KAHULUI, Maui  — Word spread fast about Pomaikai Elementary School’s unusual curriculum.

Pomaikai, with support from local and national arts organizations, opened in 2007 as Hawaii’s first arts integrated school with 330 students. Within a few years, the public school’s student body almost doubled. 

Now, a decade later, the school lures students from all over the island. About 40 percent of the nearly 600 students live closer to other schools but requested to come to Pomaikai.  

Spend a day on campus and it’s clear just how different Pomaikai is from most other public schools.

Fourth-graders perform Shakespearean monologues. Students tend to kalo patches, control their emotions through meditative exercises and analyze pictures as if they were books. Kindergarteners learn the basics of division and multiplication by grouping themselves based on their clothing.

Fourth-graders at Pomaikai Elementary School, Hawaii’s first arts integration school, model projects created out of waste for display in a “trashion” show. Courtney Teague/Civil Beat

Recently, students sang an original song about the ohia tree’s lehua blossom. In a mirrored dance studio, kids choreographed interpretive dances that explored the emotions of slaves finding freedom and depicted the evolution of native species in Hawaii wetlands.

“Encourage wild ideas,” said third-grade teacher Marce Ventura to groups of students forming tableaux, or still scenes made by using students’ bodies as props. “Go crazy.”


Her students scrambled to depict textbook entries about the Wright Brothers. Some had their ideas rejected by peers and not everyone got it right the first time.

Ventura encouraged them to keep trying.

“For me, it’s about the process,” she told Civil Beat. “It’s not about what the end picture looks like.”

Pomaikai is recognized as the leading public school in the state that teaches through arts integration — a strategy in which regular subjects are taught through drama, song, dance or other art forms. Teachers don’t just give students the right or wrong answers, but teach them to find the correct answer on their own through critical thinking.

Students fro Pomaikai Elementary walk around the Kealia Nature Reserve on Maui.
Pomaikai students walk around the Kealia Nature Reserve on Maui. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Pomaikai, particularly with its stress on social and emotional learning, could prove a model for other Hawaii schools, even if they aren’t sold on arts integration.

“I believe all schools can be whole child schools,” said Rae Takemoto, curriculum coordinator and co-founder of the school. “What happens is that all the other (administrative) stuff distracts you from the bigger vision.”

The “whole child” educational movement has regained traction nationwide as more schools shift from focusing on test scores to a child’s emotional well-being. Such schools aim to ensure students are healthy and feel safe, supported and challenged. Children perform better academically if they feel more comfortable at school, supporters say.

Pomaikai works within nearly the same budget as other Hawaii schools. Partnerships, fundraisers and grants only bring in about $75 more per student.

Other Arts Programs In Hawaii

The degree to which arts education is available in Hawaii varies significantly.

Three other Hawaii schools in lower-income areas have started to experiment with arts integration thanks to Turnaround Arts, an Obama-era initiative. Several other schools have specialized arts programs.

Hawaii has adopted arts education standards, but it is one of three states, plus Washington, D.C., that doesn’t require schools to teach arts classes at any grade level, according to a 2017 analysis by the National Center for Education Statistics.

The state Department of Education’s latest strategic plan, approved in December 2016, lists the whole child as one of its focus areas. The arts aren’t mentioned.

Arts classes are added “at the whim of school leadership,” said Jim Shon, head of the Hawaii Educational Policy Center at the University of Hawaii. Schools tend to prioritize academic courses.

“Thousands of students who might blossom through self esteem and self expression, they’ll never even know there’s an opportunity because someone decides (art classes are) not important,” Shon said.

Becoming Risk-Takers

Second-graders in Theresa Neeck’s classroom learned to create patterns through dance.

The students formed groups, lined up in rows and practiced in front of the class. Each student performed a gesture that differed from the one before. Together, they made a pattern.

When every group had a chance to perform, Neeck sent the students back to their desks to draw patterns and write about what they had just learned. Journaling improves students’ test-taking skills, she said, and teaches them to put into words what they’ve learned with their bodies.

“Once they make a dance and stick it in their body, their brain just takes away,” Neeck said. “And now they see patterns everywhere.”

Pomaikai teachers will be the first to say arts integration isn’t easy, but they believe it resonates with students in a way that other strategies don’t.

Pomaikai Elementary School 1st grade teacher Michelle Golis wprks with her 1st graders in a STEAM project.
Pomaikai Elementary School first grade teacher Michelle Golis works with her students on a project. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Kate Welsch, curriculum coordinator and parent of a Pomaikai student, teared up when talking about how the school brought out her daughter’s sociable side.

“I remember … thinking one day when I have kids, my kids are going to come here,” Welsch said. “My daughter’s in second grade and she’s everything I wish I could have been.”

Research clearly indicates that students with arts experience perform better in school, but it’s unclear why, said Catherine McTamaney, a Vanderbilt University professor and expert in teaching through the arts.

pomaikai elementary school classroom arts integration
Theresa Neeck’s second graders at Pomaikai Elementary learn about patterns using a teaching strategy called Moving Through Math. Courtney Teague/Civil Beat

Arts education primarily benefits students by encouraging them to take risks and give critical feedback, she said. It can also reduce absenteeism because kids often feel most comfortable in art or band class.

Though education reformers are now calling for the return of arts in schools, it can take time to see academic results, McTamaney said. Reform initiatives are often abandoned before they’re able to make a measurable impact.

Teaching Arts On A Budget

Pomaikai focuses primarily on using drama to teach language arts. Drama strategies are optimal for teaching language arts, Takemoto said, and literacy is key in elementary school.

