Nova Ifenuk was already struggling to pass her freshman classes at Farrington High School when the state transitioned to remote learning in March 2020.

Sharing one hotspot with her three siblings made it difficult for Ifenuk to learn online. Her computer would often freeze or disconnect, and she had a sense that it didn’t matter if she showed up at all. The 15-year-old Chuukese student started skipping school multiple days a week and eventually flunked most of her classes.

“I didn’t really care, and I wasn’t motivated to go to my classes,” Ifenuk said.

Many Micronesian students – especially in high school – have been struggling for years, but the pandemic widened existing achievement gaps. 

DOE Department of Education building.
Schools saw an increase across the board in students failing core classes during the pandemic, but Micronesian students struggled at higher rates than the state average. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

In the 2020-2021 school year, roughly 59% of Micronesian students received failing grades in math, compared to 14% of students statewide. The most recent data available, for the first quarter of the 2021-22 school year, showed 26% of Micronesian high school students receiving a failing grade in math compared to 10% of the student body.

Brook Chapman de Sousa, an associate professor at the Institute for Teacher Education at the University of Hawaii Manoa, said the number of Micronesian students receiving failing marks compared to the general student population was shocking and underscores a need for action. 

The differences point to “significant issues in our system and significant gaps in opportunities,” Chapman de Sousa said. “Our students from Micronesia are failing at double, sometimes triple, the rate of the other categories of students.” 

Public schools in Hawaii have tried different approaches to create a better environment for Micronesian students such as hosting Micronesian family nights, developing an early college program and initiating a voluntary summer program on Pacific Islander culture.

But even as Department of Education schools work to address pandemic learning loss across student groups, Micronesian students are still falling behind in school more than any other group.

Ongoing Challenges

Education advocates say Micronesian students often struggle with feeling connected and face bullying in the schools. There’s also a lack of language interpreters for families that can result in challenges understanding the school system.

Roughly 5% of DOE students —  about 8,650 — identified as Micronesian, in 2018. However, that number may be higher because students can also categorize themselves as Pacific Islander. 

DOE data shows that Micronesian students in high school have had one of the highest achievement gaps in the state over the last five years. The pandemic made things worse. 

Nearly half — 48% — of Micronesian high school students failed English in 2020-21, compared to 17% of all students. That same year, 58% of Micronesian high school students received a failing grade in math.

Micronesian students in middle school appear to have struggled less than high school students during the pandemic.  For example, 24% of Micronesians in middle school received a failing grade in math in the 2020-2021 school year, compared to over 16% in the 2019-2020 school year.

The data suggests Micronesians were particularly affected when schools transitioned online during the pandemic. Although fewer students were failing core subjects last year, they were still struggling at higher rates than the state average.

Making Improvements

Ifenuk, now 16 and attending Kailua High School, has been getting As and Bs this year in her classes. She said she excels more in math and engineering, which are her favorite subjects.

She says she is getting more support from home now and her teachers at Kailua High are paying more attention to her.

Deborah Bond-Upson, Ifenuk’s foster mother, also credits a counselor at Kailua High School who signed Ifenuk up for Infinite Campus, a software that helps families keep track of grades, assignments and attendance.

Hermaleen Amond, right, discusses how youth can empower themselves for future success, during a 2020 summit with Micronesian high school students from around the state. The pandemic has widened existing achievement gaps for Micronesian students in Hawaii. Ronen Zilberman/Civil Beat/2020

According to a report published earlier this year, a lack of qualified English language teachers and bilingual home assistants are among the reasons that Micronesian students are struggling.

The 20-page research brief titled “Racism and Discrimination Against Micronesian Students in Hawaii” was produced by Hawaii Scholars for Education and Social Justice.

Chapman de Sousa, a co-author of the brief, said the DOE’s data on failing marks confirms what the research brief found in terms of significant problems in schools.

“This has been an ongoing problem, and the pandemic has made it worse,” Chapman de Sousa said, adding that there’s a lot of work to address the disparities.

One such effort is the DOE's Bilingual/Bicultural School-Home Assistant program, which provides language interpreters and cultural assistance to help better link parents and schools. Assistants in the program also provide translations of meetings and documents for families. The program offers translation in Marshallese, Chuukese, Samoan, Tagalog and Ilocano.

According to the DOE, the state has 18 school-home assistants serving five school districts, three middle schools, one high school and one elementary school.

Chapman de Sousa said one significant barrier to success is the lack of funding.

“Just having the support and resources that we need to work with our students and families, such as these bilingual school-home assistants, which were amazing,” Chapman de Sousa said. “They can help us understand the culture and build those bridges, so families feel welcomed.”

Jeremiah Brown, an English language coordinator at Waipahu High School, said the Leeward District, which stretches from Pearl City to Waianae, has six school-home assistants.

“It’s super helpful,” Brown said. “I can’t imagine doing my job without them.”

But Brown emphasized the need for more assistants. He said Waipahu High School has approximately 100 Marshallese students and 100 Chuukese students.

Brown said Waipahu High School has also brought in guest speakers to talk about the history and geography of Micronesia to help engage students in school.

Another initiative launched last summer at Waipahu High School was the Early College Explorers program. Brown said 12 Pacific Islander students – Samoan, Tongan, Marshallese and Chuukese – were selected in the cohort to take early college courses and earn transferable college credits. The program's goal is to get more Pacific Islanders into the college pipeline, Brown said.

“We’re doing a lot of great things here,” Brown said. “We have the model career academies. We know there’s some things we can do better that perhaps we’re not.”

Ifenuk said having more Pacific Islander teachers and role models in the school districts would make a big difference for fellow students.

“It would work better if we have Pacific Islander people encouraging us to do better,” Ifenuk said. “Because if it comes from other people, it just seems forced.”

Civil Beat’s education reporting is supported by a grant from Chamberlin Family Philanthropy.

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