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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, November 17, 2003

Kamehameha standards debated

 •  Monarch's birthday celebrated
 •  Protesters demand justice for Hawaiians
 •  A look at history of admissions

By Vicki Viotti
Advertiser Staff Writer

Nicole Peltier has some bittersweet memories of her years at the Kamehameha Schools, although it's the bitterness that rises to the top.

Peltier has felt the thrill of privilege and honor that came with admission to the prestigious campus at Kapalama during her elementary years and the crush of rejection when she didn't make the cut into the upper school at seventh grade.

"I almost would have preferred not getting in at all than doing what I did," said Peltier, 28, a medical assistant who lives in Kane'ohe. "I always wonder what my future would have been if I'd gone the whole way. I'm pretty sure it would have made a big difference."

Now, 116 years since Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop directed that her estate establish the school, Kamehameha has reached a crossroads on the admissions issue, on two distinct fronts. In federal court, hearings are set for today and tomorrow on two separate legal challenges of its policy favoring applicants of Hawaiian ancestry.

In the school's administrative offices, a strategic plan being hammered out for the past few years has weighed, among other matters, not whether Hawaiians should be admitted preferentially but which ones.

School administrators have not yet presented the latest phase of the plan to the trustees and declined to release any draft versions. Colleen Wong, the acting chief executive officer, said the proposal probably would be issued early next year.

At the heart of the discussion is a question asked three years ago when federal authorities demanded the overhaul of school governance: Is Kamehameha fulfilling its mission to the Hawaiian people?

It's an intensely personal issue for Peltier and any other part-Hawaiian who has ever sought admission for themselves or their kin. While there seems to be little disagreement about the Hawaiian-preference policy, school insiders are talking about if Kamehameha should broaden its admissions philosophy to give less favor to higher achievers, and how to serve more students beyond its three campuses with expanded pre-school and scholarship programs.

The school has tapped the community for opinions. Kamuela resident Rod Ferreira, active in the school's alumni circles, said the discussion boils down to a debate. On one side, he said, are those who say the school must seek out strong students who could be groomed as future leaders of Hawaiian ancestry. On the other: Those who believe that top students will succeed anyway, and that the princess intended her school to serve a broader range of students.

"There is an overwhelming trend to wanting to go back to a curriculum that is equally spread among children entering kindergarten who have varying degrees of ability," Ferreira said.

Addressing the needs

Expanding its reach

Kamehameha Schools is channeling more of its resources beyond its three campuses, toward Native Hawaiian students at other schools. A few of the programs:

• Pauahi Keiki Scholars gives scholarships to children attending qualified preschools.

• Kamehameha Scholars offers mentoring career counseling and other enrichment activities to non-Kamehameha students in grades 7-12.

• Career and Technical Education Scholarship program gives aid to students in technology, health sciences, diversified agriculture, education and other fields.

• Pauahi Educator Scholarships provide support to students in their last two years of a bachelor of education degree or post-baccalaureate teaching certificate program.

• Kokua Scholarships gives aid to educational assistants and other paraprofessionals teaching in the public schools, enabling them to earn credentials required by the "No Child Left Behind" federal standards.

Charlene Hoe, director of the school's Office of Strategic Planning, said that 4,000 people have taken part in community meetings since October 2000. "We ask people what the views of the Hawaiian community were, what role Kamehameha should play in addressing the needs," she said.

The most consistent message the school heard in all this, Hoe said, was a call for greater access to the trust. While many people press the school for a more open-door policy on campus admissions, she said the school has been guided by a mission to groom future leaders, so admissions criteria must include scores on academic testing.

Moreover, she added, there's no way the campuses can serve many more than 4,800 children; this means "access" to the trust must come through initiatives for those left off the school rolls, such as scholarships to other private schools, and aid for early education programs (see adjoining story).

The federal lawsuits — filed on behalf of Brayden Mohica-Cummings, a non-Hawaiian Kamehameha seventh-grader; and another, unnamed student — contend that admission is a contract between parents and the school and base their claim that the policy violates a post-Civil-War law banning racial exclusion in contracts.

But the school has admitted non-Hawaiians in the past, long before the controversial 2002 case involving a student at the new Maui campus. During the school's early years, non-Hawaiians were included to create an academically competitive environment; later, admission was extended to the non-Hawaiian children of faculty members, as an incentive for recruiting teachers. (See timeline.)

The practice of testing applicants academically has not always been enforced either. Peltier was part of an experiment from 1977 to 1988 in which 100 students were admitted annually, starting at kindergarten, on the basis of a lottery.

All the classes were told they'd have to pass a test after sixth grade to advance to the upper school, and the first two classes selected by lottery actually felt the axe fall: Only 23 of the 88 children remaining in Peltier's class made it through.

A firestorm of criticism erupted over both the school's teaching methods and the wisdom of weeding through a cohort of children, bonded since kindergarten, for the best and brightest. The lottery system was abandoned, and most of the classes selected with it were allowed to go on to graduation.

Peltier said her acute disappointment wasn't enough to deter her from having admission as a goal for her children. "Things are different up there now, I know that," she said. "What made (the rejection) difficult is this pride they give you as a young Hawaiian person. ... I would want to make sure nothing like this would happen to my children."

