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Failing students see squalor

Visiting the homeless is meant to get Waipahu kids in gear

LAST UPDATED: 2:19 a.m. HST, Mar 20, 2011

Waipahu High freshmen in danger of failing or those repeating ninth grade have visited a homeless encampment at Keaau Beach Park and will take a field trip to Oahu Community Correctional Center as part of a program aimed at giving them real-world lessons on choices — and their consequences.

The excursions are part of a pilot program called Fresh Start, aimed at encouraging ninth-graders falling behind in school to think about how their actions today will affect them later.

Program organizers say the field trips aren’t meant to “scare students straight,” but to help them understand that homeless campers and inmates are real people — just like them.

“We want to show them, if you make poor choices, this may be one of your outcomes,” said Gale Mehea, Waipahu project coordinator for Gear Up, a federal program aimed at helping kids get to college that is providing some funding and support to Fresh Start.

The program is showing early signs of success, with several parents and counselors reporting they’ve already seen improvements in students. Organizers are trying to get long-term funding for Fresh Start, and would also like to see it duplicated at other schools at a time when the Department of Education is putting new emphasis on helping struggling students and boosting high school graduation rates.

In addition to the field trips, which will include a day at OCCC this month, Fresh Start includes a heavy dose of parent involvement, with “parent nights,” classes and an upcoming gathering where kids and parents will participate in a team-building exercise.

Student participants are also given plenty of encouragement: cash incentives if they do well, tutoring and counseling sessions and, next month, they’ll visit Honolulu Community College to see that higher education is within reach.

Fresh Start got off the ground earlier this year and about 190 students at Waipahu High School have been invited to participate. So far, about 30 are active in the program.

Lorrie Kanno, Weed and Seed Waipahu site coordinator, said she approached Waipahu High to come up with a program that would show teens who were failing what could happen to them if they didn’t shape up.

“I think it’s about getting the kids beyond just themselves,” Kanno said. “Some of the choices they’re making will put them on negative paths. They could end up doing drugs, becoming homeless, becoming incarcerated.”

The group visited Keaau Beach Park on Feb. 5 for several hours, listening to homeless advocates, serving lunch to the homeless and then walking through the encampment — which has since been taken down by the city — to interview residents.

The students talked with several teens who were living on the beach with their families. “Being able to hear it from someone their age, I think that really hit them,” Kanno said.

Jeanie Villamor said she is hopeful the program will make a difference for her son, Michael.

Villamor said she enrolled her 14-year-old in the program because she was intrigued — and a little bit at her wits’ end on how to help her son. Michael doesn’t have an attendance problem, she said. He just doesn’t complete his work.

He’s in danger of repeating the ninth grade.

“He’s really smart. He just is really lazy,” Villamor said.

She said her son’s trip to the homeless encampment, which did not include parents, was “eye-opening for him.”

“I think he didn’t know what to expect,” Villamor said. “He didn’t say a lot about it. I just noticed his attitude is different.”

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