Equity in Motion: PUEO Narrows the Learning Gap

Since its inception, PUEO has touched the lives of more than 450 graduates, many of whom have become the first members in their families to attend college. The program provides a wide array of offerings – including innovative courses, mentoring and social support – to help its scholars realize their educational aspirations through high school and beyond. The program’s educators and staff, a blend of Punahou and HIDOE professionals, play a strategic role in PUEO’s success. Many of them have been committed to the program for years.

The mission of the Clarence T.C. Ching Partnerships in Unlimited Educational Opportunities (PUEO) program is to serve and support scholars with limited economic resources to unleash their full potential – and help them realize educational aspirations through high school and beyond.

Punahou School, in partnership with the Hawai‘i State Department of Education (HIDOE), launched the program in 2005 to address the learning disruptions impacting underserved youth during the summer months, when regular school is not in session. PUEO tackles this challenge head on, offering its scholars seven consecutive years of mentoring, social support and an innovative curriculum. The program has touched the lives of more than 450 graduates, many of whom have become the first members in their families to attend college. 

Anna Chen, PUEO ’16

Despite its impressive track record, PUEO is continually innovating and improving, according to director Kehau Kealoha-Scullion ’80. There are exciting expansion plans underway to boost the number of scholars over the next two years. What’s more, PUEO’s curriculum is regularly reviewed and kept relevant by introducing new courses across diverse disciplines, including in financial literacy and the arts. The program also offers year-round college counseling support as well as financial aid coaching for families. Despite PUEO’s dynamic nature, its central pillars – creating a sense of belonging and offering consistent support from dedicated faculty and staff – remain steadfast. 

After graduating from high school, PUEO ’16 alumna, Anna Chen, earned a B.B.A. from the Shidler College of Business at UH Mānoa. “The values I accumulated over the years and the person I have become are because of PUEO’s continuous support and encouragement,” Chen said.

How Does PUEO Work?

Kealoha-Scullion characterizes the program as “equity in motion.” “At the core of PUEO’s moral compass is the belief in the good and unlimited potential of every child,” she says. “One’s circumstance – including one’s financial circumstance – should not be a limitation. And one’s diversity is a source of strength.” 

Kehau Kealoha-Scullion ’80, PUEO director

Each summer, Punahou School opens its campus to approximately 250 students from more than 80 public and private schools across Hawai‘i. The program is a steady presence in the lives of its scholars beginning in grade 6 and continuing through their senior year. 

PUEO plans to increase its total number of scholars to approximately 300 per summer within the next two years by reaching younger scholars. Looking ahead, it will begin admitting 40 children in grade 5 in 2023, and then another 40 in grade 4 in 2024, expanding to become a 9-year program.

Program participants are nominated by administrators and counselors from HIDOE schools to participate. Scholar nominations are based on five primary criteria: rank in the broad middle of the academic class; strong character traits; supportive family; eligibility for the federal free or reduced lunch program; and generally, first generation in the family to attend college. 

According to the National Summer Learning Association (NSLA), summer learning is the most powerful tool to close the achievement gap and ensure high school graduation. An impressive 77% of PUEO participants complete all seven years of the program, despite conflicting schedules, family relocation and other challenges along the way. 

Left: PUEO is a steady presence in the lives of its scholars beginning in grade 6 and continuing through their senior year. Students engaged in multidisciplinary hand-on projects on the field. Right: PUEO’s innovative curriculum extends beyond academics. PUEO scholars practicing water safety.

A Consistent Support System

What is the secret sauce of a program that will be celebrating its 19th anniversary in 2023? Stability, which PUEO offers in spades. 

Many of the program’s educators and staff, a blend of Punahou and HIDOE professionals, have been committed to the program for years. One of them is Kumu Matt Nakamura ’74, who has worked with PUEO since its inception and was instrumental in the launch of the Student Support Team (SST), which has been vital to the success of the program. 

Kumu Matt Nakamura ’74

Nakamura, who worked as a counselor at Ma‘ema‘e School for 32 years, believes that providing counseling is an essential component of the program. “The SST has demonstrated time and time again that personally connecting with both scholars and their families can make a powerful difference in attendance, participation and student emotional health and security,” he says.  