Hamilton McCubbin, the former chief executive officer, left his post in May. In the wake of McCubbin's resignation, questions were raised about a sexual harassment complaint against him from an assistant professor he supervised at the University of Wisconsin in the late 1990s. After an investigation, the university said McCubbin had broken no rules. He has not been replaced at Kamehameha.

On the condition that he not be asked about that controversy, McCubbin agreed to be interviewed about admissions and other aspects of strategic planning, which had been a major element of his professional mission at the school.

McCubbin, a Kamehameha alumnus, acknowledged the heated admissions debate but said it's an insufficient basis for evaluating how well Kamehameha has fulfilled the basic trust. "They have a huge responsibility for the Hawaiian people," he said. "They cannot do it with three campuses alone."

Among the trust's other "entry points" for Hawaiians, he said, are more recent scholarship and financial aid programs targeting public school students, including Kamehameha support for children enrolled in its own preschools or others that serve a large Hawaiian population.

Five years ago, a maelstrom of controversy over allegations of corruption and mismanagement of the Bishop Estate (as it was then called) culminated in the Probate Court removing trustees, based on an Internal Revenue Service ultimatum. The IRS had spent nine years investigating the trust and individual trustees and demanded the removal if the school was to keep its tax-exempt status.

Additionally, McCubbin said, the IRS also told the school to show that Hawaiians bear a historical disadvantage that the admissions policy aims to correct. That part is easy enough, he said, but the IRS also wanted some accountability. The school is bound in its strategic planning to gather data on whether its programs accomplish the correction, and determine when the Hawaiian-preference policy will no longer be necessary.

'There was a stigma'

Manu Boyd, the kumu hula and entertainer who graduated in 1980, said that when his mother was a student, the picture was entirely different.

"There was a stigma before," he said. "It was not nearly as prestigious as it is today. ... Then, they tried to help you get over the fact that you're Hawaiian."

"I'd like to see Kamehameha Schools take more students in and definitely lower the standards to get in," he said. "There have been so many people who could have been helped who have been turned down."

And despite the school's insistence that a non-Hawaiian was admitted on Maui last year because not enough applications to that campus had been processed, there is no general shortage of children who want to attend, especially the historic, flagship campus on O'ahu.

Patti Ramirez' son, like Peltier, was bumped from the school before seventh grade. Now she's helping with her granddaughter's application as well.

"It's culturally the right school for her," Ramirez said. "It has the right things to offer, besides being affordable. She has enough talent and interest in her culture that she would do well."

One of Ramirez's compatriots during the lottery admissions upheaval was Louise Saffery, a Caucasian married to a Hawaiian. Despite being upset over her own daughter's admission to and rejection by the school, Saffery believes that Kamehameha's survival as an institution serving Hawaiians is key to the survival of the culture.

"There's a culture here that should be preserved," Saffery said. "It's a language, it's a dance, it's a way people do things. I myself see that a lot of it is passing away, and that's a shame. The only bastion that continues to support that is Kamehameha Schools."

Reach Vicki Viotti at vviotti@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8053.

Correction: Patti Ramirez, whose granddaughter is an applicant for admission to Kamehameha Schools, did not attend Kamehameha. A previous version of this story contained inaccurate information.

• • •

A look at history of admissions

1887 — Kamehameha School for Boys opens as a legacy left by Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop. The will itself does not specify Native Hawaiians as being the target student population, beyond a desire to include some Native Hawaiian orphans and indigents.

1888 — In his Founders Day address the following year, Charles Reed Bishop, widower of the princess, said the school is intended for capable, industrious and well-behaved youths," adding that "if Hawaiian boys of such character fail to come in, other boys will certainly take their places."

1901 — Bishop responds to the trustees request for clarification on Pauahi's intent. "Hawaiians having aboriginal blood would have preference," Bishop replied, "provided that those of suitable age, health, character and intellect would apply in numbers sufficient to make up a good school."

1930 — Trustees agree that admitting "whites" would benefit the Hawaiian students. The following year, they admit two non-Hawaiians, sparking a protest by the alumni association the following year.

1931 — Insufficient applications lead the trustees to allow school administration to accept applications from Caucasians.

1946-1962 — Non-Hawaiian children of faculty are admitted to the school. The practice is discontinued in 1962; the last of these non-Hawaiian students graduates in 1965.

1975 — The school establishes eight districts, setting quotas of students to be admitted from each.

1977-1988 — A lottery system is implemented for admission to the lower school, with a test required to select those continuing to graduation. In 1970, a quota is created for admission of orphans and indigents; the original proportion of 25 percent is later lowered to 15 percent.

1989 — A minimum required composite score on the admission test is established.

1997 — The "Broken Trust" statement by a panel of Hawaiian community elders leads to an investigation of the trustees and the admissions process.

2000 — The school institutes the strategic plan process.

2002 — A non-Hawaiian boy is admitted to the Maui campus. The Ho'oulu Hawaiian Data Center is established to develop a registry of the Hawaiian population and to certify the Hawaiian ancestry of applicants.

2003 — Two separate lawsuits challenging the Kamehameha admission policy are filed.