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Higher learning

Partnerships in Unlimited Educational Opportunities, or PUEO, gets low-income students ready for college

By Paige L. Jinbo

LAST UPDATED: 5:32 a.m. HST, Jul 21, 2011

Precious Totten says if someone had asked her six years ago what her future held, she would have said, "You just automatically get a job you love and you make lots of money."

College? Not on her to-do list.

Today Totten, 16, a senior-to-be at Castle High School, has her sights on Brown University and other four-year colleges on the East Coast.

"I look back at myself and I laugh because I didn't even know what college was," Totten said Wednesday. "I know about all these opportunities now because of the PUEO Program. It's taught me that anything is possible."

Totten is among 40 ambitious Hawaii high school seniors who will "graduate" Friday from PUEO, or Partnerships in Unlimited Educational Opportunities. The program takes students entering middle school and gives them enrichment programs for seven consecutive summers at Punahou School, ‘Iolani School and the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

"We're not just planting the idea of college in their minds, but creating a college-bound culture for the students," said Erin Nagoshi, lead kumu for PUEO's seventh-year class. "For these students, going to college isn't even a question anymore."

The program was created in 2005; Friday's graduates are the first to complete the seven-year program.

PUEO is designed to serve gap-group public school kids — those in the middle 60 percentile academically — who might not otherwise get the attention to spur them to college.

"The top 20 percent can get to college on their own, the bottom 20 have a lot more resources available to them, but that middle 60 percent are often overlooked," said David Miyashiro, administration intern for PUEO.

Students begin the program after completion of fifth grade. All are public school students who come from low-income households. Their teachers and principal select them. Each summer a new group of 40 students begins the program. There are now 280 students from 50 different schools in the seven groups.

There is no charge. It is funded primarily by the Clarence T.C. Ching Foundation, which gave PUEO a $3 million, six-year grant in 2009, PUEO program director Carl Ackerman said.

During the six-week summer session, students engage in hands-on projects such as robotics, rocketry and movie editing. The older students get SAT preparation and college counseling.

Kiona Esteban, 16, said she wasn't initially thrilled when she found out she was selected for PUEO.

"My dad told me one day and I was like, ‘Ew, Dad, I don't want to do that, it sounds like such a drag.' But now I know how lucky I am to be here and I'm so grateful," Esteban said.

The Roosevelt High student was selected in the sixth grade at Noelani Elementary after a student from that school left PUEO.

The program is a partnership between Punahou, UH-Manoa and the state Department of Education.

"PUEO comes from the vision Jim Scott (Punahou's president) wanted, that Punahou is a private school with a public purpose," Ackerman said.

Students who graduate from the program will receive an acceptance award from UH-Manoa, meaning that if they graduate from high school and meet the admission requirements, they'll automatically be accepted to UH-Manoa.

"Before PUEO I thought college was only for rich and smart people, but now I know it's for everyone," said Chevy Coelho, 17, of Roosevelt High. "Now my attitude is just apply because education is the most important thing you're ever going to get."

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