Punahou School’s innovative PUEO Program prepares public school students for college

Published: Dec. 2, 2020 at 5:02 PM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - As a young child, Precious Totten wasn’t destined for college. It was out of her family’s financial reach.

But years ago, in elementary school, she was recommended for a progressive summer school program at Punahou School called Partnerships in Unlimited Educational Opportunities ― or PUEO.

“As a young kid from Kahaluu what it really did was not only open my eyes to college and the idea of college, but really gave me the tools and the essentials on how to get there,” she said.

Punahou started the Clarence T.C. Ching PUEO Program in 2005, partnering with the state Department of Education to help public school students realize they could go to college.

Educator Carl Ackerman is PUEO’s founding director.

“In the program I came up with a chant. I said, ‘What group are you in?’ And the kids always yelled out, ‘PUEO! And I said, ‘Where are you going?’ They said, ‘To college,’” he said.

PUEO students are good learners but usually have limited financial means. During summer sessions, instructors ― many of them program graduates ― work with the youth to show them there is a path to a college education.

Kristy Huang says that encouragement helped boost her self-confidence.

“PUEO really gave me that exposure to college and pushed me to believe that I could do it myself,” she said.

Participants are selected by administrators and counselors at public schools that act as feeders for PUEO. From the sixth grade through their senior years, the kids take summer classes and join year-round events.

As they get older, they visit colleges and universities and learn about financial aid and college scholarships.

Results speak for themselves.

“About 95% of kids graduate from high school. And 85% actually enroll in college,” Ackerman said.

The best advocates tend to be PUEO participants. Huang went on to earn a degree from Princeton and now works for a major tech firm in New York.

“My parents immigrated from Vietnam. They didn’t have a chance to even finish high school. PUEO is a great way to see what college can do for you,” she said.

Totten attended Northpoint Bible College and now works as an administrator at Christian Academy.

“I could not and I would not be where I’m at today without this program,” she said.

Ackerman retired from PUEO last year, but left it in capable hands. He wrote a book about the program called “A Success Story in Public Education,” which details how other private schools can follow Punahou’s example and partner with public schools to help more students go to college.

“It’s easy to emulate,” he said. “In the book there are chapters to talk about what you do in terms of financing. There’s a chapter on our wonderful donors in Hawaii. There’s a chapter on how you build partnerships.”

He said educating public school keiki should be one of Hawaii’s top priorities.

“I encourage everyone in Hawaii to go to their nearest public school and say, ‘How can I help?’ Then education will improve,” he said.

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