The board of education’s stated goal is to ensure that every child who grows up in Hawaii receives a high school education. What would a community look like if all — or almost all — of its residents had at least a high school diploma?

It might look something like a military housing complex, according to a Civil Beat analysis of data released in mid-December by the U.S. Census Bureau.

But because military bases consist primarily of people who did not grow up here, Civil Beat chose to visit the local community that has seen the sharpest increase in high school graduates since the last Census.

Ewa’s New Generation

Ewa Villages, nestled between Ewa Beach and Waipahu, has a stone sign, a golf course and a post office branch with a gravel parking lot. Its residential neighborhoods just off the wide and smooth Fort Weaver Road are a quaint meeting of the country and the suburban, with neat cookie-cutter homes originally built for workers at the sugar cane plantations.

Just up the road, vehicles vie for parking stalls in a shopping center filled with chain stores like Starbucks, Genki Sushi, Jamba Juice, Foodland and Longs.

The number of residents 25 or older in Ewa Villages with high school diplomas has increased 31.7 percent in the last 10 years to 86.4 percent, according to data from the 2000 Census and the 2009 American Community Survey.2 It was the largest increase in Hawaii during that time.

Not all 3,4801 adult residents of Ewa Villages are necessarily from here, but the increase in high school diploma-holders may be thanks in part to James Campbell High School. The school, which serves students from both Ewa Beach and Ewa Villages, improved its graduation rate 10 points to 99.5 percent last year.

Despite the improved high school graduation rate, the number of college degree-holders is only 5.4 percent — the fourth-lowest out of all 131 Census Designated Places in the state.

April Sarmiento, 20, works part-time at Orange Grove Frozen Yogurt. When she’s not working, she’s attending nursing classes at Hawaii Pacific University. She graduated from Campbell. The majority of her classmates graduated and went to college, she said. To them, it seemed like a no-brainer, she said.

“I think most places require you to have a high school diploma to work for them.”

A few doors down at The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, 22-year-old Michelle Saito works part-time as a barista while she also studies nursing — at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. She graduated from Campbell in 2006.

Saito is not surprised that the number of high school graduates in Ewa Villages has increased. And the nearby military Hickam Air Force Base with its assembly of well-educated folk isn’t necessarily responsible for the improvement, she says. Her high school and people like her parents are.

In Saito’s family, finishing high school was never an option. It was a requirement and a stepping stone to college. Her parents, immigrants from the Philippines, insisted that she must make a better life for herself than they could. Her mother, who works at Safeway making around $15 per hour, has only a high school education. Her father started college but never finished.

If her parents’ encouragement wasn’t enough, Saito had the folks at Campbell High School. The teachers and administrators placed a lot of emphasis on the importance of education — probably more now than they did a few decades ago, she said.

And the dialogue has shifted to higher education, too, which may eventually impact the percentage of college graduates in Ewa Villages. Saito feels certain it’s already beginning to.

“In the previous generations, I think a lot of people were happy with just a high school diploma, but in my generation you’re starting to see a lot more of us going off to college,” she said.

More Education, Higher Expectations

It would appear the high school students in Ewa Villages who are increasingly geared toward graduation have also developed an inflated sense of their market value.

Jamba Juice manager Shawn Shiroma says he hasn’t noticed the rise in high school graduates, because he doesn’t get a lot of applicants over high school age. He has, however, noticed that many students who apply have higher wage expectations than in the past.

“Everyone thinks of this as as kind of a kid place to work,” he said. “But for some reason a lot of these high-schoolers are coming in and expecting to make $9 or $10 an hour. You can’t start at that here.”

Realizing that, graduates like Sarmiento and Saito decided to go beyond high school. The only down side to staying in Ewa Villages once she has finished college, Sarmiento said, is battling the increased traffic to and from the burgeoning community.

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