Engaging students and making learning relevant is an issue all educators reflect upon. As one of the higher performing high schools in Hawaii, we could have easily rested on our laurels. Over the last five years, the Roosevelt Rough Riders have consistently ranked in the top five public high schools in Hawaii for reading and math achievement scores. This ranking could suggest that all of our students were performing well academically.

A deeper dive into other relevant school data, however, revealed that we were lacking in some areas. More specifically, we identified a group of 28 upperclass students who were short on credits or categorized as being chronically absent—missing more than 15 days of school. If they continued on their path, it was pretty likely that they wouldn’t graduate with a high school diploma. We needed to act fast. 

Kaliopeku students working on a scale size model of a traditional Hawaiian house known as a hale. Photo: S. Wong

Cultural Project-Based Learning

A partnership with a community organization opened the doors for us to provide a class to support our targeted group of students. We named the class Kaliopeku, a Hawaiian term which literally means “rough rider.” The teaching approach for Kaliopeku needed to be different and innovative in order to reach our targeted group of students. After meeting with our school team and a Hawaiian cultural expert, we committed to Cultural Project-Based Learning (CPBL) as a teaching methodology to inspire, engage, and empower our students. Two of our teachers collaborated with the cultural expert to deliver innovative instruction to the Kaliopeku class.

Throughout the year, our students were immersed in various hands-on CPBL activities to connect them more closely to the Hawaiian culture. Students learned and practiced traditional Hawaiian protocol, chants, and methodologies. During the first semester, students made traditional Hawaiian hand tools and harvested their own kapa
(mulberry) bark in the forest to pound their own cloth from the kapa. The major projects for the second semester included students making their own ukulele, collaborating with a professional musician to write their own songs, and constructing a life size hale (traditional Hawaiian home) in the community.

Students constructing a life-size hale in the community. Photo: L. Hamel

Completed hale on display at the Mission House Museum in Honolulu. Photo: L. Hamel


A culminating ho`ike (presentation) of our Kaliopeku program was held at the end of the school year with `ohana (family and friends), our faculty, and members of the community. The students showcased their understanding of Hawaiian culture through singing, dancing, and sharing a presentation of what they had learned.

Our Kaliopeku students showed significant improvements. Of the 28 students enrolled in the class, 26 improved their daily attendance rate compared to the previous school year, with 21 of them no longer chronically absent. In addition, all students earned credit for the class, and 15 of the seniors graduated on time with a high school diploma. The greatest difference was seeing the growth of the students’ sense of belonging, self-confidence, and knowledge and pride of the Hawaiian culture.

Through our Kaliopeku program, we were able to reach out to our targeted students, who needed a helping spark of inspiration, engagement, and a feeling of belonging. By using a hands-on approach and helping our students connect deeply with their culture, we were able to provide our students with the opportunity for success.

We will continue to reflect, analyze our data, and reach out to all our students by creating and providing programs and projects to meet their specific needs. It is our mission to make learning relevant for allstudents and give them a sense of belonging. 

While it is with pride and honor that we have been ranked amongst the top high schools in Hawaii, it is with even greater pride that we provide opportunities for all students to be successful and not only celebrate the majority of our well-performing students.

Regardless of achievement rankings, all schools must continue to reach out and embrace diverse groups of learners by providing opportunities of success for all.

Sean Wong is principal of Roosevelt High School in Honolulu, HI. He is a Rough Rider alumnus and has served as the school’s principal for four years. He is the 2018 Hawaii Secondary Principal of the Year. Follow him on Twitter at @RoughRidersRHS.

About the Author

Sean Wong is principal of Roosevelt High School in Honolulu, HI. He is a Rough Rider alumnus and has served as the school’s principal for four years. He is the 2018 Hawaii Secondary Principal of the Year. Follow him on Twitter at @RoughRidersRHS.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *