On November 9, 56 students gathered at Waipahu High School on the Hawaiian island of Oahu and made history as the charter members of the Beta Chi Omega Chapter — the first Phi Theta Kappa chapter at a high school.
The students are part of the school’s Early College program, which enables them to take college courses in place of some of their high school courses to gain college credit. In a school where more than half the students qualify for free or reduced lunch, this program has made a college education a real possibility.
The college credits they earn also make them eligible for Phi Theta Kappa membership, giving them access to scholarships, leadership experience, and other opportunities.
“Through Early College, and through the support of many people, and now with the support of Phi Theta Kappa, we continue to change the culture of our school and the lives of our students and families,” Waipahu High Principal Keith Hayashi said. “And, we’ve shaped the community in terms of what its residents are capable of.”
Since 2002, Early College has grown to serve more than 75,000 students in 28 states and the District of Columbia. It is an initiative of Jobs for the Future and is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Early College came to Waipahu High in 2012 with a single college course offered in the summer — more than 50 students were vying for only 30 seats. Today, more than 75 different classes are taught each year at Waipahu.
In spring 2018, Waipahu made state history when 12 Early College students completed associate degrees two weeks before graduating from high school. Dr. Mark Silliman, director of the Early College Program at Waipahu, called it a “big aha moment” that demonstrated that when students are given extraordinary challenges, they rise to extraordinary academic achievement.
Mark has spent his career as an instructor and administrator in two- and four-year colleges in New York and Hawaii. As he neared retirement, he saw the Early College Program as a way to open the doors of higher education to previously underserved populations.
Hawaii has the highest per capita rate of homelessness in the United States, with pockets of deep poverty spread throughout the islands. Early College provides free textbooks and tuition.
“It could change the face of poverty in our communities and provide them opportunities,” Mark said.
Early College courses are taught at Waipahu High by professors from Leeward Community College and the University of Hawaii-West Oahu. Leeward, home to the Alpha Lambda Gamma Chapter, invited many of the program’s high-achieving students, like Amber Viernes, who became the first Early College High School freshman to qualify for and join Phi Theta Kappa.
Amber, a first-generation college student, jumped into the Early College Program the summer before her freshman year of high school, in 2016. She took three additional college courses in the fall, qualifying for PTK membership in the spring of 2017.
Through Early College and dual enrollment, she skipped a grade and is now a 16-year-old high school senior taking courses at Leeward and majoring in creative media.
“Without (Early College’s) support, I wouldn’t have seen a future for myself as a part of the creative media field, nor would I have been able to figure out what I would like to major in,” Amber said. “I really enjoyed the coursework offered thus far, and I feel that my goals are closer, within reach.”
Amber saw the scholarships and opportunities offered through Phi Theta Kappa as a way to further her education. Mark recognized this motivation, and he watched his other students accomplish big things through PTK. One was Hawaii’s New Century Scholar; another received a full scholarship to a four-year college.
He began an annual meeting of honor society students from all Waipahu Complex schools — elementary, intermediary, and high school. Students complete a service project, and they divide into small groups so older kids can mentor the younger ones.
“You’re whetting their appetite to see the vision of what it means to be in PTK,” he said. “PTK means you’ve chosen your destiny, you’ve set a standard for yourself that mediocrity is just not acceptable. It’s so important — the earlier you can get to this at-risk population, the more likely they are to have success.”
Still, he did see some barriers to PTK membership: many of his low-income students couldn’t afford the cost, and they didn’t have transportation to Leeward Community College to attend meetings and other activities.
The high school initially paid the PTK induction fees for its students, but soon it couldn’t keep up with how many were joining. Mark wrote a grant for the Waipahu Community Foundation to cover the cost, and the 2018-19 academic year will be the second year they do so.
Chartering their own chapter at Waipahu High solved the transportation challenge. The new Beta Chi Omega Chapter means students can participate in PTK activities on their own campus. It also makes the honor society more visible to other students, which comes back to motivation.
“The honor society has armed and equipped me with another influential tool that I can use to inspire our young adults to reach for the stars and realize their full potential,” Mark said.
Mark is talking with administrators, teachers, and students throughout the Waipahu Complex elementary and intermediate schools about conducting workshops on Early College and Phi Theta Kappa. He said other Early College High Schools throughout the State of Hawaii may want to start their own chapters, so students are able to mentor each other.
When students come to his office and ask about PTK, he pulls a gold graduation stole out. He tells the student, “Let’s see if this fits,” then he puts it on their shoulders.
“You should see how their face lights up,” Mark said. “It’s really powerful. Can you imagine what would happen if we ignited this passion for everyone?