One of the few alternative education programs in Honolulu aimed at helping at-risk youth avoid a path of future incarceration has closed its doors after 50 years in operation following recent enrollment declines amid fewer court referrals.

The Palama Settlement In-Community Treatment Program largely served students in the surrounding Kalihi and Palama communities who were referred by the Family Court for violations that ranged from substance abuse to minor status offenses like truancy or running away from home.

“Losing a program like this is a loss to the community,” said state Rep. Sonny Ganaden, whose district includes Kalihi Kai.

Palama Settlement.
Palama Settlement’s In-Community Treatment Program served 12-17 year olds with counseling, academic tutoring and more personalized learning. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The closure comes after a challenging pandemic year for all students, not just for those already struggling in a regular academic environment. While it wasn’t the only program to offer youth counseling services — Adult Friends for Youth is another one — Palama’s service stood out for its partnership with the court system and coordination with the state Department of Education to help students recoup academic credit.

The program, which operated during regular school hours, offered academic tutoring and peer group therapy four times a week. Among its goals were to “reintegrate youth into the community with more positive attitudes about themselves and others” and to prevent incarceration and improve school performance, according to an emailed statement by the Kalihi-based nonprofit.

On top of giving 12- to 17-year-olds the chance to accrue academic credit to earn a high school diploma, Palama’s program also stressed socially acceptable behaviors to help kids learn how to be law-abiding citizens, according to a description on a Hawaii state contracts site.

Helping At-Risk Youth

Todd Wyrick, who taught in the program from 2000 to 2006, said many of his students had undiagnosed learning disabilities. On average, they would come to the center for two to three school semesters, working at their own pace. Many students attended nearby public schools and lived in housing developments like Kuhio Park Terrace and Mayor Wright Homes, though some students came from other parts of the island, he added.

“My job as educator was to do a determination of their ability level and try and find curriculum resources that matched that. Typically it had to do with reading ability,” he said.

Some high school juniors, for instance, could not read beyond a fifth or sixth grade reading level — a big reason that they missed school or dropped out altogether.

Many of these youths came from unstable households and had long-standing problems with substance abuse or neglect, he said.

Wyrick said he noticed academic improvement among many students who came to Palama. They were able to grasp things through one-on-one tutoring or small group instruction because it was better suited to them rather than large group instruction in a traditional classroom setting.

But there were also “colossal heartaches,” he added: students who became incarcerated, or slipped into situations involving drug abuse or violence.

Beyond just addressing academic needs, he said the program — like other court-directed intervention models in other parts of the country — served a useful role in trying to help kids avoid outside distraction and get back on track so they could earn a high school diploma and move on with their lives better prepared for what came next.

“It served a very valid purpose that I thought was very effective,” Wyrick, who has retired from teaching, said of the Palama program. “I hope there’s another mechanism that people are thinking about (to serve as its replacement).”

The decision to shut down the program on May 28, the last day of the academic year for public schools, came after “careful review and consideration,” the organization said.

Declining Enrollment

Once reaching as many as 35 to 50 students per year in the mid-1980s, the program — founded in 1970 — had only 14 participants in the 2019-20 school year and just two in the 2020-21 school year, one that was heavily disrupted by the pandemic.

Jan Kagehiro, spokeswoman for the state Judiciary, confirmed that Palama Settlement discontinued its contract with the Judiciary effective May 28.

The court system partially funded the program. State data show in the two-year period beginning July 1, 2019, the Judiciary awarded Palama a $190,000 contract to run the program. In previous years, the contract award was higher: from July 1, 2007 to June 30, 2011, the Judiciary awarded Palama an $861,000 contract, or $215,000 per year.

Kagehiro attributed the decline in family court referrals in recent years to an increase in other Hawaii DOE alternative learning options as well as “marked decreases in the number of felony petitions filed, juvenile arrests, detention home admissions and commitments to the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility.”

In an email, DOE spokeswoman Nanea Kalani said 35 of the state’s 42 high schools offer some kind of alternative learning center program with plans to add four more next school year, and “longer term, continue to support and grow alternative learning programs statewide.”

A December 2013 report from the Hawaii Juvenile Justice Working Group said juvenile arrests fell 28% in the past decade but that more minors were being cycled through the juvenile justice system for property, drug or other nonviolent offenses.

“We have greatly valued our long-standing relationship with Palama Settlement and appreciate all it has done to provide educational alternatives for Hawaii’s at-risk keiki,” Kagehiro said in an emailed statement.

Any mention of the in-community treatment program, which once had its own summary and description, was removed from the agency’s website in the past week.

Palama Settlement said it employed four full-time staff members regardless of participation size any given year. It will reallocate those resources to expand other youth programs like a Digital Arts Academy and a new hub to facilitate distance learning called Xcel.

But the in-community treatment program was unique since it was specifically targeted to kids caught up in the juvenile justice system, who are at most risk of falling further behind, or dropping out altogether, without specific intervention.

Palama, as a community center, is a fixture in the Honolulu area. It was established in 1896 to serve the surrounding Kalihi and Palama communities with educational, recreational, athletic and cultural programs. Its 25-meter pool is where kids at area public schools could receive free swimming lessons through Hawaii Aquatics Foundation.

“Many nonprofit organizations across our state have been forced to make difficult operational decisions over the past year,” Palama said in a statement. “It was decided that the program is not sustainable at this time due to dwindling participant numbers over the past several years.”

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