HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - By: Jennifer Wong
As a fifth grader, Yuna Martin got a call that would change her life.
"I just got a phone call right before I was going on a trip. My mom thought that I was getting called by the principal because I was getting in trouble," Martin said. "They just called me up and they're like, 'you're in PUEO' and I was like, 'what is that?' I didn't know what it was."
But Martin accepted and became part of the first graduating class for the nationally recognized Partnerships in Unlimited Educational Opportunities program, or PUEO.
The program assists talented public school students who come from the middle 60 percent of their class and are nominated by their principals.
"Often students in the top 20 percent and in the bottom 20 percent get attention. But often the kids in the great middle are sort of left on their own," Program Director Carl Ackerman said.
These students also need to be in the federal free and reduced lunch program.
"I think to be honest, we were a bit skeptical at first, but when we learned about what they were seeking to do and who they were reaching out to and why they were doing this, it was an absolute no brainer for our foundation," Clarence T.C. Ching Foundation Trustee Kenneth Okamoto said.
The program was developed after Jim Scott, president of Punahou School, wanted to help lower income students prepare, enter and complete college.
"The PUEO Program embodies the essence of Punahou's commitment to be a private school serving a larger public purpose through meaningful partnerships with other schools and educators," Scott said.
PUEO is a six-week summer program held at Punahou School for selected students.
In 2009, the Clarence T.C. Ching Foundation donated $3 million, which helped to expand the three year program to a seven year program.
But funds were running dry and Punahou School sought out further assistance from the foundation.
Okamoto announced at a ceremony at Punahou School that the foundation would be doubling their original donation Tuesday, making the Clarence T.C. Ching Foundation the largest private foundation donor to the school.
"We are just thrilled to partner with Punahou with such a program that is a benefit for these students of the public school sector," Okamoto said. "I think this ensures that PUEO will be going in to the future for, at a minimum, 10 more years but I'm sure that this is a program that will be lasting for many, many years to come."
Dignitaries like Gov. David Ige and Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi were also in attendance.
"I do know it takes a village to educate a child and I just wanted to thank the Clarence T.C. Ching Foundation and Punahou School for this excellent example of how we can all work together to raise the quality of our public schools across the state," Gov. Ige said.
When Ackerman heard that the Clarence T.C. Ching Trustees voted unanimously to fund $6 million to PUEO, he was overjoyed and at a loss of words.
"There's a song, an old song, it's called 'Float on, Float on,' and I felt like floating because it was really wonderful," Ackerman said.
Martin is grateful for the PUEO program and says that PUEO has helped boost her confidence and feel comfortable with herself.
"PUEO has this magical effect of lighting a fire within your student that makes you desire so much of what you want to pursue and it makes you want to go after it," Martin said. "I don't know where I would have been without this program. It's been a part of my life, like a part of half my life, so it's really hard not to imagine it and I'm just so happy that it can continue and give more kids an opportunity like this."
She has since become a kumu (teacher) for the program and is a junior studying Psychology and German at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa. Martin sees the same growth in her students as she saw in herself.
"It's just been really weird because it's like me seeing myself, like right now, like when the kids are first starting, they're very nervous, but I'm happy to be a mentor, a guide to them and I have a lot of fun with them," Martin said.
PUEO has expanded to serving hundreds of public school students statewide and since inspired other private schools, like Hawaii Baptist Academy, to start a similar program.