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In A Class Of Their Own

Public Schools of Hawai‘i Foundation’s upcoming awards banquet shines a light on distinguished graduates Daniel Chun, Saedene Ota and Mike Irish.

What do Bruno Mars, Max Holloway, John John Florence, Jack Johnson, Maggie Q and Bryan Clay all have in common?

Besides being prominent names from Hawai‘i, they are all proud public school graduates.

And while thousands of DOE alums are already part of this established circle of professionals, many more are well on their way to matriculation and making their own marks on the world. There to help youth in their formative educational years are teachers, faculty and staff, and at the ready to assist these state workers is Public Schools of Hawai‘i Foundation. The nonprofit started in 1986 with a mission to improve the quality of public education by way of innovative classroom teaching and offering diverse approaches to learning.

“The business community got together back then to figure out a way to help public schools,” explains trustee Ken Hiraki, a Roosevelt High grad. “We found out that if we form this organization and pool our money together, we can make a bigger impact on improving public school education.”

Mike Irish, Saedene Ota and Daniel Chun are accomplished graduates of Hawai‘i’s public school system.

Now, more than 35 years later, the group continues to do just that. From its Good Idea Grants that fund innovative learning experiences (to the tune of $5 million) to 21st century STEM programs steeped in Stanford’s design-thinking model, the foundation is holistic in its approach to improving learning experiences for students of all ages.

“It all started with the Good Idea Grants,” recalls Hiraki, adding that each stipend is about $3,000 per project. “It’s for teachers to get reenergized and do something innovative in their class that they probably would have had to pay for out of their own pocket for.”

These good ideas include everything from building a Japanese garden at Waipahu High and sewing quilts at Waiāhole Elementary to crafting a portable planetarium to teach Hawaiian star-lore at ‘Ewa Elementary. Funding great ideas like these is just one part of what Public Schools of Hawai‘i Foundation does for local students. It also encourages engagement in coding, artificial intelligence and, most recently, modern genomics. The latter is inspired by 1981 Hilo High grad Dr. Jennifer Doudna, one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2015, who won the 2020 Nobel Prize in chemistry alongside Emmanuelle Charpentier.

“Her discovery (of CRISPR gene editing technology) has been called one of the most significant discoveries in the history of biology,” notes Hiraki.

To help students learn more about genetics, the foundation partnered with ‘Iolani School’s ‘Āina-Informatics Network and Hawai‘i Dental Service to provide training and purchase lab equipment. If studying DNA sounds cool, it is, because youth are working on real-world issues currently affecting the state. According to the foundation, public school students have been able to assist the state Department of Health in tracking the spread of COVID variants by analyzing deactivated test samples.

“Our public school kids are the next generation of community leaders, entrepreneurs, Grammy Award winners, secretaries of veterans affairs, Nobel laureates,” adds Hiraki. “We make a positive difference for Hawai‘i, and we also have a global impact.”

With so many influential public school graduates, there’s no shortage of people to recognize. Each year as part of its Kūlia I Ka Nu‘u awards banquet, Public Schools of Hawai‘i Foundation honors DOE grads who not only excel in their professions, but also do much to give back. These are individuals who exemplify leadership, courage, discipline and community-mindedness — characteristics that anyone, not just public school students, can aspire to.

While its 2020 event was postponed, Public Schools of Hawai‘i Foundation is pleased to shine a light on Mike Irish, Saedene Ota and corporate honoree Alaska Airlines, represented by Daniel Chun, during its 2022 fundraising event, which will take place June 12 at The Royal Hawaiian. Learn more at pshf.org.

Here, the honorees share a little about their high school experiences and how it shaped their futures.

Mike Irish (Kalani High School, 1971)
CEO, Diamond Head Seafood, Halms Enterprise, Keoki’s Lau Lau

Five decades after graduating from Kalani, Mike Irish stepped onto campus with a smile on his face.

