Private Schools With A Public Purpose

PUEO Scholars gather on the lanai of president Jim Scott's home to talk about their college plans with assistant director of PUEO Kylee Mar (far right, in green) PHOTO COURTESY SUZANNE SATO

PUEO Scholars gather on the lanai of president Jim Scott’s home to talk about their college plans with assistant director of PUEO Kylee Mar (far right, in green) PHOTO COURTESY SUZANNE SATO

For some families, Hawaii’s private schools can be an elusive dream, especially if such an education is viewed as the only means of enhancing their child’s chances of going beyond high school. Life is all about choices and options, and those who can afford it welcome the opportunity to choose between a private or public school education for their keiki.

I, for one, benefitted from both: Kindergarten through grade 6 was spent at Kalihi-Kai, Puuhale and Fern elementary schools, and Iolani is where I matriculated from seventh to 12th grade — and I enjoyed and benefitted from both experiences. I had excellent teachers, training and support at all four schools, and would definitely do it the same way if I had to do it all over again.

Punahou School, to its well-deserved credit, provides an incredibly enriching opportunity for students in sixth grade to derive the benefit of receiving their education and guidance from both public and private school institutions.

The initiative is called the Clarence T. C. Ching PUEO (Partnerships in Unlimited Educational Opportunities) program, and Punahou admits at least 40 public school scholars each summer to its campus to undertake a focused curriculum designed to inspire them to develop skills and prepare them to enroll in and graduate from college.

To be absolutely clear, PUEO purposely was crafted to recruit what Punahou president Jim Scott describes as “students from challenging circumstances.”

“We are not looking for the tippy-top kids or the cream-of-the-crop students,” says Scott, a Stanfordand Harvard-educated Buffanblu alumnus who grew up in Waimanalo. As the visionary and driving force behind PUEO, he meticulously analyzed similar models from other states centered around independent schools seeking to serve a public purpose. In addition, he knew from the outset that, for Punahou to be successful, they had to forge a strong partnership with the state Department of Education, so it understood and appreciated Punahou’s motives and objectives of “expanding and broadening its purposes and responsibility to the greater community.”

He also committed to attracting private funds from philanthropic organizations, which would help support Punahou’s mission of sharing its gifted personnel, assets and resources to help build a better society.

Finally, he promised to dedicate top-notch administrators and faculty to ensure a first-class educational experience for PUEO scholars.

From his staff, he assigned Carl Ackerman, a stellar history instructor, to this challenging task of designing the curriculum and format of the program. Ackerman was groomed for his new assignment as Scott’s point man by touring Seattle, Oakland and San Francisco schools to glean from them best practices for PUEO to incorporate.

I got to know the extremely knowledgeable and energetic Ackerman from visiting his classes as a guest lecturer, where I couldn’t help but notice the fantastic rapport he enjoyed with his students. So, when I learned that he was named director of PUEO, I had no doubt that Ackerman and PUEO would succeed when it opened in 2005. The summer-school session that Ackerman helped devise consists of stimulating classes that ultimately count for course credits during the academic year.

PUEO scholars are trained to embrace public speaking through an intensive series of exercises to develop and strengthen their communication skills. Small-group mentoring by college-aged individuals is part of the program. During the school year, group activities are staged around specific subjects of interest to the students, and an in-depth workshop that takes the scholars and their parents through the college admissions and financial aid process guided by an experienced college-admissions PUEO specialist is emphasized. The college specialist would visit with them eight to 10 times a year to ensure they stay on track. For years, this process was led by Dan Feldhaus, a highly respected retired dean of Admissions and College Counseling from Iolani.

All of this hard work has paid off handsomely for Punahou in many ways. At full capacity, PUEO serves about 300 students every summer, easily one of the largest of its kind in the country. Most PUEO scholars are first in their ohana to pursue a college education. Compared to 63 percent of DOE students who go on to college, 84 percent of PUEO scholars enroll in twoor four-year colleges. To date, 64 schools in the Honolulu and Windward districts have partnered with Punahou. And the list of donors to the program includes Weinberg Foundation, Castle Foundation and Clarence T. C. Ching Foundation, which will have given and pledged $9 million to PUEO.

Most impressively, PUEO has created a ripple effect in the fraternity of Hawaii Independent Schools among other private institutions that have stepped up to the plate with similar programs of their own. To cite a few examples, Iolani in 2010 unveiled the KA‘I program — a concentrated effort between Jarrett Middle School and the prestigious Ala Wai private school to prepare students for college, community college or vocational education. According to Raiders alumna Allison Blankenship, the enthusiastic director of KA‘I, Iolani’s mission is to provide “underresourced students starting from seventh grade (known as cohorts) from Palolo Valley with educational tools, real-world skills, social-networking abilities, and opportunities to discover their passions and mission in life.”

Sacred Hearts Academy head of school Betty White has led the charge from her parochial school to initiate a similar effort with Palolo Elementary that has garnered plaudits from the community. The Lancers’ summer program is named Ka Lei‘Ike, and it focuses on fourthto eighth-graders.

Kamehameha Schools certainly has done a highly commendable job of extending beyond its campuses to help the Native Hawaiian community. Its efforts in preschool education have been exemplary.

The admonition from the Good Book — “to whom much is given, much is required” — is manifesting itself very well with some of the leading private institutions in our community. Kudos to Punahou for its leadership role in helping students with “challenging circumstances” aspire to a better place.