For dedicated faculty and staff, PUEO can feel like a calling. “The success of PUEO has been and continues to be the people who work and teach there,” Nakamura says. “We share the common belief that all the scholars, no matter what obstacles and challenges they face, can succeed and flourish with a little support and encouragement. PUEO has been the most rewarding and meaningful experience in my entire professional career as an educator.” 

A Sense of Belonging

Kevin Dang, PUEO ’23

Personal relationships and PUEO’s cohort mentoring model are strategic assets for the program, Kealoha-Scullion notes. “Being part of a PUEO cohort makes a difference because it is centered on fostering pilina – or relationships that reinforce connection, belonging and unlimited potential,” she underscores. “These relationships can transcend school affiliations, public vs. private delineations and neighborhood boundaries.” 

Keinen Newsone, PUEO ’23

An indicator of PUEO’s importance in the scholars’ lives is the high daily attendance during the summer months, which averages 92% each day, with some grades routinely achieving 100%. PUEO ’23 scholar, Kevin Dang, has big hopes for his future. “I want to be the first in my family to attend college so that my family can be proud with a sense of hope,” he says. “By striving for the best, it sets me up for greater success.” 

“One of the gifts of the PUEO scholarship is that our scholars have two communities, their home school and neighborhood and PUEO at Punahou School,” Kealoha-Scullion explains. “It is so important for our children to see themselves as included and valued in multiple spaces as they transition to college and beyond.” The students see the value in being part of the PUEO community.

“I learned that when you put your mind, body and effort into helping your community and want only to see it grow and prosper,” says Keinen Newsone, a PUEO ’23 scholar, “you will be more connected and satisfied, not just with the land you live on, but also with yourself.”

This past summer, PUEO scholars in grades 6 and 7 were able to take a new interdisciplinary ‘ukulele and creative writing class that was created in collaboration with the Fender Play Foundation.

An Innovative Curriculum 

‘Ukulele master, Jake Shimabukuro, was one of the many guests who played for the students and shared his inspiring personal journey.

PUEO continuously strives to enhance its skills-based curriculum, which offers academic credit at HIDOE high schools and in some colleges. Over the years, PUEO’s spirit of innovation has resulted in new courses to supplement an already robust curriculum. 

In 2020 despite the pandemic, PUEO rolled out a new financial literacy curriculum, the inspiration of long-time Kumu Sarah Kern, a teacher during the school year at Chiefess Kamakahelei Middle School in Līhu‘e and formerly at Wai‘anae High School. Now in its third year, this elective is popular with students and responds to what was perceived as a gap in practical real-world knowledge for students approaching adulthood. 

This past summer, PUEO scholars in grades 6 and 7 were able to take a new interdisciplinary ‘ukulele and creative writing class that was created in collaboration with the Fender Play Foundation. Punahou Trustee Mark Fukunaga ’74 visited the classes to experience firsthand what students were learning and enjoyed meeting special guest, ‘ukulele master Jake Shimabukuro, who played for the students and shared his inspiring personal journey. 

Alexa-Lee Kaeo, PUEO ’23

PUEO’s curriculum strategically extends beyond academics. “The classes, Chapel events, field trips, and college tours gave me a sense of belonging and community,” says Alexa-Lee Kaeo, PUEO ’23 scholar. “This program gave me experiences that I probably would have never had if I didn’t go; especially, during the summer before ninth grade, which gave me an inside look at what high school would be like and more importantly, taught me to use my voice.” 

Anika Martin, PUEO ’15

In 2022, PUEO broadened its attention to year-round college counseling support and financial aid coaching. That’s because the program was designed to address scholars’ needs holistically, says Kealoha-Scullion – giving them access to resources and support that will level the playing field; PUEO transforms their lives and scholars become change agents. 

“Without the program, I honestly wouldn’t be where I am now,” says PUEO ’15 alumna, Anika Martin. “PUEO really instilled self-confidence and being resilient.” She went on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Public Health at Northern Arizona University and works with Hawai‘i Health and Harm Reduction. Coming full circle, Martin has returned to PUEO as a kumu and TA to help impart the valuable lessons that changed the course of her life to the next generation.

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