As Pacific Islander absenteeism soars in OUSD, Oakland organization IKUNA finds ways to create belonging

To celebrate AAPI Heritage Month as part of our Numbers and Narratives: A Year In Review series, we bring you a spotlight on Taimani Lauti, a leader in the Oakland Pacific Islander community. 

“We wish we had more people who looked like us at our schools,” Pacific Islander families tell Taimani Lauti, an Oakland native, co-founder of IKUNA, education advocate, and first generation Polynesian. 

Oakland Native, Taimani Lauti

When Taimani’s family moved to Oakland in 1967 they were one of the first Pacific Islander families here. “My father was the Polynesian family connection in Oakland,” shared Taimani. “Every time a new Polynesian family moved to Oakland, they would somehow find their way to my father. He would help families enroll in school or find employment. Ever since then, people have looked to my family for leadership.”

Since then Taimani and his brothers have carried on their father’s tradition and leadership by founding IKUNA, which means “to overcome.” IKUNA seeks to elevate Pacific Islander youth in Oakland through education and experiences that will contribute to a more purposeful and meaningful life. 

“We’ve learned a lot about the lack of support (even before the pandemic) for Pacific Islander students in particular with K-5 and how far behind they are in relationship to peers,” said Taimani. ”87.5% of our Oakland Pacific Islander students are reading below grade level in 3rd grade.”

While there are around 600 Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students in Oakland district and charter public schools, because of the way the state aggregates data, nearly 75% of Pacific Islander kids in Oakland (and many other districts across the state) are largely made invisible by data limitations. With the limited data we do have, it’s clear that Oakland schools are severely undeserving Pacific Islander students. The statistics below show Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander students are the lowest performing ethnic group for which data is available pre-pandemic:

Taimani and his brothers are working to change those odds by partnering with OUSD on the FANANGA Literacy Project to combat literacy challenges in the Pacific Islander community with live Zoom reading sessions, reading and cultural storytelling, monthly check-ins, and more. “We are engaged with about 90 Pacific Islander students in K-5 that sign in for literacy work [during distance learning] and we get to measure how far along they’ve come,” explained Taimani.

 

Taimani (center) with his brothers, Sione Lauti (right), and Feke Lauti (left).

Yet, as with other underserved communities, the pandemic has brought unique challenges to the Pacific Islander community – chronic absenteeism, in particular, has soared for Pacific Islander kids. Even before the pandemic, Pacific Islander kids were 4 times more likely to be chronically absent than their white peers. Now, with the added barriers to attending school during distance learning, their chronic absence rates have nearly doubled, meaning they have the largest chronic absenteeism rate of any subgroup. More than one third of Pacific Islander students have been chronically absent this year. 

“This doesn’t surprise me,” says Taimani when reflecting on the chronic absenteeism data. “I know so many Pacific Islander students who have families that are self-employed as gardners, construction workers, taking care of elders. Students are doing this work with families to survive.”

“Other students have chromebooks, but still have connectivity issues for different reasons. Other families were not prepared to have a child at home during the day and are not able to support because they are not home. Many Pacific Islander students are with aunties or an elder that may not speak English.”

With IKUNA, Taimani and his brothers are finding unique ways to combat some of those challenges: We run a curriculum called Wayfinder by the Stanford School of Education using cultural traditions and practices from Pacific Islander culture to help our youth find purpose. It’s an identity affirming curriculum,” he shared. 

“For example, the students collect stories from their families. Stories that talk about family traditions, culture, and past achievements. These stories help students connect to their ancestors, making the past present. It helps to inspire and create belonging,” said Taimani.

The Wayfinder curriculum was influenced by the Polynesian Voyaging Society. Traditional wayfinding techniques are woven throughout the curriculum and delivered to help Pacific Islander students develop a sense of cultural identity, heritage and to connect to the history of their ancestors in a way that will draw them nearer to their indigenous roots. During the pandemic, IKUNA launched weekly Zoom Wayfinder Workshops for 9-12 grade students to discuss belonging, culture, and purpose.

The Pacific Islander community is full of rich traditions of the arts and storytelling that are so often not found in the public school system. “There needs to be Pacfiic Islander mentors, leaders at school, there must be cultural presence to have interaction,” says Taimani. 

IKUNA programs in action

Both the lack of data for Pacific Islander students and the lack of representation in the curriculum and teaching staff reinforces the “invisibility” of this vibrant Oakland community. It is the community that has the solutions that they are bringing to bear, like Taimani is with IKUNA. It’s these solutions that must be grown and supported. 

With over $300 million in COVID relief funds from the state and federal government, Oakland Unified has the opportunity to expand programming and support for its Pacific Islander students and community by investing in more partnerships with organizations like IKUNA.   

“I once went to a school to present about our literacy work and a young 3rd grader whispered in my ear, ‘My Tongan name is… they are not calling me by my right name, but I want you to,’” shared Taimani. I thought, ‘wow’ at such an early age this child is telling me, ‘We need to be here for belonging.’

I am deeply proud of and immensely grateful for the work Taimani and IKUNA are doing. This story is personal and close to my heart as a member of the AAPI community. As a Fijian-Indian storyteller, I so rarely saw myself reflected in school and the stories being told. My hope is to bring a sense of belonging through representation. Thank you for reading.

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