Civil Beat recently published an article about what a community looks like when it has a dramatic increase in the number of its residents with high school diplomas. Now we turn to a town that has a high percentage of adults who haven’t graduated from high school.

The place that best fits that bill on Oahu is Waipahu, a former sugar plantation town that is now perhaps best known as the home of the Waipio baseball team that won the U.S. Championship in the 2010 Little League World Series.

Only 77.4 percent of Waipahu’s 23,6271 residents aged 25 and older have high school degrees, according to a Civil Beat analysis of data from the 2000 Census and the 2009 American Community Survey.2 That’s the fourth-lowest rate out of 131 communities statewide, and the worst rate on Oahu. Not all of those without high school diplomas grew up in Waipahu, but more than 17 percent of the town’s teens aged 16 to 19 are idle, which means they are neither in school nor working. That’s the 11th worst rate out of 80 Hawaii communities.3

Waipahu’s delegate to the state House of Representatives says those statistics contribute to a vicious economic cycle in the district.

“Unfortunately, the percentage of those who have not completed their high school education or equivalent affects the local economy,” Rep. Henry Aquino told Civil Beat. “This equates to a good number of people who may not qualify for good paying employment opportunities, which limits their discretionary income and spending.”

But in recent years, Aquino said, Waipahu Intermediate and High schools have both re-engineered their curricula to focus more on student abilities, career selection and preparation.

Data from the Hawaii Department of Education indicate those initiatives may not be working yet. The graduation rate at Waipahu High School has improved by only one point since 2002, to 75 percent, according to its School Status and Improvement Reports.

As you enter the town along Farrington Highway, run-down older buildings line the way. Abandoned rubbish litters the crumbling sidewalks, parking lots and pothole-pocked streets.

  1. This is the population number determined for the American Community Survey and is not the town’s official population count for the 2010 Census.

  2. Smaller geographies and smaller sample sizes create significant margins of error. Data from the 2000 Census does not include margins of error. All data should be taken with a grain of salt, Census Director Robert Groves said in his blog the day the data was released. Furthermore, because the 2009 American Community Survey data rolls up samples from 2005 through 2009, some of its data was compiled before the economic recession of the last two years.

  3. Because many of Hawaii’s 131 Census Designated Places have small teen populations, Civil Beat only counted communities with at least 100 teens aged 16 to 19.

The Scene in Waipahu

A seedy shop by the name of the “Pleasure Emporium” stands only a block away from the elegant Filipino Community Center. The convenience stores appear to capitalize on cheap liquor and cigarette sales.

In Waipahu Drug, a decades-old local institution, the worn-out carpet is patched together with duct tape. The store mostly serves the town’s elderly community, says manager Mark Tsukumi.

Most of the drug store’s dozen or so employees have been working there a long time. The store doesn’t have a minimum educational requirement.

“We do the training here,” Tsukumi said.

Waipahu Drug’s clientele are former plantation laborers, many of whom are now senior citizens.

One block away in the Hair Mill salon, 70-year-old Cres Malate, a Filipino immigrant and the wife of a former plantation worker, tells the story of her two children who graduated from Waipahu High School. Her daughter, Agnes, now coordinates the Health Care Opportunities Program at the University of Hawaii. Her son, Jefferson, is a prosecuting attorney on the Big Island.

Young people with bright futures tend to leave Waipahu for better opportunities.

“There are no jobs here,” explained neighborhood board member Maureen Andrade.

Many of those who don’t leave after graduating contribute to the high rate of teen idleness in the area — along with their peers who didn’t finish school.

“I kept telling the neighbors’ kids, ‘You have to go to school, because your parents aren’t going to live forever,'” Malate said. “It didn’t matter. They didn’t listen. Some of them didn’t finish high school.”

She brings an imaginary joint to her mouth to demonstrate what she suspects the idle kids were doing instead of school.

She wishes she had been able to finish college, but a high school diploma is the bare minimum of achievement in Malate’s book.

“If they don’t graduate, some find work and some don’t. If they don’t work, they get into gangs and make trouble.”

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