Pacific Heritage Academy emphasizes heritage in order to succeed

Story and photo by JANICE ARCALAS

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Pacific Heritage Academy opened in 2013.

“Look for the things in common and celebrate the differences,” said Dirk Matthias, director of the Pacific Heritage Academy. The charter school in Salt Lake City guides its students to success by implementing heritage in their daily school life.

Matthias was the school designer for Pacific Heritage Academy. He was drawn to the vision of the school and to work in a diverse community. When there was an opening for the director’s position five years ago, he applied for it and got the position.

Most of the students at the Pacific Heritage Academy located at 1755 W. 1100 North come from demographic sub-groups who struggle in the public school system. The schools in Utah don’t have a role model for students of color, Matthias said. The school helps their students find their roots and wings. Once their students understand their roots, they can grow wings to fly. This means that when the students understand their heritage they can grow.

Kindergarten to eighth grade students are taught Hawaiian, Tongan, Samoan and Spanish heritage at the Pacific Heritage Academy. For nine weeks a student will learn a specific heritage each year till their seventh and eighth grade. Seventh and eighth grade students have the opportunity to choose a heritage, where they will learn more in-depth about the heritage and develop conversational skills. Students have a heritage learning class, where they will learn their target heritage. It will consist of learning the language and culture.

Sisi Muti teaches the Tongan heritage at the school. She said that the students, when learning the language, will learn the alphabet, body parts, days of the week, conversational phrases and action words. The students are also taught Tongan culture songs, dances and legends. Muti also said that the students’ favorite activities are storytelling, games, writing poetry and stories, and making a book about themselves in Tongan.

The students will learn about heritage in their heritage language class, Matthias said. Every Friday they have a community meeting, where they will sing heritage songs. The community meeting also contains a heritage festival every nine weeks. The festival contains a target heritage and they will do all heritages. In addition to the community meetings on Fridays, every morning the students’ day starts with a circle about how they are doing focusing on the Habits of Crew through a video or a reading. They will set a goal keeping the Habits of Crew in mind.

The Habits of Crew contain six elements: Courage, Compassion, Craftsmanship, Responsibility, Perseverance and Collaboration. These elements have a connection to Polynesian heritage. The Habits of Crew is also the narrative of the voyager, which is the school’s mascot.

“We are Voyagers like ancestors of old. We are strong, inventive, courageous, and filled with wonder. Sailing seas of knowledge, we seek understanding and use it with compassion. Looking forward, we honor the past to better see our future. We will find hope and success in spite of wind and change. With our eyes to the heavens, fixed on guiding lights, we know ourselves, our space, our time. We will seek, we will find, we will know new horizons. We are Mighty Voyagers!” This statement at the bottom of the PHA’s website recognizes the characteristics of a voyager and connects them to the school and student success.

The school is coming up on its fifth year and it is starting to see stability. In the beginning, there was a lot of student turnovers. There are over 400 students and it is difficult to see a student’s growth when they start in the middle. Now the school is able to see the students’ growth, who started at kindergarten, who are now in fifth grade, Matthias said.

The teaching staff is also stabilizing. The teachers who are coming to PHA are interested in teaching, the mission and vision of the school, Matthias said. The teachers take leadership in the school and have a lot of say about making decisions at the school.

Just as how their indigenous heritage community is, at the PHA, they don’t leave students behind, Matthias said. When they make mistakes or get into trouble they are there for the students to get back on their feet and work with them to succeed.

The Pacific Heritage Academy’s students succeed through learning about their heritage; roots, so that that they can fly.  For five years, the academy has implemented Tongan, Spanish, Samoan, Hawaiian heritage learning so that the students can see that not only white students can be protagonists in books, but children of color can also be too, Matthias said .

The website contains this quote on the front page. “Through thoughtful inquiry, challenging curricula, rigorous requirements, and compassionate service students learn who they are and what they can become. We create learning experiences and students find their Roots … and their Wings.”

Image courtesy of Nicole Aguirre and Siva Pasefika, a Polynesian dance company based in southern Utah that performs and teaches children and families about Pacific Islands dances and traditions.
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