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Community Partnerships Can Be Vital To Schools – And Hard To Sustain – Honolulu Civil Beat

Businesses and volunteers play a significant role in supporting local schools, but it’s often up to individual school principals to identify and build these connections.
As the principal of Kalakaua Middle School in Kalihi, where nearly two-thirds of students are considered economically disadvantaged, Lorelei Aiwohi is always looking for ways to create new opportunities for her students.
So when the principal at nearby Farrington High School connected her with an alumnus who wanted to start a computer science program, Aiwohi jumped at the chance to help put a group of talented students on an early path to college success.
The afterschool program that Ray Tsuchiyama ran in 2019 introduced students to big college level concepts, harnessed the talents of University of Hawaii students and connected kids with engineers in Hawaii and tech workers in Silicon Valley.
The volunteer-led effort had a big impact on the confidence levels of both the seventh graders and their parents, Aiwohi said, but ultimately fizzled out from a lack of funding, the challenges of the pandemic and the difficulty of sustaining such an ambitious program without a larger network in place to run it.
Launching a program without the support of a nonprofit or larger institution was like “trying to land on Mars but having to build your own rocket ship to get there,” Tsuchiyama, a real estate and business consultant, said.
Across Hawaii, volunteers play a significant role in supporting local schools. Community groups raise funds for schools, help run extracurricular clubs, create internships and sit on advisory boards for career programs.
But aside from a new program focused on career training opportunities, it’s up to individual school principals to identify and build these community partnerships. The result is an impressive but sometimes unsustainable patchwork of programs. Relying on community relationships to create partnerships can also be a challenge because of the state’s high principal and teacher turnover.
And it can leave out people who want to help but don’t have a connection at the local school.
“I think people don’t really have an avenue on like, ‘Who do I call?’” Aiwohi said. “It would definitely help to have a system.”
The range of community support that school leaders are able to harness on their own is impressive.
Some collaborations are big. The principal at Kamaile Academy, a public charter school in Waianae, says one of its most important partnerships is with Waianae Coast Comprehensive Health Center. The health center has worked with the school throughout the pandemic by helping with food service for students, coordinating Covid testing and education and providing guidance on protocols.
“Partnerships are about meeting the needs of the students in the community, but the foundation is around relationships,” Kamaile Principal Paul Kepka said. “Having strong established relationships within the community really helps when there’s a need. Because we’re ready to reach out and they’re ready to reach out to us.”
Other partnerships arise from more intimate relationships.
Waimea High School works closely with the Kauai Chamber of Commerce to help generate opportunities for students in the school’s career academies. But it also taps into a close network of friends and family to enhance program offerings. The spouse of one teacher is a firefighter and helped establish a partnership with the fire department. A parent at the school helps students studying cybersecurity.
Moving to an academy structure where all students at a school have to select a college or career pathway has helped to form deeper connections between Waiakea High School and the surrounding community, Principal Kelcy Koga said.
Whereas businesses in the past might have approached Waiakea about trying to help the school by, say, painting a parking lot, now many businesses are forming meaningful partnerships by sitting on academic advisory committees, creating internships for students and helping expand students’ sense of what is possible.
“It’s become much more specific,” Koga said of community partnerships and school volunteers. In the past, “it was more superficial, not necessarily trying to help our kids come up with a particular skill set that that business or that community member is involved in.”
Other partnerships arise from a community need. After a student collapsed and needed CPR several years ago, the Hawaii Fire Department partnered with Waiakea High’s Health Academy to teach CPR not just at the high school but all of the area or “feeder” schools for Waiakea.
Aiwohi says she relies frequently on the support of Farrington High School — where most of her students enroll after middle school — to get volunteers and community partnerships.
That’s in part because of new efforts at the Department of Education to create more uniform career pathways that start in early grades and lead all the way through high school. But it’s also a byproduct of high schools having a stronger alumni network, Aiwohi said.
“A lot of elementary and middle schools don’t have those connections,” she said.
One thing that could help sustain more successful community programs, Tsuchiyama believes, would be for the state to have something similar to PENCIL, a Nashville, Tennessee-based nonprofit that connects interested individuals and businesses with schools that have particular needs. 
PENCIL is based, in part, on the idea that “public education is everyone’s business,” said Bob Kucher, the organization’s vice president of partnerships and programs. 
The nonprofit, which has been working with Nashville Public Schools for more than 40 years, is essentially a matchmaking service between businesses, community organizations and schools. 
“This is about really sophisticated and strategically connecting specific businesses, specific industry professionals, and employees with the right school for the right reasons,” Kucher said. 
They currently have more than 700 partners that work with schools, ranging from large companies to churches and small community groups. 
Some companies provide internship opportunities, guest speakers for classes or have employees who volunteer time in classrooms as reading tutors. Another company has a long-standing relationship with a local elementary school to throw an end-of-the-year field day for students and parents. 
The nonprofit also has a digital booking system where teachers can look up available professionals and book them to come speak to a class in-person or virtually. Another digital tool is for members of the community who are interested in helping schools — addressing that problem of “who do I call” to volunteer. 
One benefit of having an organization like PENCIL is that it also builds relationships between entities and not just between people, Kucher said. 
“You know when this person at this company retires, that relationship doesn’t go away,” Kucher said. “The process and the system are what keeps the relationships alive.”
Hawaii P-20 Partnerships for Education brought staff members from PENCIL’s consulting arm to Hawaii in 2018 and 2019 to talk about the organization’s model, but decided to go with a different structure that takes into account the unique communities within Hawaii, said Robin Herbig of Hawaii P-20. 
P-20 works to create partnerships with groups like the Chamber of Commerce Hawaii and the Kauai Economic Development Board to act as intermediaries between businesses and schools. The focus of the P-20 program is on creating workplace learning opportunities to support the state’s career academy programs.
Many of those businesses participate in ClimbHI Bridge — a database that connects educators with businesses that can help with career fairs, job shadowing, internships and guest speakers. That database has been incredibly helpful, Aiwohi said.
But having a broader database of partners and volunteers for principals to be able to tap into for broader needs — similar to what the ClimbHI Bridge database does for career programs — would be a boon.  
“We definitely look for any type of opportunities,” said Aiwohi, the principal at Kalakaua Middle School. “Especially here, because the parents don’t have the resources and the means to.”
Civil Beat’s education reporting is supported by a grant from Chamberlin Family Philanthropy.
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Jessica Terrell is an editor at large for Civil Beat. You can reach her by email at
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