Program Spotlight: PUEO – A Purposeful Partnership

The Clarence T.C. Ching PUEO Program, now in its 17th year, is one of Punahou’s most durable programs addressing the public purpose of an independent school. Partnerships in Unlimited Educational Opportunities (PUEO) offers some 325 students from public and other schools across Hawai‘i the opportunity to attend a seven-year summer program at Punahou while earning DOE credits. This partnership between Punahou and the Hawai‘i State Department of Education (DOE) targets students from 6th – 12th grade who have the potential to thrive in school but may not have been otherwise college-bound. The aim is to help economically disadvantaged students in the academic middle of their class.

“The program seeks to focus on the middle 60% of kids who can be forgotten because they either are not excelling and bound for college or they are not at the bottom,” said Ken Okamoto, a trustee of the Clarence T.C. Ching Foundation, which has supported the program for the past 10 years. “Many PUEO kids come from families where no one has gone to college. These kids may be the first within their families – but certainly not the last – because statistically it has been shown that once you break that barrier, others within the family will continue to go to college. So, I think the impact is much greater for future generations.”

One of PUEO’s primary goals is to offer core academic instruction so participants can graduate from high school and apply to college. “By the time a scholar is in high school, he or she could be up to two or three years behind in reading and math, which makes it an enormous feat to achieve grade-level benchmarks and graduate on time,” said Kehau Kealoha-Scullion, director of the PUEO program since 2019.

Students may earn credits in Modern Hawaiian History, Participation in Democracy, Test Prep, College English, Performing Arts and other classes, some designed in partnership between Punahou and the DOE. The courses are taught by public school teachers from across the State, as well as teachers from Punahou, Maryknoll, Kamehameha and other private schools.

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, PUEO had to pivot to distance learning last summer. Yet, despite the virtual format, students achieved close to 92% average attendance, and three new courses were added – a financial literacy course for rising sophomores; a forensic science and math session piloted with rising eighth graders to reinforce math skills with inquiry-based learning; and a performing arts elective, with a focus on improvisation to promote self-awareness, growth, self-management and collaboration.

Inspired by other summer enrichment programs, such as the San Francisco-based nonprofit Aim High, PUEO was launched in 2005, by former faculty Carl Ackermen. Now retired after 28-years of teaching history at Punahou, Ackerman recently authored a book about the program to serve as a retrospective history and also a road map for those hoping to start similar programs. “‘A Success Story in Public Education’ is about how Punahou and the DOE succeeded together,” Ackerman said. “I’m careful to point out how we did things together, because that’s the secret. I think everyone at Punahou should be very proud of the program. Punahou is doing its job in reaching out to all kids, regardless of their background.”

Kealoha-Scullion believes partnerships such as PUEO benefit the entire community when there is a shared goal. “If the overall needs and aspirations of the community are to provide support systems so that kids can do well in high school and then enter college – and we have this understanding and shared mission at Punahou – then we have a mutual story we can write together,” she said.

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