Diversity and Democracy

Partnerships for Learning and Community at Pālolo Valley Homes

It's family night at the Pālolo 'Ohana Learning Center (POLC), and about sixty people are gathered around tables in front of a large television screen. They are residents of Pālolo Valley Homes LP, along with service-learning students and faculty members from the University of Hawai'i at Mānoa (UHM) and Kapi'olani Community College (KCC). Emotions are running high as a Native Hawaiian woman advocates for action to promote health care and education for Marshallese immigrants, with strong support from Sāmoans, Vietnamese, Chuukese, Pohnpeians, and others present. We have just watched the documentary A New Island: Marshallese in Arkansas, introduced to the group by a Marshallese undergraduate student at the weekly Pālolo 'Ohana Program (POP) night.

POP is a family program that has been conducted for several years at Pālolo. It is open to anybody who wants to attend, including a small group of faculty and students from the surrounding institutions of higher education who help POLC staff run the program. Participants share a meal, play, do artwork, and discuss a wide range of topics of interest to the families—immigrant and employment rights, drug abuse and suicide prevention, cyberbullying, the Hawaiian sovereignty movement, love magic, sign language. The film nights are a new addition and the brainchild of longtime community leader Dahlia Asuega, now Pālolo Homes Resident Services Manager. When Asuega suggested showing documentaries on issues related to residents' homelands and immigration, some KCC and UHM faculty members were skeptical. Would Pālolo families really want to spend an evening watching and discussing the same documentaries that faculty show students? Asuega affirmed that they would.

The success of POP illustrates how, in a community whose members live under daily stress and in competition for meager resources, people are eager to learn about other ethnic groups and take action on their behalf. As the film night described above illustrates, this may mean coming together across strong interethnic prejudices such as those against "Micronesians" (mostly understood as Marshallese and Chuukese). For fifteen years, Pālolo residents, faculty, and students have planned and learned together across differences in gender, age, class, ethnicity, income, and educational level. Their openness and sense of community is the source of the strength of our civic engagement work.

The Beginnings of Partnership

Since 1995, Kapi'olani Community College and its service-learning program have worked to promote technological literacy, educational interest, and civic engagement among the residents of Pālolo Valley Homes, a 305-unit affordable housing complex in urban Honolulu. Pālolo residents are primarily from low-income Hawaiian, Sāmoan, and Micronesian families, and children from the community comprise 98 percent of students at the nearby Pālolo Elementary School and more than 60 percent of students at Jarrett Middle School.

In 1998, Pālolo residents asked if KCC could provide computers for "the Hale," a small blue house in the middle of the housing complex that they wanted to convert into a learning center for children. (Pronounced "HAH-leh," hale means "house" in the Hawaiian language.) By 2000, a modest technology center was up and running, stocked with furniture discarded by the university and nearly two dozen networked computers managed by KCC and UHM service-learning students. At the height of its activity, the nine-hundred-square-foot center was often overrun with up to eighty children, with two or more service-learning students overseeing operations. Although a recipe for occasional chaos, the experiment was a great success.

"Our residents already had seen organizations leave the community if there was no funding," said Dahlia Asuega. "But UHM/KCC were committed to running the center whether there was money or not. That made our relationship more of a friendship than a partnership." The friendship is still evolving, inspiring other programs locally and nationally and serving as a model for building campus–community partnerships.

Growth and Expansion

By 2002, a group of leaders from the community as well as public and private institutions—including the Hawai'i Department of Education, KCC, UHM, and Chaminade University of Honolulu (CUH)—had created a loosely organized Pālolo Pipeline Program with the overall goal of improving educational opportunities for residents with the help of service-learning students and faculty. But as residents pointed out, educational levels cannot improve without connected improvements in the community. We thus expanded the Pipeline to include a range of other activities, such as health programs and work with the elderly. The Pipeline's first major grant focused on early childhood education and helped us build strong connections between community partners and schools with the help of service-learning students and paid student leaders. Three years of support from the AmeriCorps VISTA program was central to this work.

