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A head start on future careers: Kanu o ka Aina launches new Academy for high school students

February 28, 2017 - 1:10am

WAIMEA — Sixty Kanu o ka Aina students in grades 9-12 were introduced to a new program on Friday that will added to the 2017-2018 school year this fall.

Focusing on agriculture and health/wellness tracks under one academy, students will be able to explore these two pathways to identify ideal professions they want to pursue straight out of high school, college or beyond.

Mahina Duarte, head of school for Kanu o ka Aina Charter School Secondary Program, has been working on the project for nearly three years.

“We are building upon the strengths of our culturally grounded and integrated programs by strengthening our focus on college, career and community kuleana readiness through an academy model,” she said. “We had the idea when I first came on board to redesign our high schools because we were seeing a lot of students leaving after fifth or eighth grade. Two years ago we started our planning effort and invited a wide cast of committee members and industry leaders to help us start designing strategies around the jobs available here now and in the next 20-30 years. The vast majority will be in STEM jobs, and we, as a Blue Zones community, really celebrate health so we want to honor that.”

Dr. Diane Paloma, director of the Native Hawaiian Health Program at the Queen’s Health Systems on Oahu, plays a key role in the new program.

“I started coming to the Big Island several years ago to look at expanding our Native Hawaiian program. There’s a large concentration of Native Hawaiians in North Hawaii — the second largest in the state,” she said. “Then in January 2014, Queens acquired North Hawaii Community Hospital (NHCH). I knew Mahina had wanted to start a health academies track around the same time that HMSA brought Blue Zones Project to North Hawaii, so I thought it would be good to work together in broader collaborations and partnerships. Mahina invited me and others to do focus groups in the community at that time on what health meant to students, community members and to Waimea.”

Dr. Paloma also helped provide criteria that hospitals look for when wanting to hire new employees, or skill sets students need to compete in today’s biomedical sciences.

“We helped Mahina develop the health academy track based on this and created an educational pipeline for students to find a path that would enable them to pursue competitively for nursing, medical or pharmacy school,” she said. “I know most of the students who live and grow up here want to raise their families back in Waimea, so in order to do that we can provide opportunities for them to get into health sciences for multiple job opportunities we have at NHCH. That’s kind of the main purpose of this — to bring back students so that they can train the next generation and the next generation.”

The John A. Burns School of Medicine is also involved in the program and has provided community-based participatory research grants and cultural-based health curriculum to students and staff.

“To be able to help kids get into medical school will help with the present shortage of physicians and nurses at places like NHCH,” Dr. Paloma said. “A hospital is not going to solve health care alone. You need education, schools and Blue Zones Project for a collective effort.”

She plans to return to Waimea monthly for meetings at Kanu and to do lectures for students as needed.

During Friday morning’s activities, Dr. Paloma and Mele Look, director of community engagement for UH-Manoa’s Center for Native and Pacific Health Disparities Research within the Department of Native Hawaiian Health, led a health session with the students.

“Calculating their BMI with them is an educational tool at this stage so they can understand where they are in relevance to other kids their age,” Look said. “Most of them are doing fine, but it’s a good point to start increasing their awareness as an education tool for them to start reflecting about what they’re eating and the choices they’re starting to make.”

Dr. Gerard Akaka, who works monthly at the North Hawaii Wellness and Primary Care Clinic in the Hale Ola Pono building in Waimea, led another class that morning.

“When I can, I’ll bring him here to his share his story,” Dr. Paloma said. “He is a good example that even if you start off on one path, you can always finish in the health care profession.”

Within the agriculture and health/wellness tracks, students will learn science, entrepreneurship, research and communications skills. In agriculture, careers can range from agricultural engineers or managers to veterinarians, organic food producers, or positions in forestry or environmental sciences. In health and wellness, professions include state/federal sanitarians, health emergency response specialists, health communications specialists, public health educators, behavioral health program coordinators and nutritionists.

During their freshman year, students will research multiple career opportunities within a given industry. An adult-designed program will include workplace tours, introductions to leaders in the industry and various working conditions.

As sophomores, they will learn how their individual skills and interests could relate to a particular field or occupation through information interviews and job shadowing. Junior year, students will develop knowledge and skills to succeed in college and future careers, and build their own student-run virtual enterprise.

Their final year, career training will begin with hands-on training for employment or secondary education in a specific occupation. Students will develop a variety of skills through job training, clinical experiences and possible apprenticeships. The outcome will be knowledge and skills specific to their employment of choice.

“All Academy students will complete a minimum of 6 college credits, at least 40 career-focused internship hours and a senior project in which they will be required to present and defend their college, career and community kuleana plans to a panel of experts,” Duarte said.

In two years, she plans to launch another pathway in creative arts and media technology.

Info: Call Academy Coordinator Scot Plunkett at

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