Ka’u schools engage Marshallese

Ka’u schools representatives from the Big Island met with Jo Jikum staff last week in Majuro. From left: Jo Jikum staff Goodwind Silk, Manny Compass, and Jobod Silk, Nitijela Member David Anitok, Jo Jikum staff Loredel Areieta, and Pahala Elementary and Ka’u High School representatives June Domondon and Aina Akamu.

GIFF JOHNSON

The Marshallese presence in the two Ka’u area schools on the Big Island of Hawaii has risen to 20 percent, largely on the growth of the Enewetak community that lives in Ocean View on the south side of Hawaii Island.

But as the Marshallese student population grew in the two Ka’u schools — Pahala Elementary and Ka’u High Schools — concern increased about poor school attendance, low academic performance and few graduates.

The rural schools, which KHPES Complex Academic Officer Aina Akamu describes as the poor third cousin of the Hawaii public school system, needed to transform their programs for all their students in line with realizing that the majority of Ka’u graduates did not go onto college. Aina, who visited Majuro last week, said part of the transformation of the schools was to build “career readiness” into the program so that when students leave high school, they have skills that can get them into jobs.

The school now offers multiple community college-based certificate programs within the high school curriculum to get students certified while still in school. Areas of certification include agriculture, construction, health and a variety of others.

Aina said a huge challenge was to get Marshallese high school students engaged in these community college-based certificate and college-prep programs. Two years ago, the school was successful in getting two Marshallese ninth grade girls to sign up for the agriculture/landscaping certificate program, which they completed and gained their certificates for in one year. It had a domino effect. “Eight more Marshallese signed up for the college program the next year,” he said. “Now a lot more are in this college certificate program.”

The involvement of Marshallese Lucinda Anitok-Brokken since January has given a huge boost to Marshallese at the school, and made it possible to effectively reach the parents who previously were not in communication with the school. Lucinda works for the regional education program PREL assigned to this area of the Big Island to work with the schools for the Marshallese student population.

Last week’s visit by Ka’u High School representatives was to connect with Marshall Islands leaders, educators, NGOs and others for the first time. Aina’s aim is to establish an exchange program between the Big Island schools and the Marshall Islands.

“Ninety percent of the Marshallese students in our schools have not been here (to RMI),” he said. “I want to bring my kids back home. They struggle. It’s a hole in them and they don’t know why. They need to be connected here or won’t be able to contribute to their communities.”

He said the Marshallese at the Pahala Elementary and Ka’u High Schools still speak their language and “are so proud of being Marshallese.” Aina said he wants to start bringing these Big Island Marshallese students to Marshall Islands to connect with groups like Jo Jikum to learn about the nuclear legacy, climate change and other important issues. “I want to get them reconnected to their home,” he said.

An exchange would be an opportunity for students from the Marshall Islands to come to the Big Island and see Marshallese student involvement in hydroponic gardening, entrepreneurial projects and other activities of interest.

“Our goal is to build ability in students for future success,” Aina said.

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