“It’s funny,” he says. “I opened the admin office and it’s identical to what it was back then.” The buildings look the same, too, as do the classrooms, but he’s happy to note that there are new additions that benefit students, like a women’s locker room and swimming pool.

Athletics was a big part of Irish’s high school life. As a prolific football player for the Falcons in his heyday, he earned a scholarship to play for University of Hawai‘i, where a sports injury during his freshman year left him temporarily paralyzed from the neck down. But exhibiting that public school grit, he persevered and with the help of expert hands at REHAB, is now known around town as the King of Kimchi at the helm of a local food empire.

He credits his teachers and coaches for encouraging him, and he adds, organizations like Public Schools of Hawai‘i Foundation are instrumental in making that happen.

“They help teachers buy simple materials, basics that you’d automatically assume would be there.”

Raising funds and providing opportunities for students and teachers is one part of the mission, and the other part is raising awareness that the state’s public schools need help to raise up the next generation.

“If you wanna learn, the public schools are there to help teach,” Irish adds. “If you like sports or calculus, you have the opportunity there at public school. It’s a matter of taking advantage of it.”

Saedene Ota (Baldwin High School, 1987)
Owner and creative director, Sae Design Group

Before starting her own design company, Saedene Ota thought she was going to be an architect. While taking mechanical drawing at Baldwin High, the specialty sparked something in her that led her to forge her own path.

“They had really good art teachers, and I did dabble in some art and foreign language, but there was something about the technical aspect of mechanical drawing that I really loved. It led me to architecture and then into graphic design.”

The fields of design research and graphic design weren’t yet popular in the late 1980s, but that didn’t stop Ota from specializing in areas like logo development, website building, branding, strategy and anything else that has to do with visual communication. She went on to her dream school, ArtCenter College of Design in Pasedena, California, to pursue study in those areas.

“No one ever discouraged me from being an artist,” Ota recalls. “Most of my high school teachers were incredibly supportive.”

There’s a life-long learner within Ota, who graduated a year ago with her MBA in design, specifically design strategy, further enhancing the services that Sae Design Group already offers.

Public schools provide students who work hard myriad opportunities to learn and grow, while simultaneously giving every child a chance to succeed.

“That philosophy is why public schools exist in the first place,” says Ota. “You get to see the difference in class and culture, the haves and the have nots. In public schools, regardless of where you came from, you can take an AP class, you can take band, learn whatever you want to learn. I want all children to know that there’s this opportunity in public schools to grow.”

Daniel Chun (Mililani High School, 1997)
Director of sales, community and public relations,
Alaska Airlines, Hawai‘i

Daniel Chun’s first lessons in leadership came during his time at Mililani High, where he admittedly was not the best student.

“Absolutely not,” Chun notes, with a laugh. “However, I think I made the most and the best out of my time in school by getting involved in the things I was really passionate about.”

From music (he was part of the marching band) to student government to the school paper, Chun was able to try his hand at a number of things and excel at each of them.

“I think all experiences are what we make of them, and any type of opportunity we have within the public school system is all a gift,” he says.

After graduating from University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa’s travel industry management school — “Public school grad all the way!” he notes — Chun worked in tourism-related fields before accepting a position with Alaska Airlines a decade ago.

“I’ve fallen in love with the company,” says Chun. “It’s always had its heart in the right place. It understands that in order to be successful, we need to make sure we are good partners in all of the communities that we serve.”

In fact, Alaska Airlines’ ongoing support of Public Schools of Hawai‘i Foundation is what inspired Chun to join the organization as a trustee. As a regular attendee of the foundation’s awards dinner, he found himself constantly impressed by personal success stories, as well as the Good Idea Grants that fund novel teaching opportunities. (This year’s deadline to apply is June 13 online at pshf.org.)

“The foundation encourages innovation in the classroom, it funds ideas that teachers wouldn’t be able to fund on their own. These grants create such a long-lasting impact and make a huge difference in the lives of teachers and students.”