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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, December 24, 2002

Diplomas come as holiday miracle

By Jennifer Hiller
Advertiser Education Writer

Last year, the closest most of these students came to class was hanging out in the park across the street from Campbell High School.

Now they've earned something few people would have thought possible: high school diplomas.

At a ceremony last week at Ala Moana Park's McCoy Pavilion Auditorium, 11 dropouts became high school graduates.

Their celebration, complete with "Pomp and Circumstance," lei and formal caps and gowns, came as an early Christmas gift for their families.

"What better gift could you have for these who love you than to be here tonight?" said Rev. Charles Couch of Calvary Chapel West O'ahu, whose church offered classroom space for the alternative education program.

The six-month intensive academic and work program was run by Adult Friends for Youth, a nonprofit gang-outreach organization, with financial help from Goodwill Industries of Hawai'i and the Coalition for a Drug Free Hawai'i.

Teachers and counselors from Adult Friends for Youth tried to tackle what had become a problem for the 'Ewa Beach community: teens who were either dropouts or chronic truants loitering around public parks.

"The community was looking for ways to get rid of them," said Sid Rosen, executive director of Adult Friends for Youth. "These kids have problems, but they were also becoming problems for the community."

With an approach that combined counseling, intensive academic work — five consecutive weeks of work every day on the same subject before testing and moving on — and a work program, Rosen said the students were given a second chance at a diploma.

"Given the opportunity, kids that have been viewed as the troublemakers in school can really start to progress," he said.

Kaeo Lealoa, a graduate and speaker at the ceremony, recalled the day he was approached by Adult Friends for Youth.

"When they told me they were going to help me get my diploma, I looked at them and in my head I said, 'Yeah — whatevas.' "

Lealoa had attended school consistently only during football season. Otherwise he skipped classes, hung out in the park and went cruising with friends.

But teachers say he excelled as a class leader in the alternative program. He thanked teachers McKay Schwenke and Deborah Spencer for getting him through the academic work.

"They pushed me when I didn't want to be pushed," Lealoa said. "They told me I could when everyone else told me, 'You can't.' "

Of the 22 students enrolled, 11 received diplomas last Thursday.

The 11 students receiving diplomas requested that the ceremony recognize the progress made by all 22 students.

Lt. Gov. Duke Aiona congratulated the group for turning their lives around.

"You've beaten all the odds that are stacked up against you," he said. "The achievement is what you have now in your mind and in your heart."

Niikki Miller, class valedictorian, said she attended Campbell last year only a couple of days before getting involved in the alternative program.

"I just never went," she said. "We hung out at the park."

Now she hopes to go to college and major in music. "I guess we just had to get our act together," she concluded. "We just had to listen to our teachers."

Reach Jennifer Hiller at jhiller@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8084.