Rae Takemoto, Pomaikai Curriculum Coordinator.
Rae Takemoto, curriculum director, helped found Pomaikai in part to create a school her own children would have thrived in. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Educators say drama is easier for teachers to execute than other arts programs without much training, works across all subjects and is a cost-effective strategy because it doesn’t require supplies.

Learning through drama improves communication, collaboration and decision-making, research shows.

Visual arts can be useful in teaching math, in part because they help students visualize abstract concepts like patterns or equations.  Likewise, music and dance involve counts or beats that represent divisions of time.

There’s no single strategy that works best for all schools. Each school has unique needs, Takemoto said.

“You have limited resources in time and money,” she said. “You can’t do it all and do it well.”

In her own classroom years ago, Takemoto saw arts integration build camaraderie and challenge students to think differently. It made them happy, too.

It’s important to first build a strong, cohesive sense of community among students and staff when transitioning to arts integration, she said. Pomaikai students and staff are used to being put on the spot, given feedback and taking risks.

Takemoto stressed the importance of building long-term partnerships with arts organizations in the community, which she said are eager to work with schools. Hiring arts experts to train teachers and teach students is central to Pomaikai’s strategy.

‘Pretty Incredible’ Changes

A few other Hawaii public schools were introduced to arts integration through the Turnaround Arts program in 2015. The program was initiated by the now-disbanded President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, but is now run by the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts.

The three-year program aims to ease schools into arts integration strategies. It operates in 17 states plus Washington, D.C., across 38 school districts and 73 schools. Those schools are among the lowest-performing in their state.

Two Hawaii public schools — Kalihi Kai Elementary and Waianae Elementary — and Kamaile Academy, a public charter school in Waianae, are in their final year of Turnaround Arts. They will continue to receive local support and resources thanks to a partnership with the Hawaii Arts Alliance.

Schools receive free resources, such as training and supplies, said Lei Ahsing, who works with Hawaii’s Turnaround Arts program on behalf of Hawaii Arts Alliance. Those resources have tapered off over the last two years and schools are now planning to continue on their own. 

All three schools have seen fewer disciplinary referrals since Turnaround Arts started, Ahsing said, and students appear to be more confident and joyful.

At Kalihi Kai, for example, she recalled a time when students were quiet, didn’t look her in the eye and hesitated to answer questions. Now students readily share their thoughts and engage in conversation, Ahsing said.

Kalihi Kai Elementary School
Kalihi Kai Elementary in Honolulu is one of the state’s three Turnaround Arts schools, which receive support from local arts groups. Lila Lee/Civil Beat

The academic achievement gap is narrowing between high- and low-performing students thanks to Turnaround Arts and other school initiatives. 

“What our schools have achieved in three years I think is pretty incredible,” she said. “You may not see it in numbers, in scores, but you can certainly feel it when you walk on campus.”

Turnaround Arts isn’t a “magic pill,” she said. Implementing arts integration takes hard work and buy-in from teachers, who may be weary from being battered with “flavor of the month” initiatives.

For new schools looking to try arts integration, Ahsing says it’s important that teachers meet regularly to discuss and improve curriculum. The group has to be large enough to ensure there’s still support at that school even if key teachers leave.

Reading visual text, or having students analyze pictures, is a simple strategy for schools new to arts integration, she said. It’s interactive, free and can reveal unseen strengths in a student.

Kids are “bombarded with visual images and things constantly on social media,” said Sara Mizban, implementation coordinator of Turnaround Arts in Hawaii. “We’re trying to utilize those same processes … so kids don’t have to constantly feel like they’re coming in a room and have to sit in a room and can tune out.”

Earning Credits Out Of Class

Some of Hawaii’s public schools have developed notable arts programs.

A third of Moanalua High School’s student body is enrolled in music programs, said Principal Robin Martin. The school offers music programs and courses such as band, orchestra, ukulele and music theory.

Nearly a quarter of students live elsewhere but requested to come to the school.

Music programs teach students discipline, leadership and teamwork, Martin said. They also offer emotional and creative outlets, and keep kids out of trouble. Moanalua’s orchestra program recently scored first place in a national competition.

“Even I’m amazed every time I see it,” she said.

Castle High School performing arts production of 'United Colors of Dance' held at the Ron Bright Performing Arts Center.
Castle High School in Kaneohe students perform in April. About 200 students there participate in specialized drama and dance programs. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The Castle Performing Arts Center, founded nearly six decades ago in Kaneohe, is one of nine specialized learning centers under the Hawaii DOE. About 200 students participate in drama and dance programs there. Students get a chance to act, dance, sing, learn stagecraft and play music.

The center boasts the island’s only full-time high school dance program, said Kelly Wadlegger, head of the dance programs. It offers early college courses to local high school students and auditions students from all around the island for certain productions. Other students in Oahu visit the center on field trips to watch some of its shows, she said.

The center puts on a range of productions from “Seussical” to “Les Miserables.” Performances at a recent dance show included African, Chinese, ballet and urban dances.

“I tell the students that they should think of themselves as pre-conservatory, pre-professionals,” Wadlegger said. “And if they really want to do it, they can pursue it.”

Looking For A Lasting Impact

Pomaikai, as an elementary school, isn’t looking to prepare students for a career in the arts.

But Takemoto believes that encouraging collaboration and risk taking at a young age could have a lasting impact on the lives of students.

“If every elementary school paid attention to social and emotional learning … every day, can you imagine the change that we could make as a whole society?” she said.

Listen to Civil Beat’s On Campus podcast to learn how Pomaikai Elementary served as the inspiration for a new charter school on Oahu.

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