Star Bulletin All-Star Activities

Kalakaua Middle School seventh-graders Keion Hirashima and Tiare Kanahele used to go home after school and watch television or “do nothing.”

But ever since After-School All-Stars Hawaii started, they’ve spent three hours each day learning to cook and playing dodgeball while their classmates take ukulele and guitar lessons, or collaborate on writing and publishing a school newsletter.

In addition to a homework hour, students also can participate in business, science, jewelry making and slam poetry.

“It’s such a moldable time of the day,” said Nate Smith, a board member of The GIFT (Giving Inspiration For Tomorrow) Foundation, which granted After-School All-Stars $35,000 to get started. “What kids at this age could be doing from 2:30 to 5:30 if left to themselves, hanging around malls and parking lots. And for the dollar amount, the number of kids you’re affecting is huge.”

Launched in September at five middle schools on Oahu—Kalakaua, Dole, King Intermediate, Jarrett and Washington—After-School All-Stars is a nonprofit start-up with nearly 40 employees.

The programs, which run from 3 to 6 p.m. every day and are offered for free, are designed to deter children from gangs, drugs and violence by focusing on academic success and career exploration. As an added incentive, students with excellent behavior and perfect attendance who performed a service project were taken to a UH baseball game on Friday—a new experience for most of them.

“There’s really a need for this age group to have the opportunity to do something after school that keeps them busy, safe and productive, and makes their learning experience fun,” said Executive Director Dawn Matsuyama Dunbar, who left the corporate world to lead the Hawaii chapter of the national organization after visiting a similar program in South Central Los Angeles. “Rather than being home alone or on the streets, children should be involved in positive academic and recreational activities with caring adults and positive role models whose goal is to help them achieve their greatest potential.”

Inquiries from other middle schools—including some on neighbor islands—indicate potential for the program to expand. However, opening five schools rather than the typical one or two in a chapter was a particularly ambitious undertaking, Dunbar noted.

But the demand is there.

“I really think there should be more programs that offer kids something to do that is meaningful and enriching, and that allow them to have a place to go and to find community and activity after school,” said Maya Soetoro-Ng, President Barack Obama’s sister and an After-School All-Stars board member who toured Kalakaua Middle School’s activities last week carrying her 1-year-old daughter in her arms. “Obviously, in many neighborhoods in Hawaii, it is a problem that kids get out of school before their parents get out of work.”

In a music class, teacher John Takeuchi’s raised hand yielded silence in the room. A few dozen students, ukuleles and guitars perched on their laps, waited for his command. “Are you ready?” he asked.

The group responded, “Yes, sir!” Ambitious and recognizable playing and singing flooded the room. Afterward, Soetoro-Ng told the students how fortunate they were to be able to express their problems and emotions through music. “And the more skills you have, the more power you have to do that,” she said.

In the bustling kitchen atmosphere of Kalakaua Grinds, a cooking class, budding chefs shared smoothies and chocolate chip cookies they had baked. But they also called upon marketing and math skills for an upcoming “Kitchen Queens vs. Cooking Kings” competition, in which they will design and promote menus and cook and sell the food. Final sales will determine which gender is more successful.

In a journalism class called Web Worms, students gathered with reporter’s notebooks in hand to ask Soetoro-Ng about her life and world travels, jotting notes for the next feature story in their monthly school newsletter.

At one point, Soetoro-Ng looked over the newsletter and lingered on the advice column, written by 11-year-old Karla Sison. “Can I call you for advice?” Soetoro-Ng asked.

Sison considered the request and said carefully, “Maybe.”

Soetoro-Ng also discussed her children’s book that will be published next year and urged the small group to pursue their dreams. “Everybody has an important book in them, so I hope you continue to write,” she said.

Walking past a protected patch of dirt slated to become a garden for the students to tend, Soetoro-Ng suggested a peace theme. While teaching at La Pietra Hawaii School for Girls, she helped with a similar project. Gardens, she explained, can become sanctuaries to grow not only flowers but trust. This can increase the chance that kids will take care of the Earth and later engage in sustainable gardening practices themselves.

Along the way, poetry, art, math and other aspects of the curriculum can be incorporated into the endeavor. Activities like these, slashed in the wake of budget cuts, now resurrected in a new format at Kalakaua Middle School, are, she said, “really important to our development as human beings.”

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