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Queen Emma Honorees Support Public Education

By Rachel Breit

This year at the Queen Emma Ball, St. Andrew’s Priory honors three leaders working to close the education inequity gap. Despite the honorees’ varying backgrounds – one a nationally recognized education innovator, the second the head of the nation’s largest private school system, and the third a developer working with state leaders to reform public education – they all have the same credo: Children deserve a nurturing education.

Named after St. Andrew’s Priory founder and in its seventh year, the Queen Emma Ball celebrates and recognizes honorees who are selected based on their commitment and contributions to education. Funds raised at the Queen Emma Ball go toward St. Andrew’s Priory students’ scholarships and financial aid, which 35 percent of students receive – one of the highest percentages awarded among private schools in Hawaii. St. Andrew’s Priory, founded in 1867, is an all-girl, kindergarten through grade 12 college preparatory school. Its mission is to provide a progressive education and environment that fosters independence, freethinking and self-confidence – evident in the fact that 100 percent of graduates enroll in college.

The motivating force behind St. Andrew’s Priory’s mission is also what drives Queen Emma Ball honorees Robert Witt, Dee Jay Mailer and Mitch D’Olier. Their passion for community development has resulted in significant progress, such as state reform and providing needed resources, made possible through creative and collaborative leadership rather than top-down directives.

With private schools receiving more funding, resources and prestige than public schools, there is a disparity between children’s access to education. What can be done to help bridge the gap?

“We need to build a bridge to reach those children,” says Witt, executive director of Hawaii Association of Independent Schools (HAIS) and CEO of Hawaiian Education Council. For Witt, private schools have a larger public purpose, so even while he works in the private sector of education, he always also collaborates with public schools. Blurring the lines between private and public is what builds community, he says. “Every child can achieve if given enough support.” For Witt, support for the community is crucial and has led him to redefine our concept of “the good life,” which he uses to rethink education. Rather than the inward focus on personal wealth, information gluttony and material consumption, the new good life, instead is about what we can offer outward: “It’s about what one can do by contributing to the community,” he says.

Dee Jay Mailer, CEO of Kamehameha Schools, embodies Witt’s ideas about the new good life’s unselfish focus. Despite sitting at the helm of the nation’s largest private school system, the word “power” isn’t the right one used to describe her position.

“It’s not about me, it’s about the people I can help succeed,” Mailer says. “My job is to empower others. I get totally jazzed when someone sees the light and sees the possibilities.”

Like Witt, she places importance on private schools’ support for public schools. For the past 10 years, Kamehameha Schools, a private trust established by ali’i, like St. Andrew’s Priory, has placed resources in Hawaiian communities.

“The amount we spend on our campuses and in our preschools is equal to the amount we spend on community schools and community environments for education,” Mailer says.

Community access to quality education from an early age, until third grade, has significant impacts on future success. If children don’t receive access to pre-school, for example, every milestone can become a hurdle. Therefore, Mailer is working to establish an early learning program that gives all children access to preschool.

“We are one of 11 states that doesn’t have an early learning system,” she says.

Adults’ attitudes toward students also can make or break a child’s success. Children are innocent, and adults must be careful not to place negative labels on them, such as “poor reader.”

Volunteer coaching in basketball and soccer led Mitch D’Olier, president and CEO of Kaneohe Ranch Management and Harold K.L. Castle Foundation, to fall in love with Hawaii’s children. It’s the children who motivate him to work with state leaders and bring about education reform. D’Olier helped pass the Reinventing Education Act of 2004, which reshaped how Hawaii’s schools operate, changing operation to a bottom-up approach with more resources going to needy students and campuses. He was key in bringing the Teach for America program to Hawaii, which provides teachers to public schools. Not only has the program brought in teachers new to Hawaii, D’Olier says, “It’s brought a lot of bright local kids home.”

D’Olier says teachers and school leaders are his heroes, doing the most important work in society in Hawaii today. He echoes the sentiment of his fellow honorees: “What fuels my fire is Hawaii’s kids. I want to make sure they all get a fair shake and are ready for the 21st century, because that’s how we are going to have the best Hawaii possible. ”

This year’s Queen Emma Ball takes place Saturday at 5:30 p.m. in the Coral Ballroom at Hilton Hawaiian Village. For tickets and information, contact St. Andrew’s Priory at 536-6102.

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