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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, February 20, 2005

Palolo program changing lives

By Beverly Creamer
Advertiser Education Writer

In a house painted with blue flowers and surrounded by palms and rustling banana fronds, children from one of Honolulu's densest pockets of poverty are fighting for a better future.

Mishean Munalem, a sophomore at Kapi'olani Community College, worked individually with 8-year-old Carol Fitimase. A tutor with the Palolo Pipeline, Munalem is among a group of college students who help youngsters learn to dream big dreams and work to attain them.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

Working on 15 scrounged computers, and with a constant stream of college students who've become tutors, they're discovering the delight of computer-based games, the Internet and Web-based studying — all 21st-century skills.

The unique tutoring program, dubbed Palolo Pipeline by the Kapi'olani Community College professor who launched it a decade ago, gives college students the chance to serve as they learn and offers children from Palolo Valley Homes a new source of inspiration.

"We want the kids to think college is a normal thing," said Neghin Modavi, associate professor of social sciences who founded service learning at KCC. "It's accessible. It's right up the street."

Though talk of college is often on the agenda, for Ardenthor Moiri, 6, art supplies proved far more fascinating as he peered excitedly into the art box of his student tutor, Michael Files, a 22-year-old senior at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa.

"Cool," sighed the youngster, sitting cross-legged on a picnic table watching Files shade a drawing with a soft leather cloth, and then gingerly trying his own hand at digging a carving tool into a piece of wax.

"This is definitely having an effect on me," said Files who plans to incorporate the children's artwork into a show this spring. "I could see myself being a teacher, teaching art to kids."

Files talks to the children about going to college, but he doesn't push. "I let them know there's a whole college world out there where you can expand your abilities."

Inside the building, KCC electrical engineering student Jeremy Chan, 21, is booting up the computer system so 9-year-old Esah Kin, a third-grader, can play games. A few minutes earlier, as resident services associate Kaycee Nguyen unlocks the door, Kin and Telbi Tikon, also 9, bound up the stairs with a whoop.

There's been no budget for this project and all that's here has been provided by volunteers, teachers, students and residents. Students like Chan are the "geeks" who show up every Sunday to keep the aging computers running.

"I can see the change because the kids are more curious, asking more questions, getting more involved in school," said Dahlia Asuega, resident service manager for Palolo Valley Homes. "Their self-esteem is good. They're not afraid to be with the college students, and they're even doing their homework together."

"Some of the younger children, especially, learn a lot just from communicating with college students," said project director Ulla Hasager, on faculty at both KCC and UH-Manoa. "We had one little boy, about 3, who used only two words in English, and one was the F-word. After a month or so around the college students, it completely changed his vocabulary and behavior."

"The adults are now starting to tell their children about college," said Judi Kirkpatrick, manager of the Hale and a KCC professor of English. "That continuing presence here is going to make a long-term difference."

Up the hill above the housing, in Palolo Elementary School, even more college students are spending two hours a week each with heads bent next to their young charges, helping with homework, reading assignments, math problems.

Scattered in corners throughout the cafeteria, or a double classroom with ample space, the tutors take the grade school children through their paces, yet another part of Palolo Pipeline.

A delighted Ardenthor Moiri, 6, studied the art tools that UH-Manoa senior Michael Files brought. Working with the Palolo children has touched Files personally: He may become an art teacher.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

As the college students assemble for an hour of after-school tutoring earlier this week, a cooling breeze ripples leaves on the monkeypod shading a bright yellow jungle gym. Students from KCC, Chaminade University of Honolulu and UH-Manoa are all part of this project which is only one of many service learning programs throughout the state.

"It's a very effective learning tool in the sense the college students use their skills and they also understand aspects of their home culture that many of them don't know about," said Hasager. "But first and foremost, they learn they can do something and use something they've learned in school."

Chelsey Powell, an 18-year-old freshman studying elementary education at Chaminade, couldn't agree more. "It reinforces the different styles of learning that the students have that we're learning about in class," she said. Building on her understanding of learning styles, she's able to switch techniques according to what her young charges need.

For 41-year-old student Pua Arquero, her year as a tutor at Jarrett Intermediate and Kaimuki Middle School was a defining moment. Now she wants to be director of a community center when she graduates next winter. "The students got to see there's someplace outside their little world," she said. "We open doors for them. The girls I worked with were eighth-graders, and they now have aspirations to become something."

As Henrietta Clemons, the Palolo Elementary School VISTA volunteer in charge of the program for the school, pairs up tutors with little ones, fourth-grader James Hashimoto dawdles along the outside of the sidewalk railing. "Sometimes our kids take their time," smiles Clemons, attempting a stern exterior that fools no one.

Clemons made the tutoring program work at Palolo. She fills in on days when the schedule is light. "I'm impressed by the number of students willing to give their time and come here," she says.

On this day, a dozen tutors are part of the routine, and they work patiently with the youngsters. A book about "Curious George" has fascinated little first-grader Larino Manny and he reads it himself while David Ngo stops by to tell Clemons his mother wants him to join the program, too.

Palolo Elementary principal Ruth Silberstein sees the tutoring program helping her young students — 46 percent are new immigrants — despite overwhelming barriers that poverty and language create.

"It's very difficult for the parents, especially the Pacific islanders. They say they've been promised the American dream, and they don't realize the pitfalls. Back home, the children can choose to come to school, but here they're faced with many rude awakenings."

Until parents learn more about the important role they must play as a strong support, Silberstein says, students will have a difficult time, and so will schools that are expected to have non-English speaking children performing up to American academic standards within a year.

"This program is sustaining them. Without that, they'd fall further behind."

As the Palolo Pipeline project moves forward, it's adding a new phase. Inspired by a documentary video Modavi produced, Interim UH President David McClain visited the hale, and Asuega's office where young 20-somethings who dropped out of school are coming back to take remedial classes with the hope of earning a GED.

Already talks have begun to see if some sort of university presence can be brought into the housing area so more adults can be inspired about college, too.

"Having college classes here for our residents. Imagine that," said Asuega. "Having the school come to the community, so they're not feeling intimidated that they're not dressed for it or don't have the clothes for it. Wow. What an idea."

Reach Beverly Creamer at bcreamer@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8013.

Correction: Michael Files' name was misspelled in a previous version of this story.