Guest commentary by Windward District’s Jorene Barut
Old habits die hard. But sometimes a spark ignites change, casts a light and levels the past into a distant memory. The Pookela Academy (Academy of Excellence) is the spark at Castle High that’s refining former self-described “kolohe” kids into steel-willed students committed to turning their lives around and burning with enthusiasm to learn.
Adding to the usual four-walled classrooms, this academy takes students off-campus for hands-on learning twice weekly. Wide open spaces plus accomplishing tasks guided by real-life businesspeople have led to measurable changes in the teens, who were close to dropping out or had repeated a grade level, sometimes twice.
The change is like night and day. Of the 54 students who stood proud at their end-of-school-year hoike (showcase) this month, 70 percent had achieved progress on the standardized STAR math assessment; 63 percent increased their Grade Point Averages; and 62 percent improved their STAR reading assessments. By contrast, more than half of these ninth- through 12th-graders had previously failed at least one grade level before enrolling in Pookela.
“I had bad habits, skipped school, was lazy and already had my application for the Youth Challenge Program,” said 11th-grader Kainalu Henriques. YCP is a U.S. National Guard program for high school dropouts, leading them to earn a GED or high school diploma, according to its website. Before Pookela, Henriques had repeated a grade level, but after two years in the academy, the 16-year-old caught up academically with his previous classmates, continues earning passing grades and will start as a senior next fall.
Of the 21 seniors, who will graduate May 30, 11 have received acceptance letters to college, one has met with a military recruiter and others plan to work before possibly attending college or trade school. At only two years old, the academy is changing and saving young lives.
“School wasn’t the thing for me. If I stayed in the mainstream, I would’ve dropped out. I need one-on-one attention otherwise everything a teacher says to the whole class is like hearing bubbles,” said Keahi Lyons-Hussey. The current sophomore repeated two grade levels, then joined the academy. After one year, her attitude about school shifted 180 degrees.
Lyons-Hussey, who said she shared the same “bad habits” as Henriques including often blowing off school for the beach, is catching up academically, thanks in part to the academy’s credit recovery class. It’s a correspondence course that includes coursework with frequent testing. Now earning passing grades, the 16-year-old will return next school year as a junior.
Graduating isn’t something Lyons-Hussey saw for herself. Her siblings were dropouts and Youth Challenge Program members, she said. She credits a current Pookela student for encouraging her to enroll. And she expressed gratitude for Academy Coordinator Donna Okita.
“Mrs. Okita is straight up; she teaches us that there are consequences,” Lyons-Hussey said. “If I didn’t come to class, she was on the phone to my home. She’s like another mom. She cares and wants the best for us.” Tough love plus caring resonated with Lyons-Hussey at school. She has found purpose and a plan. “I have self-confidence and self-discipline. I have a path in life, I will continue in school and I have a connection to my Hawaiian culture,” she said.
Some 85 percent of Pookela students share a Hawaiian ancestry. Their heritage and the land that all of these students occupy are further used to build connections with and between students. Before the academy, this group often felt disconnected from teachers and classmates. Studying and working on the land instilled pride and taught the pupils about character and their own identities.
“Working with many students and building things together taught me patience, the importance of a good work ethic and respect,” Henriques said. “It brought peace to my family.” The young man stopped running away from home and frequently arguing with his dad, he said.
Similarly, learning about the Hawaiian culture and its people’s extraordinary accomplishments, and participating in work that her ancestors did led Lyons-Hussey to a newfound pride in her roots, self-worth and humbleness. Through exploring current issues such as building the telescope atop Mauna Kea, cultivating taro fields and constructing canoes from giant logs, the would-be dropout discovered a love for the land and a desire to learn more science.
The hours-long twice-weekly outings off-campus seemed like reason enough for some students to join Pookela. “Once I heard ‘hands-on’ and ‘field trips,’ I was excited,” Henriques said. “Maybe you could say it was like a bribe to do our class work first, but you know what? Pretty soon everyone was doing all their work so they could go off-campus. It worked.”
Soon enough, the students were learning lessons, applying what they learned and experiencing light-bulb moments of new knowledge. They were hooked. They seized the opportunities to learn while doing, and to engage in work-study or internships with legitimate, 21st-century businesses. They experienced the connection between the geometry concepts and algebra topics that they learned in math class to their hands-on tasks like canoe building.
Besides a dedicated on-site staff, academy partners include Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology; Kamehameha Schools; Pacific American Foundation; Luluku Farms; Paepae O Heeia; Papahana Kuaola; and Waikalualoko Fishpond.
Upping its game, the academy plans to offer a course that will allow students to simultaneously earn credits for high school and college. Titled Introduction to College, the class will debut in spring 2016, said Castle Redesign Director Susan Young. The academy is a product of the Redesign plan, which creates community partnerships, brings hands-on learning into the curriculum, changes Castle High’s culture and makes a diploma meaningful to learners.
Through this meaningful momentum, teens are recognizing and living up to their potential. For as long as it took them to pause and search their memories for the way they used to behave, they were twice as quick to point out that the turning points were witnessing academy staff who consistently “told it like it was,” cared, held them accountable and met them where they were in the learning process. “These teachers aren’t easy on us,” Henriques said.
And these students are equally straight up. They stated only one area of improvement that they’d like to see: better communication between academy teachers and the mainstream school so that Pookela pupils stay in-the-know and connected with high school events like proms and banquets.
Getting connected burns like a bright motivator for these academy students. “Pookela helped me. It brought me back to where I need to be – in school, in my family and for my future,” Henriques said.