A report done by the Washington State Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs shows high-school dropout rates have decreased in every racial group in 2010, except for Pacific Islanders (PIs), who have seen increased rates in recent years. A push for more parental involvement, faculty diversity and cultural awareness in schools is vital to improving Pacific Islanders’ academic achievement, experts say.
Pacific Islanders have long been the minority of the few in this country; making up less than 1 percent of the state’s population. The severity of educational problems within such minority groups are easy to neglect, said Sili Savusa, a Highline School District board member.
In 2008, Washington became the first state to isolate scores for PI students from their Asian classmates in academic-achievement-evaluation reports. Such segmentation allows the report to account for the diversity within Asian American and PI communities, and to address specific needs according to different ethnicities.
“One of the things that we noticed back then was that if they don’t disaggregate the data, our children become invisible,” said Savusa. “The disaggregation of data help put policy in place and help our kids succeed.
“But you can’t stop there,” she added. “Disaggregated data needs to happen in every group.”
Betty Patu, a member of the Seattle School Board, agreed that data disaggregation plays a vital role in uncovering serious education problems within PI communities. She also believes another reason why many PI students have been standing in the silence of shade is because of prevailing stereotypes.
“It’s an assumption that our people don’t have many problems,” Patu, who is Samoan American, said. “People think that [PIs] are American international citizens, and that [PIs] don’t need any help; that they are part of America like the Virgin Islands,” she continued. “Our kids have struggled for years because of how people understand us, and how people presume we are supposed to be.”
These presumptions challenge Islander students and their parents, specifically recent immigrant families who have had a hard time adjusting to the education system in America. Patu and Savusa agree that parents’ partnership with the schools is the key to children’s success. This differs from an assumption on the part of many Islanders regarding to what extent the teacher is responsible for student education.
“The system in America right now is that if the parents are not part of the child’s education, your child is guaranteed to fail. I can tell you that right off the bat,” said Patu.
“When Islanders come to America, we assume that the teachers will take care of our children,” Patu continued. “But unless [the parents] are involved in the school and making sure that the teachers are actually teaching our kids, our children are going to be failing and fall behind because the teacher sees it as ‘your kids are not participating in the class, not turning in their homework.’ … Well, they are not going to care because they got all the other kids they have to worry about.”
Patu is known for improving diversity education in Seattle Public Schools. She and her husband helped launched a dropout prevention program for PIs at Cooper Elementary School that has been established for 11 years. She said schools should train their staffs to have a better understanding of students with different education backgrounds.
Or, they should hire teachers who know where the students are coming from, said Rochell Fonoti, a faculty member at South Seattle Community College, who has been working closely with PI students for years.
“For our students to succeed, they need to see teachers who are like themselves, and educators who invest in their education,” said Fonoti. “They need a lot of people to be modeled for them.”
South Seattle Community College is one of six pilot institutions granted by the Department of Education to focus on developing programs, curriculum and other resources for Asian American and Pacific Islander students (AAPI). It serves more than 10 percent of the AAPI population across the country. But people are not usually aware of the resources that are available to them, said Fonoti.
“Only 2.6 percent of AAPI were actually using the services here at our college,” said Fonoti, stressing the need for more outreach programs.
Benjamin Lealofi is the former director of the Pacific Islander Student Commission at the University of Washington. As a second generation Samoan, he believes that the “cultural norm” matters when trying to explain why some PI students make their decision over education, which may not make sense to Americans.
“The priority is whatever happens in our lives, family always comes first,” Lealofi said. “Even if that means sacrificing an education and getting a job.” “The traditional role within the household, the value, the custom may not be the norm of what Americans see. … But in the eyes of [Pacific Islanders], it may seem that dropping out of high school to help out the family is the best scenario.”