For all the bells and whistles of modern education — computers, SMART boards and the like — most educational institutions would be hard pressed to consistently produce the kinds of citizens nurtured at a bare-bones school in the middle of the Pacific, on the tiny island of Chuuk in the Federated States of Micronesia.
Since 1952, Xavier High School, a Catholic-run private school, has graduated students who have become the current president of the Federated States of Micronesia, a former FSM president, two former Palau presidents, diplomats, senators, lawyers, physicians and top community leaders.
The small student body of fewer than 200 students take their lessons from young, volunteer teachers standing at stripped-down blackboards in classrooms with broken louvers, rusted ceiling fans and unreliable power. Yet students flourish.
Writer and photographer Floyd K. Takeuchi spent four weeks living at Xavier and has published "School on the Hill," a book filled with images that capture the lifestyle of Xavierites, plus a bit of accompanying text that reveals some of the reasons for the school’s success.
Takeuchi’s photographs will also be exhibited in two spaces through July: the Gallery at Ward Centre through Feb. 24, and the Honolulu Club from May 1 to July 3.
The class that enrolled in fall 2006 reflects a typical Xavier class: Some 900 youth competed for 50 coveted positions, 43 showed up and 29 seniors graduated in May 2010. Most of the attrition, which is typical for each class, was due to poor academic performance and rule infractions.
"The school is in a place where very little has worked except for the school," says Takeuchi, a former newspaper and magazine journalist in Hawaii, Guam and Japan. "The government is dysfunctional, roads are bad, the infrastructure doesn’t always work."
By contrast, Takeuchi gave countless examples of Xavier’s standard of excellence.
"The Christian Life group, for instance, adopted a local school to do volunteer teaching — it’s part of their service requirement to volunteer — and they do a really good job. In contrast, the reality is that many teachers at the school don’t even bother to show up to work. But the Xavier kids were there.
"I asked one senior Xavier girl, who’s Chuukese, what it was like to be Chuukese and see that many teachers aren’t even there. How does she deal with that as a member of the Chuuk community? … She said she had no respect for teaching, but when she was in a prep program for Xavier, she discovered what a good education was. She said she now has incredible respect for teachers and the process of learning."
Takeuchi says he’s amazed at Xavier’s success for another reason as well: the huge diversity of its student body. Youth come from the Federated States of Micronesia, comprising Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei and Kosrae, and Palau, the Marshall Islands, Guam, the Philippines, Japan and even Hawaii.
"The cultural geographic area is roughly the size of the continental United States, with lots of water in it," he says. "There are nine distinct languages that aren’t anywhere similar, plus different cultures. To bring students from all these areas, with different upbringings and cultures, and mix them up, then be demanding — that creates the potential for a lot to go wrong. But somehow almost everything goes right."
Takeuchi believes the keys to student success have been an extremely rigorous curriculum, quality teachers (despite high turnover of volunteer teachers) and faith-based values that emphasize respect.
"The school has clear, high expectations of students academically and in their personal behavior, on and off campus," he says.
Takeuchi says students’ years of shared experiences create ties that bind. Students become as close as siblings and protect the vulnerable members of their group.
"In other places, teens can be very brutal, but I never saw any of that at Xavier. It was wonderful," he says. "That’s part of their values, that compassion. The students are expected to be complete people, even if they’re young people."
As for its track record for producing leaders, Takeuchi says the school teaches from day one that its students have a responsibility to lead.
"They’re trained to be leaders; it speaks to the Catholic Church’s role of service. They are taught that more is expected of those given special opportunities, and Xavier is a special opportunity."