from China, Japan, and the Philippines.

They have been assigned to the SMP because they've failed more than two classes and show other signs of needing help.

"Everyone in this class has a learning disability, or wasn't prepared for high school by their middle school," says Hoopai, a 35-year veteran of McKinley who graduated from the school in 1966.

The elementary schools in Micronesia, for example, have a system of learning that stresses oral communication.

"Some students get here and don't know what a paragraph is," he says. "Their system of teaching is based on oral history. They learn by listening."

As such, when some students arrive, they are so far behind in NCLB terms, they get placed in one of McKinley's "catch-up" programs so they can graduate.

Some of Hoopai's students walk to campus from the boy's juvenile detention center located two blocks away. They were arrested for smoking marijuana, shoplifting, or other minor offenses.

Hoopai does not want his current students to share the fate of the young people he sees at the beach searching through trash for food. "Some are former students," he says. "They dropped out."

Twenty percent of SMP students return to regular classes, says Hoopai, while 75 percent go on to the Po'okela Academy. Some years, 5 percent of students might drop out, "But last year we didn't lose any," he says with relief.

In Search of Excellence

Miriama, who started her senior year this September with just 14 credits, is enrolled in Po'okela Academy.

Po'okela, which means excellence, places a group of students with one teacher for the academic year, emphasizing class cohesiveness over Western-style, individual competition. The idea is ohana—working together as family—and is the last hope for seniors to graduate on time.

Why are dropout rates so hard to pin down?

There is no national, standardized method to track students who stop attending school. Not only do states use different measurements, the dropout and graduation rates for the same state can vary depending on whose statistics you quote. The Hawaii Department of Education's "15-16 percent" dropout rate is based on the "cohort" method, which tracks first-time ninth graders through senior year. Students who graduate after their cohort or earn a GED or equivalency diploma are not included in graduation rates.  

To read about NEA's 12-point action plan for reducing the dropout rate, go to

"It's about relationship, relationship, relationship," emphasizes academy instructor Bernadette James, who says it's easy for quiet, respectful students with perfect attendance records like Miriama to slip through the cracks. The Academy allows her to spend more one-on-one time with students.

"We all help each other," says Miriama, who James says is "a delight to teach."

"School is more fun now," adds Krystal Yamamura, a senior who needs 8.5 more credits to graduate. "When I first came to high school, I wasn't real serious. I was kalohe, a rascal, yeah? I didn't like to listen. Now I want to graduate with my class."

"I say ‘academy' because I knew it would make a difference in the way everyone, including the kids, felt about it," says James.

Po'okela and James have inspired Miriama to the point where she wants to become a teacher.

"That's Miri," says Stuki, who sometimes visits McKinley to see her sisters. "She likes everything about school."

Statewide Support for Students

McKinley is just one of 270 schools, plus 27 charter schools, that are under the jurisdiction of the Hawaii State Department of Education (HSDE). Most offer a variety of programs and services focused on meeting NCLB objectives and reducing the dropout rate, according to Russell Yamauchi, an educational specialist with HSDE.

The Comprehensive Student Support System, a key part of the statewide dropout prevention effort, is designed to meet the needs of all student groups—from the gifted and talented to those confronted with an unplanned pregnancy or temporary incarceration. Student Support Team meetings, attended by school staff, parents, and relevant community members, such as a minister, are organized to help analyze a student's problems and discuss solutions to improve the student's academic performance.

"All families are focused on having their children get an education," says Yamauchi. He acknowledges that the school system is trying its best to cope with the influx of families migrating to Hawaii, especially from the Pacific Islands, and many with different levels of formal schooling.

"Some students get so behind in credits, they drop out," he says. "Some are turned off [by school or teachers] and lose their motivation."

Other obstacles involve teen students working to contribute to the family finances. Yamauchi says many families, like the Peles, are hit hard with Honolulu's high cost of living, where a family of four renting an apartment needs to earn at least $111,695—55 percent more income—to maintain a lifestyle similar to a family living in the continental United States.

No Regrets

Beyond the postcard sunsets and blue lagoons of tourist Hawaii is Mayor Wright Homes, a crowded and noisy housing project. Mareta Pele, who earns $17,000 a year as a food packer for a bakery, pays $225 to rent a three-bedroom apartment there.

Where is American Samoa?
The United States Territory of American Samoa is located 2,600 miles south of Honolulu  within the geographical region of Oceania. American Samoa is a small group of islands that are the United States ' southern-most territory. The main island of Tutuila holds the capital city of Pago Pago. With a total land area of 124 square miles, American Samoa is slightly larger than Washington, D.C. Consisting of five, rugged volcanic islands and two coral atolls, it is frequently hit by typhoons between December and March.If you drew a triangle from Hawaii, New Zealand and Tahiti you would find Samoa in the middle. Western Samoa is a neighboring independent country that shares the same culture. American Samoa became an unincorporated U.S. territory in 1900.
Check out a map of American Samoa.  
Quick Facts:
  • Capital: Pago Pago
  • Official languages: English, Samoan
  • Currency: US dollar
  • Globe Location: 14 degrees below the equator

Yet, she has no regrets about leaving the tranquility of her Samoan village, Amaluia (about 2,500 miles southwest of Hawaii), where her family owns a five-bedroom house facing the beach.

"I brought my kids here for the education," says Pele, who arrived in Honolulu in 2002.

Mareta, 45, finished high school in 1980 in Samoa. Her oldest daughter, Elizabeth Emanuele, 26, completed college in Samoa and now occupies one of the apartment's bedrooms with her husband. Mareta shares a room with Miriama and son Peo, 7, while Stuki and Beatriz occupy the third room.

 The family computer with Internet access allows the girls to do homework and view their MySpace pages. It competes for space in the living room with a small TV, sofa, dining table, and a well-stocked refrigerator. Family photos fill every cabinet and hang side-by-side with school certificates and a religious tapestry.

As is customary in Samoa, every evening the Peles gather for prayers voiced in their first language. "I don't want them to forget how to speak Samoan," says Pele. "It's who they are."

Pele says she misses the easy pace and charm of Amaluia  where "everyone knows everyone." But the schools there did not prepare her children for Honolulu schools. "No way," she adds.

Still, Pele doesn't second-guess the move. "They needed to learn English—if they go back home, they can get better jobs. Coming from school in America and going to Samoa counts for a lot."

Mareta hopes that the two youngest girls may have learned from Stuki's experience. Beatriz announces that when she graduates from college, she's going to become a nurse like her oldest sister, while Miriama plans to teach.

"Every day," Pele says, "I ask each of them, ‘Have you gone to school today?' "

Though Stuki will not walk the McKinley oval, she has enrolled in an education program that leads to a high school diploma.

"I've wanted to be a lawyer since I was in fifth grade," she admits. "I just had a downfall and it changed my life. I sit here saying if, if, if—but it's too late for ifs. I'm trying to make up for it now."

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