Old Partnerships and New Beginnings

Department: Features

By Zoë Dare-Attanasio ’06

At first glance, the sight of 37 seniors hunched over their laptops and working diligently on their college application essays might not seem so remarkable. After all, applications are due in the fall, and everyone knows it’s a good idea to get a leg up on the daunting admissions process. However, these students aren’t your everyday 12th-graders. Known affectionately as the “P7s,” they are the inaugural group of public school students who launched Punahou’s Clarence T. C. Ching PUEO program as sixth-graders and, after seven consecutive summers as PUEO scholars, they’re applying the skills they’ve learned to close in on a goal they’ve never taken for granted: college.

Launched in 2005 as a collaborative venture between Punahou and the Hawai‘i State Department of Education, PUEO stands for Partnerships in Unlimited Educational Opportunities. Principals from about 50 public schools tap students who perform at the academic middle, demonstrate financial need and have college aspirations.The curriculum focuses on a wide array of study, life and leadership skills. In summer 2010, to ready themselves for the college admission process, for example, the P7s took SAT Prep at ‘Iolani School and a confidence-building performing arts course.This past summer, they were guided through every phase of the high-school-to- college transition, including filling out financial aid forms, managing their money wisely and making smart nutritional choices.

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On the campus of UH-Manoa: Kumu Matt Tsujimura ’07, Ariana Acosta (Roosevelt), Kumu Erin Nagata ’06, Kaimana Kaina (Kahuku), Tony Hernandez (Castle) and Kiona Esteban (Roosevelt).

Dr. Carl Ackerman, who started the PUEO planning process a decade ago and now directs the program with help from Kylee Mar, regards this milestone with pride. “This is a credit to these kids and their parents – seven summers of staying with the program demonstrates how much they’ve dedicated themselves to a love of learning. I see the P7s leaving the formal part of PUEO as fulfill- ment of Dr. Scott’s vision of a private school with a public purpose,” he says. “A lot of people have been involved to get us to this moment. It’s been a very collaborative effort from the start.”

Indeed, with the program running at full capacity for the first time this past summer (281 sixth- through 12th- graders), “unlimited” seems to be the operative word in the PUEO acronym. Educators from across the state have contributed their talents and energies to the cause, and they’re already seeing the profound impact the program is having on these students.

Says Francisco Hernandez, University of Hawai‘i Vice Chancellor for Students, who has provided support since the program’s inception, “I think that this program has made a difference in these students’ lives by providing them with the information and motivation to be successful in college. It’s brought together a diverse group of students into a cohesive, college-going cohort.”Through Hernandez’s auspices, the UH hosted the P7s on its campus last summer and provided certificates of admission to each student as part of its effort to encourage them to attend college.

Artist Jonathan Sypert, who, along with slam poet Kealoha (StevenWong ’95), created last summer’s performing arts curriculum, agrees. “As lead kumu [teacher], I had the pleasure of seeing the scholars run with the experimental curriculum and create something they could be proud of,” he says. “The scholars united through adversity. A number of them have told me the group is tighter now than ever before. I couldn’t be happier to know they have found one of the fundamental truths often experienced in collaborative artistic production: willing cooperation paves the way to unity.”

Even from the teacher perspective, there have been benefits to PUEO’s collaborative nature. Former Punahou social studies teacher John Cheever ’88 worked with ErikWierschem from Roosevelt High School and Katrina Abes from Mililani High School to revamp the DOE Senior Project required of the P7s. “Overall,” he affirms, “it’s been a very successful example of a public-private partnership.”

Ultimately, the “unlimited opportunities” belong to the students. Erin Nagoshi ’05 has been a kumu with the P7 class from the beginning and, as she peers at the essays taking shape, she voices the common hope that the program will indeed be “unlimited” – that the P7s will continue to be part of this program long after their college years and perhaps return as kumu themselves. “It’s not just about getting into college,” she explains. “These scholars identify with PUEO; it’s our hope that they will be connected to this community forever.”

Sitting nearby, P7 scholars Jaxon Serpies andTien Ly, both McKinley seniors, attest to the sense of belonging they now feel with the program. “I never went to summer school before PUEO,” Serpies admits. “I didn’t like the idea before. But we’ve become really close, especially last year after the performing arts class. We're one big family.”

“I was never shown how to prep for college,” Ly adds. “Before PUEO, college seemed like such a big thing. Now, I’m hoping to attend a college on the mainland!”

On July 21, the penultimate day of the program, this “one big family” gathered to celebrate the end of summer and send off the P7s in style. Each class was given a moment to shine.The P6s performed their Performing Arts production for the audience and were handed their certificates of admission from UH, ensuring that the cycle is ever-renewing. As for the P7s, they received framed certificates of completion from the PUEO program, with two blank spots labeled “high school diploma” and “college diploma,” indicating that their journeys are indeed limitless and just beginning.

Zoe Dare-Attanasio '06 is a 2010 graduate of the University of Pennsylvania.

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