In 2008, under the leadership of KCC faculty, Mutual Housing Association of Hawai'i (nonprofit owner of Pālolo Valley Homes), and community representatives, the Pālolo Tenants Association received significant funding from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, NeighborWorks America, the State Farm insurance company, and the Oceanic Time-Warner Cable company to create a state-of-the-art learning center on the second floor of the community's administration building. The Pālolo 'Ohana Learning Center now has forty-five new desktop computers, twenty wireless laptops, an audiovisual editing room, a public health nurse's station, a reading room, a demonstration kitchen, and ample space to hold classes, activities, and town-hall meetings. Two Pālolo Homes residents and former AmeriCorps VISTA members have been hired to monitor and run the center, which has an active board of community members, AmeriCorps VISTA members, and students and faculty who work together to coordinate programs and improvements.

Phenomenal Gains

Today, the Pālolo community has a strong presence in local life and media, and national leaders visit often. Need a story about improvements at an elementary school? Ask the principal of Pālolo Elementary. Need to learn from a model affordable housing community or community center? Visit Pālolo 'Ohana Learning Center. Need a safe place for national and international students to learn about local community, native and immigrant groups? Bring them to Pālolo, where even the young children will patiently teach them about culture and language.

There are many measures of our work in the community: student grades, graduation rates, learning outcomes, employment, involvement in higher education, personal well-being, civic responsibility. One striking outcome is visible in Pālolo Elementary students' standardized test scores, which have improved significantly since 2002 (see table 1), meaning that Pālolo Elementary is no longer classified as a "failing school" under No Child Left Behind. This kind of progress depends on the involvement of the whole community in attending to educational achievement.


TABLE 1. Pālolo Elementary School and Hawai'i State Average Math Scores,
Grades 3, 4, and 5, Selected Years.

GRADE

 

2004–05

2006–07

2008–09

2010–11

3

 

Pālolo

18

68

55

81

State

28

49

48

63

4

 

Pālolo

NA

33

49

78

State

NA

48

50

61

5

 

Pālolo

6

27

54

77

State

25

40

46

58


Among college students participating in service learning at Pālolo, gains are reflected in increased critical thinking skills, civic responsibility, understanding of diversity and social justice issues, strong ethical reasoning, and a willingness to act on the issues they identify and discuss in their final papers and presentations. Critically, Pālolo residents of all ages are enrolling in college. While in college, many take leadership roles in the community as service-learning students, interns, federal work-study students, or student employees (see Stephen Maybir's essay in this issue of Diversity & Democracy).

Back to the Hale with New Ideas

In 2011, Pālolo Homes' Resident Services Manager asked the learning center advisory board to consider creating a Pālolo Discovery Science Center in the Hale. Such an investment would align with Pālolo Elementary's robust new K–5 Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) sustainability curriculum.

To create the Science Discovery Center, the community and KCC have partnered with the National Science Foundation's Hawai'i EPSCoR (Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research). EPSCoR funding has supported the purchase of two four-by-twelve-foot aquaponics units, a solar panel with display board for tracking alternative energy production, a laser cutter, a web-based mathematics acceleration program, and a 3-D laser printer. A Discovery Saturdays program engages Pālolo youth in learning about STEM careers while growing food, learning about renewable energy and water systems, and preparing the facility for an exterior facelift. Since 2010 the community, the KCC service-learning office, and the UHM College of Social Sciences' Civic Engagement Program have also supported a STEM summer program for middle school students using principles developed by the National Science Foundation's SENCER program (Science Education for a New Civic Engagement and Responsibility) to encourage young participants to consider STEM careers.

When KCC came to Pālolo Homes more than fifteen years ago, its goal was to promote computer literacy in a diverse community. That goal has morphed into an educational pipeline that has already sent fifty-two residents to college. The KCC/UHM/CUH/Pālolo friendship has made Pālolo a launching site to higher education and a breeding ground for civically engaged community participation for all involved.


Judith Kirkpatrick is professor of English at Kapi'olani Community College and Ulla Hasager is civic engagement specialist in the College of Social Sciences and instructor of ethnic studies and anthropology at the University of Hawai'i at Mānoa.

Previous Issues