The mood is festive as 400 PUEO family and friends are welcomed to Dole Cafeteria by the lilting melodies of Kaipo Kukahiko and Friends from the KEY Project in Kahalu’u and the inimitable Dr. Carl Ackerman, Director of PUEO. Nowhere is the adage that “it takes a village” more evident than at the annual Clarence T.C. Ching PUEO Program lū’au, when the graduating seniors announce their college destinations, before the 55 newest rising sixth-grade PUEO scholars, who are entering the program from more than 20 schools.
The Clarence T.C. Ching PUEO (Partnerships in Unlimited Educational Opportunities) Program is Punahou’s partnership with the Hawaii State Department of Education designed to inspire public school students from challenging circumstances to develop the skills and confidence to gain their college aspirations. Students enter in the summer before sixth grade and are part of the program until they graduate from high school, and this year, PUEO will serve 350 students.
Ana, a sixth-grader from Kahalu’u Elementary, is the first of PUEO’s Lili’uokalani Trust scholars. She looks a bit overwhelmed, but her mother is bursting with excitement. “My daughter is a little shy,” noting that Ana has hardly been outside her Kahalu’u community before this. “None of her friends are here, but I tell her that she just has to be open and to try. I tell her that this is the opportunity of a lifetime, and it’s worth the risk.”
In the lū’au audience, along with faculty and parents, are dozens of community partners who have a role to play in helping these students succeed, among them: DOE Principals like Gary Harada (Kahalu’u Elementary), Derek Minakami (Kaneohe Elementary School); Marlene Zeug ’91 from the Hawai’i State DOE Superintendent’s Team; longtime DOE advocate and advisor Colleen Murakami; Cheri Nakamura ’82 from the He’e Non-Profit for Schools; Bert Oka from the Lili’uokalani Children’s Trust; Ananda Chou, CEO of Atherton YMCA; Punahou and Unbound Philanthropy trustee Debbie Berger ’82; Professor Dick Pratt from the UH Manoa Academy; longtime PUEO advocate and kumu hula Carolee Nishi, and many, many more.
After dinner, the PUEO Team goes to work, led by Dr. Kehaulani Kealoha-Scullion ’80 and here-since-the-beginning counselor, Matt Nakamura ’73 from Ma’ema’e School, orienting the newest PUEO parents about what to expect for their children. Ninth grade faculty member Ka’eo Vasconcellos ’96 introduces the rising P4 Scholars (students entering 9th grade next year) to their transition into high-school level, credit-bearing courses which condense a semester of Hawaiian History or Participation in Democracy into five weeks. College counselor Curtis Nishioka offers advice on college selection and financial aid. And in Luke Lecture Hall, master magician (and SAT/ACT Testing Coordinator) Dr. Brad Kerwin mesmerizes the newest PUEO scholars with magic and mirth.
Formerly nervous children are laughing and clapping, parents are feeling more secure, and about-to-be graduates are comparing notes on what lies ahead at colleges like University of Hawai’i – Mānoa, Southern Virginia, Oregon State University, Kapi’olani Community College and Yale University. Mana, a confident young man heading off to Virginia in the fall, leaves a legacy of three brothers behind in the program. PUEO has meant so much to him, and he wants the same for them. The annual PUEO lu’au is where that journey begins.