- Special Projects
High-end technology, solar panel roof systems and a fully equipped and stocked kitchen probably aren’t what come to mind when most people picture the Palolo Valley’s housing complexes.
Palolo Homes, which used to be public housing, has a reputation among outsiders as seedy and dangerous. But at the Palolo Ohana Learning Center, volunteers tutor and mentor young students, helping them overcome stereotypes and the tough challenges facing children of immigrant families in American schools.
Kids sit at tables with buckets of crayons and get one-on-one homework help from college-age tutors, while others browse the internet in a computer lab. Every so often they take a break for group games and snacks.
Preschool-aged children have their own corner of toys to play with. When the phone rings, it’s usually answered by a kid.
About 1,200 people live in Palolo Homes, which was sold to Mutual Housing of Hawaii in 2002 because the state couldn’t afford maintenance. Next to Palolo Homes is Palolo Valley Homes, federally assisted housing for about 300 people.
Even though the after school-program operates out of Mutual Housing’s facility, children living in both complexes are served. Palolo Homes also invites families from the federal housing complex to its food distributions and other activities.
The center was born out of the Palolo Pipeline project — a joint effort of the University of Hawaii Manoa, Chaminade University and Kapiolani Community College that allows college students to earn academic credit by tutoring and mentoring kids and assisting in family-oriented activities.
Ulla Hasager, director of civic engagement at UH Manoa’s College of Social Sciences, founded Palolo Pipeline in the 1990s because young people from Palolo Homes weren’t enrolling at the university.
Now, more than 40 Palolo Homes residents have gone on to higher education. And about 4,000 students across all three campuses have volunteered in the program, Hasager said.
About 40-60 kids use the Palolo Ohana Learning Center daily.
There are lockers where they can store their belongings, a media center for movie nights and presentations, small children’s toys, study tables, a reading room and a computer lab. There’s even a room to record music and a kitchen equipped with a ceiling mirror for cooking demonstrations.
Weekly donations from the Hawaii Foodbank keep the kitchen stocked, and rooftop solar panels keep electricity bills low. From the window, there’s a view of a small building known as The Hale. There, students in grades 2-8 do hands-on projects that involve science, technology, engineering and math.
Palolo Homes has always had a high population of immigrants, many of whom came from Samoa or Micronesia.
Hasager said a survey taken about six years ago found that more than half of the residents didn’t speak English as their first language. About half of all residents who responded were Micronesian, while roughly 40 percent were Asian.
If children don’t speak and read in English at home, working with American textbooks is harder, Hasager said.
In her experience tutoring at the center, Hasager said many of the students know how to complete math problems, but struggle with instructions.
Local schools have given Palolo Ohana Learning Center volunteers permission to sign off on the students’ homework, certifying that it was completed under their supervision.
Beyond tutoring, volunteers teach kids to prepare healthy meals in the kitchen. They also take young children to get medical exams for preschool.
It’s not just the free resources that has made Palolo Pipeline successful — it’s that the Pacific islander culture is mixed into the program, Hasager said.
The children can participate in UH programs that incorporate indigenous knowledge.
Ka Holo Waa allows Palolo students and parents to learn about traditions shared by Native Hawaiian and Micronesian cultures like wayfinding (navigating) and canoe-building. Ka Holo Waa is an offshoot of UH Manoa’s Pacific Connections service learning program, where Palolo Pipeline student volunteers are building a canoe to be kept at Palolo Homes.
There’s also “Exploring my Backyard and Beyond,” a two-week summer program led by UH students that teaches Palolo kids science through Western and Pacific learning methods.
“The respect for the Pacific island cultures involved is key,” Hasager said.
Palolo Pipeline is mostly staffed by students who are volunteers, although some receive federal work-study pay, Hasager said.
About 100 students from all three schools, of all majors, participate in the program each semester. For Hasager, it’s not just about the volunteer work — she wants the experience to contribute to students’ educations.
For instance, math majors can get experience teaching their subject to kids, Hasager said. Others can learn about socioeconomic inequality and the relationships between ethnic groups.
Hasager said the program has brought the community together over “the work of many years” and thinks it has helped to reduce gang activity and crime. She reminds student leaders who are frustrated by fluctuations in crime that Palolo Homes is a transitional community and it’s important to continue their efforts.
She recalled one community meal at the Palolo Ohana Learning Center where different ethnic groups chatted around the tables — something that previously had been rare.
“Our work had created a space and a forum for people to come together and get to know each other and do things together,” Hasager said “If you don’t have that in a community, then you stay separate, and you will naturally gravitate toward the ones that have the same culture as you.”
Dahlia Asuega, resident services manager of Mutual Housing, has lived in Palolo Homes for 40 years. She moved there with her mother, but stayed to raise her four kids.
Asuega oversees the Palolo Ohana Learning Center. Since its inception, she said nearby schools have reported higher test scores.
Palolo Elementary School, which had some of the state’s worst test scores, saw math scores rise 77 percent and reading scores rise 68 percent from 2002 to 2014.
“We’ve had … reports from the schools that the kids are beginning to read at their grade level and that’s the goal,” she said. “A lot of teachers are expressing when we get together that we need to strive for that, because a lot of our kids from Palolo … English is their second language. So they may be struggling, but they’re doing OK.”
The center provides kids with “a safe place to hang out,” Asuega said. The Palolo Pipeline program helps youths from preschool to, in some cases, college age, ensuring “they succeed and no one’s falling through the cracks,” she said.
Immigrant parents may be unable to help kids with homework because they’re unfamiliar with the concepts and language, she said.
Some cultures prioritize family, work and household chores over education, Asuega said. Still, she said children who become fluent in English can help their parents communicate.
Parents from a culture where work trumps school sometimes don’t see higher education as a gateway to a bigger paycheck, Asuega said.
In addition to overseeing the learning center, Asuega said she helps with other programs, activities and the tenants association, and “keeps the peace” at Palolo Homes.
Asuega was a driving force behind Mutual Housing’s acquisition of Palolo Homes in 2002 and past president of the Palolo Tenants Association.
Formerly a state-owned public housing complex, Palolo Homes was falling apart because the state couldn’t afford maintenance. Mutual Housing made an offer on the complex and with overwhelming community support, former Gov. Ben Cayetano signed off on the privatization deal.
Separated by a bridge, the Mutual Housing and federal housing complexes are in visibly different condition. Prior to Mutual Housing’s 2002 acquisition of the state-owned housing, both complexes were one community with a single tenants association and management office.
Mutual Housing planned to purchase the federal housing, which also struggles with maintenance stemming from a lack of funding. Residents supported privatization — 117 families even signed a petition in favor of it — but the tenants association decided to remain under the Hawaii Public Housing Authority and wait for renovations that are happening slowly, Asuega said.
Since renovating Palolo Homes, Asuega said more people are interested in living there. Asuega estimated close to 4,000 people are on a waiting list and qualified applicants are selected on a first-come, first-served basis.