Chad Blair: Why Micronesian Students Struggle In Hawaii

When I was a UH Manoa graduate student back in the 1990s I once asked a professor whether all the studies produced in academia amount to much in the “real world.”

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Does anyone read them? Do they have an impact?

The professor paused, leveled his stare at me and then proceeded to explain in detail to me and my classmates how the work produced by scholars does indeed make a difference outside the towers of ivory and does not just sit in an obscure journal unread by the masses .

I was thinking about that episode when two UH professors passed along to me a 20-page research brief to be published online later this month. Titled “Racism and Discrimination against Micronesian Students in Hawaii,” it was produced by the Hawaii Scholars for Education and Social Justice.

The new report is focused on concerns about the “educational attainment, experiences, and problems” encountered by students from Micronesia in the public school system of Hawaii, especially at the K-12 level.

The report refers to the three Micronesian countries that are part of the Compact of Free Association treaties with the US Residents of the Republic of Palau, the Republic of the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia are allowed under treaty to live and work in the US indefinitely without visas.

Among the findings are the following:

  • Between 2013 and 2018, only 50% of students from Micronesia who entered ninth grade four years earlier graduated from high school.
  • 43% dropped out before graduating, compared to the overall state graduation rate of 86%.
  • The Department of Education has an inadequate number of qualified English language teachers and bilingual school home assistants.
  • Overt racism and stereotyping in schools “may have contributed” to students giving up and dropping out.
  • Reports indicate that racial stereotyping not only comes from other students, but also from school officials and teachers.
  • Some families from Micronesia have reported feeling that students were effectively “pushed out” of schools.

The primary reasons for the experience of Micronesians in Hawaii public schools are racism and systemic inequalities.

Cultural Expert Manto Samuel weaves coconut frond baskets with Washington Middle School students.
School officials and nonprofit organizations have tried helping students from Micronesia by promoting cultural initiatives, like basket weaving lessons. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The report’s conclusions will come as no surprise to readers of Civil Beat, which has and continues to devote a lot of attention to the greater Pacific and the residents of Palau, the Marshalls and the FSM.

Their evolving story is important to all of us in Hawaii.

A major takeaway from the research brief is how important the role of grassroots organizations is to help Micronesians navigate their way through Hawaii’s sometimes byzantine health, education and social service systems. To name just two: The Marshallese Community Organization of Hawaii and Chuuk Me Nessor (Chuukese Language and Cultural School).

Importantly, the research brief also identifies policy recommendations, including these:

  • The Legislature should support improving language access for the state of Hawaii.
  • The DOE needs to address disparities among students who are subject to disciplinary actions.
  • UH should develop college recruitment activities that target students from the COFA nations in public intermediate and high schools.
  • The Honolulu Police Department must end its practice of racial profiling COFA citizens.

The research brief ends with this statement: “Lastly, while not a policy recommendation, the HSESJ strongly encourages the people of Hawaii to affirm their commitment to living in a multicultural society by extending the values ​​of aloha, equality, inclusion, and social justice to the COFA community. This individual and collective initiative can begin by not disseminating ‘Micronesian’ jokes and racist slurs and to promote a sense of aloha for COFA citizens in Hawaii.”

Context Is Key

What’s also helpful about the research brief is that it provides historical and cultural context to help people in Hawaii better understand Micronesians — and to perhaps become more welcoming of them.

I’m guessing many of us did not know or appreciate, for example, that there are at least 18 distinct languages ​​and many dialects among the three COFA nations. Clothing, cultural and political structures and religions differ among the island groups.

People in Micronesia also experienced more than a century of colonial rule under the Spanish, Germans, Japanese and Americans. “The Spanish brought Catholicism, and the Germans brought Protestantism, both of which continue to have strong footholds in different island groups,” the report explains, citing the work of FX Hezel.

The region’s history is also ancient, having likely been settled by people from Southeast Asia some 40,000 years ago.

The HSESJ is a volunteer nonprofit of Hawaii researchers that emerged four years ago to conduct, review and distribute research related to education and social justice in the islands.

US DOE chart on missed school days for

I spoke to two of the members who are also co-authors of the research brief (the others are Katherine T. Ratliffe and Margary Martin). Both stressed the importance of understanding that their work was done under a framework of systemic racism.

Jonathan Y. Okamura, a UH Manoa professor emeritus of ethnic studies, said that framework is formed by what he calls “relevant dimensions” that are “quite evident in Hawaii” — specifically, discriminatory policies, racist stereotypes and socioeconomic inequalities.

“And we can see how they work together to maintain COFA citizens in this very oppressed status that they have,” he explained.

Brook Chapman de Sousa, an associate professor at the university’s Institute of Teacher Education Elementary Education and Multilingual Learning Program, agrees. And she shares Okamura’s desire that the work have—well, impact.

“This work has been going on a long time, and my hope is that it could bring awareness or system-wide changes,” she said.

But progress in bettering educational attainment for Micronesians in Hawaii is sluggish.

Okamura pointed out that there were only 25 undergraduate Micronesian students at Manoa in fall 2021, a campus that has nearly 11,000 undergraduates. And de Sousa said there was only one Micronesian pre-service teacher candidate in the College of Education in fall 2021, when enrollment was nearly 2,000 students.

“We know that having a diverse teaching population benefits all students, especially our culturally and linguistically diverse students,” she said. “Having more teachers from Micronesia will benefit all of our students, especially those from Micronesia.”

Key to that, she said, is more funding from the state such as for bilingual education. And Okamura says the authors of the research brief are happy to make themselves available to talk to the various government agencies and the Legislature about implementing their recommendations.

The tremendous challenges facing COFA students in Hawaii are not going away. The killing of Iremamber Sykap by three Honolulu police officers last year and the subsequent grand jury and court rejection of their murder charges both upset Micronesians and their supporters who felt that justice was not served. At the same time emboldened critics of Micronesian immigration argue that immigrant groups have to better assimilate and follow US laws.

And so the work continues — at universities, in government, in communities and in journalism.

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