By Evangeline Cafe
Northwest Asian Weekly
Elenoa Napau is excited to finally enroll as a freshman at Interlake High School this fall. The American-born Fijian has her eyes set on success and hopes to defy what has been dubbed the educational “achievement gap” between Pacific Islander students and their peers.
“Islanders are smart and we can make something of ourselves,” said Napau. “If we have the confidence to succeed, we can go out and achieve that goal.”
However, statewide studies suggest that closing the achievement gap may pose an uphill battle. Researchers have found that Pacific Islander students significantly underperformed in math, science, reading, and writing, particularly when compared to their Asian American and white counterparts.
A report by the state’s Achievement Gap Oversight and Accountability Committee adds that only about 60 percent of Pacific Islanders graduate high school on time, compared to more than 80 percent of their Asian American classmates.
Members of the Pacific Islander community have been grappling with the troubling trend.
Va’eomatoka Valu is an admissions counselor and Pacific Islander recruitment coordinator at the University of Washington. The Tonga native believes that “island culture” is one factor that must be considered in trying to understand why the gap exists.
“Higher education is a very American, secular goal, which is very counter-intuitive to the way we live our lives,” he said. “For Islanders, it’s all about the collective. If it’s not for the betterment of family, many think there’s no point in pursuing it.”
Valu believes that the first step in bridging the gap is to get Pacific Islander parents more involved in schools, and to help them understand the value of education in and of itself.
“While many parents do value education, they aren’t necessarily upset if a student doesn’t finish: ‘Well, you tried education and dropped out; come work and support the family.’ There’s no real push to go back if a student drops out.”
Samoa-born Faaluaina Pritchard is the executive director of Asia Pacific Cultural Center (APCC) in Tacoma. Pritchard agrees that the Pacific Islander community must work together to increase parental involvement.
“[Many] Pacific Islander kids are failing in school, and many of their parents don’t know what’s going on in the schools,” she said. “Often, they only pay attention when they find out that their son or daughter is not graduating.”
Napau observes that there is often a struggle over values between parents and their children.
“As Islanders, you are taught to do what your family tells you and to be respectful. But sometimes, that can keep students from being able to utilize their skills and be creative,” she said.
Valu believes that the second step in closing the achievement gap is to require schools to create learning environments that appreciate Pacific Islander students’ deeply rooted sense of community.
“Communal learning is what has been ingrained in us. This is how we learn. That’s something we are trying to get the faculty to recognize,” he said.
“There is a handful of Pacific Islander students and professors trying to put forth the idea that the way students are evaluated is very rigid, one-sided,” said Valu.
“There’s just as much learning in the community that these students build, and there is just as much learning in the extracurricular activities they take part in at school.”
In addition to advising college students, Valu makes frequent visits to public schools across south King County to conduct admissions presentations, hold one-on-one counseling sessions, and assist with Pacific Islander club activities.
Derek Edamura is the director of the Pacific Islander Commission at the University of Washington. He agrees that the need for communal learning is a common thread that must be addressed in order to close the achievement gap.
“[In] many Islander cultures, knowledge is shared, and we learn as a group — but here in America, knowledge and education are taught and judged on an individual basis,” said Edamura.
Edamura has taken steps to foster communal learning among Pacific Islander students. He has helped coordinate Pacific Islander Partnership in Education study tables and other mentoring and tutoring programs at the University of Washington so that Pacific Islander students can have a place to study and learn together.
“I think that this problem exists because the schools that we attend are usually overcrowded and students don’t always get the attention and guidance that they need,” he said.
Edamura added that young Pacific Islanders need a positive support system to keep them on track.
“Our students get disinterested in school and turn to other activities, such as gangs, drugs, etc. There aren’t enough role models and mentors to show our students how to succeed and go to college,” he said.
Both Edamura and Valu believe that the third step in closing the achievement gap is for schools to incorporate curriculum that covers Pacific Islander history.
“Maybe some students aren’t as empowered in the classroom because when reading their history books, they think, ‘None of these people look like me,’” said Valu. “We are a society of immigrants, and students do a lot better when they learn about themselves.”
Edamura said that when students are comfortable with their identity, they gain confidence to succeed.
“[W]hen we, as people of color and especially as Pacific Islanders, learn about our history and issues affecting our community, we gravitate to those classes. We become excited to learn,” said Edamura.
“We need more of that earlier on in the school systems, so that students feel a sense of connection to their education and want to further their education. I think that the best way to achieve this goal is to make changes to the curriculum in the K-12 schools because that’s where it starts.”
Joe Kulver is a security officer with the Northwest Protective Service and a native Fijian. He adds that, as the fourth step in closing the achievement gap, school districts must be proactive in recruiting more Pacific Islander teachers.
“Students of the Pacific need to be encouraged to learn their language and their culture. Schools can recruit Islander teachers to teach this to them,” he said.
The fifth step in closing the achievement gap is to call on policy makers to recognize the financial struggles that exist within many Pacific Islander communities.
Approximately 16 percent of Pacific Islanders in Washington state live in poverty.
This is higher than the overall state poverty rate of 11 percent. For example, 77 percent of Samoans in Seattle Public Schools receive free or reduced-price lunch and are more likely to come from single- or no-parent households.
Pritchard would like the government to provide more assistance in helping Pacific Islanders gain financial stability and access to higher education. “Policy makers should pay more attention to the problems of the Pacific Islanders,” she said.
As a teenager preparing to begin her high school career, Napau said that Pacific Islander students cannot succeed without support from their community.
“Most island families don’t have the financial support that they need. We’re coming from a third world country, so we don’t have that much to get into college,” she said. “I think that offering more scholarships specifically for Pacific Islanders is the best solution for fixing the achievement gap.”
Pacific Islanders constitute 0.4 percent of Washington’s population, with Samoans constituting the largest Pacific Islander group at 31 percent, followed by Guamanians, Native Hawaiians, and Fijians.
Members from all ethnic backgrounds with the Pacific Islander community agree that they must do what they do best — work as a collective group — to bridge the achievement gap.
“We need to start with role models and leaders to start taking the lead in making the changes to achieve positive goals,” said Pritchard. ♦
Evangeline Cafe may be reached at email@example.com.