Focusing Funds On STEM Students

Jade Moon
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Wednesday - April 27, 2011
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Have you heard of the Public Schools of Hawaii Foundation? No? Neither had I, and - having covered education for years - I’m pretty embarrassed about that. Because this all-local, all-volunteer nonprofit foundation has given more than $1.3 million to Hawaii teachers in the last 25 years. That’s a big chunk of change, and it deserves to be known.

Nolan Kawano, president of the foundation, says it’s not surprising that people haven’t heard of it. They were low key and gave without fanfare, mostly in the form of Good Ideas mini-grants to teachers. Recently, however, this quiet organization had a bit of an identity crisis.

“We have 20 trustees,” says Kawano, “and we actually had to come to grips with ‘What are we doing and why are we here?’”

Sure, they were raising money. Sure, they were giving it away. But had they outgrown their original mission to focus primarily on individual teachers and projects? Could the money be put to better use? Shouldn’t the organization be more effective, more focused?

“We’re businesspeople, we know how to raise money,” Kawano says. “But outside of that we have no education background other than actually going to school.”

So they did what businesspeople do: They went on retreat and wrestled with a few fundamental questions.

As Kawano recounts it: “What is our future? Why should we even exist? The consensus that came out of it was, we still want to help. We still want to help public schools, but we just don’t know how to do it.”

And then they had an epiphany: Instead of imposing their ideas on the schools, why not go to the source and ask what they need? So they invited schools superintendent Kathy Matayoshi. And she told them about STEM.

As in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.

And that, Kawano says, is the new focus of PSHF. The foundation is now concentrating on Good Idea Grant requests that are STEM-focused. In fact, the foundation has committed $250,000 toward the development of a new science lab at Roosevelt High School, and another $70,000 toward curriculum and training.

Roosevelt principal Ann Mahi is ecstatic.

“Our teachers are already prepping,” she says. “They went to the National Science Teachers Association Conference, and came back with ideas about how to create the labs.”

She and complex superintendent Stephen Schatz have been working together, and with the University of Hawaii. The goal, Schatz says, is to create an ongoing process involving modern facilities and the most effective curriculum, training, teaching and learning. Schatz says you need them all - excellent, well-trained teachers and the right facilities. “The help that the Public Schools of Hawaii Foundation is giving us is really to accelerate an existing initiative.”

Matayoshi is grateful to PSHF. “We were really pleased with the fact that we have an organization like this. It enables us to look at the broader picture. It helped to spur our thinking. And it helps in building up skills and abilities of our teachers.”

Obviously, the foundation can’t build labs all over the state, but Kawano believes the success of this project will motivate people to act.

“If the state can build the science labs, nonprofits and businesses can fund the curriculum. If we can create the model, you have something you can take to the public.”

Think about it. Our kids could someday vault to the head of the class, instead of lagging behind. Kawano says it’s a big dream, but an attainable one. And that’s why the trustees of the Public Schools of Hawaii Foundation are stepping out of the shadows and ramping up their profile. They want you to see - and believe - that we can all be a part of the success.

The foundation’s 20th annual fundraising banquet is this Friday, April 29, at Hilton Hawaiian Village.

Honorees are Lynne Madden, Arthur Ushijima and Eric Yeaman.

For information call 943-1622 or log on to

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