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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, June 20, 2002

ASSETS intensive curriculum reaps benefits

By Jennifer Hiller
Advertiser Education Writer

Head of School Lou Salza thinks of his students as sea turtles.

In the Robotics Lab at ASSETS School, Kekau Kealoha, 12, turns assorted parts strewn all over the floor into a remote-controlled robot. Students at the private K-12 school have been identified as dyslexic, gifted or talented — or any combination of the three.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

When they come to him, they're stuck in the sand: struggling to move, plodding and ungraceful.

Once they reach the water, though, it's another story: They explore, they dive, they surface and move with ease.

"For most of these kids it's been a struggle to survive school," Salza said.

Most of the children who come to ASSETS School have slipped through the cracks of other systems and spent years being frustrated by academics.

But at ASSETS School, where the faculty tries to move them from the sand to the water, they shine.

The private, K-12 school specializes in intensive academic remediation and acceleration. The students have been identified as dyslexic or gifted and talented. Some are both.

"Every child you see here has probably failed in another educational environment," Salza said. "It's school that kills them, that robs them of their self-identity and self-worth. School has to be a hands-on, joyful experience."

At ASSETS, the belief is that all children are gifted, although some may learn in a different style.

"Our kids enjoy learning deeply about things," Salza said. "We allow kids to get involved and immersed in what they're doing. They're tremendously visual. They're tremendous in terms of the arts, so we build a lot of art into our learning."

Across the campus this week for summer school, students were building robots, learning algebra, creating rainbows with a garden hose, playing chess and learning how to build their own computer newsletter. All learning is project-based, hands on and thematic.

During the regular school year, students focus on core academics in the morning and enrichment in the afternoon — everything from pottery and sports to cooking and claymation.

No one comes to the school without a diagnosis from a psychologist, and all students go through psycho-educational testing before they enter.

Many of the gifted students are academic racehorses bored by a general education curriculum that has been broad but not deep, Salza said. Some of them, because of their high level of intelligence, have had a hard time socializing.

The dyslexic students have had difficulty learning to read. Even though they are intelligent, dyslexic students have a hard time with reading, spelling and understanding the structure of language.

"The general education venue does not serve kids who are nonintuitive language learners," Salza said. While most children pick up language naturally, about 20 percent, including students with dyslexia, need a more structured and systematic approach to learning language, he said.

All children get individual counseling with a teacher once a week, go to group counseling and do a classroom problem-solving session once a week.

With an 8-to-1 student-teacher ratio, classes are small and intensive.

What are you most proud of? "I am most proud of our students' accomplishments and our teachers' creativity and ability to create the environment that protects these kids' gifts," Salza said. Teachers must capture the attention and imagination of the gifted and dyslexic children, and they go through their own set of coursework to learn how to work with special-needs children.

Best-kept secret? "I think the whole school is a pretty good secret," Salza said. "I'm amazed at how many people on the Mainland who do this kind of work know about us and how few people in Hawai'i know that we're here. People know about us when they need us."

Everyone at school knows? Coach Bill Villa, who has been at the school for nine years. Villa built the athletics program from nothing to one that offers 19 sports. About 200 kids participate in intramurals and about 100 in ILH sports. He coaches and teaches physical education, but next year will become the new athletic director at Mid-Pacific Institute.

What we need: More space. With 400 students, ASSETS must turn away some children who want to come to the campus. Salza said the school will eventually need to move to a larger place to accommodate the demand.

Special events: At the Academic Fair in late fall and at World Beat in May, students show off their school projects and perform for parents and other family members who come to the campus for the day.

• • •

At a glance

Where: One Ohana Nui Way

• Phone: 423-1356

• Web address: www.assets-school.net

• Head of School: Lou Salza, who has been with the school for six years. He has a personal interest in the curriculum, too. Salza is dyslexic, but was not diagnosed until he was 25 years old and teaching in a school for dyslexic children.

• Principals: Ron Yoshimoto for the K-8 program and Patti Jenks for the high school.

• School nickname: Admirals

• School colors: Red, white and blue

• Enrollment: 400

• History: The school was founded at Pearl Harbor in the 1960s and initially served only military children. That changed in the 1970s, when the school moved off base and opened its doors to others as a private school. The name ASSETS originally stood for Armed Services Special Educational Training Society School, but the acronym is no longer used.

• Computers: ASSETS has a technology lab and computers with Internet connections in every classroom. A grant from the Hawai'i Community Foundation allowed the school to purchase reading machines for the library. It's an assistive technology that can read books to students or can be used as a dictation machine. Dyslexic students who have trouble getting their thoughts down on paper can dictate class notes to the computer.