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Sammy Linebaugh ReportingHawaiian Leis were high fashion today at this weekend's annual Polynesian Festival, which took place at West Valley City's new Cultural Celebration Center. While there was plenty of partying, the purpose of the event highlights a serious concern among Utah's Pacific Island Community -- the high school drop-out rate among Polynesian youth.
The good news -- 20 local Polynesian students today received scholarship awards to help them pay for college. The bad news -- hundreds more each year in Utah drop out of high school. And parents and community leaders say it's a trend they're determined to change.
For Polynesian youth in Utah 'culture' can be a complicated word. It represents their homes and history, the heritage of their parents, but also the life they know here -- the expectations of peers, employers and teachers. The classroom, in particular, can be a confusing place.
Ellen Selu, President, Polynesian Association of Utah: "The students or the younger children do not really speak out and say what they want to say. They have this respect that we have in the Polynesian culture about being respectful to the elders."
Ellen Selu says that is one of many issues educators are looking at in addressing the drop out problem among Polynesian youth, which is near the highest within Utah's minority populations.
Gangs, says Salt Lake mayoral candidate Maloni Hola, are another top concern.
Maloni Hola, Salt Lake City Mayoral Candidate: “A Polynesian youth that gets introduced to a gang, it’s really hard to get out.”
Rozie Tonga, Aspiring Lawyer: “Some Polynesians are in gangs, but most of them aren’t.”
Still, these teens acknowledge the perception is there. And there are other factors, they say, keeping kids out of school.
Sina Vaka, Aspiring Doctor: “Like people are getting pregnant, or their families poor I guess. So they have to help out their family, work.”
Last spring, community leaders sponsored a dance on the University of Utah campus for Polynesian high school students from all over the valley in an effort to get more kids looking long term.
Maloni Hola: "The three things I tell them: I tell them get an education, be honest, and work hard."
With the new school year now just week away, many here hope the stay in school message is resonating with Utah's Polynesian youth. And that, likewise, educators and the broader community will embrace the diversity and richness of the Polynesian way.
Ellen Selu: "We are a loving people and we want to help each other out and be part of the community, as well as be part of ourselves and our families."
Part of the proceeds from this year's festival go into a kitty to help pay for future scholarship awards for Polynesian students.