Students take part in a regatta of hydroplanes that they built. Adrian Tauai, third from left, built and raced the winning hydroplane in the second race of the day.

The race to success

A pilot program at Waipahu High
is giving troubled kids a good
reason to come to school

By Susan Essoyan

Adrian Tauai, 16, used to get so bored in math class that he'd "throw the book away and find one reason to get thrown out of class."

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Why teaching and learning at Hawaii's public schools can be more difficult than it should be.

His classmate at Waipahu High School, Crystal Cagata, kept "beefing" with the boys. Remo Williams, 15, got himself expelled a year ago for fighting with his teacher.

This year, all three students say they actually look forward to school, thanks to a magnetic new teacher at Waipahu High who specializes in turning around troubled teenagers. His name is Ha Hasan and his formula is building model hydroplanes.

"I have a temper, but I don't use it no more," said Williams, shrugging his broad shoulders. "I just try to focus on school right now. He's made me want to come to school, to strive for something."

Working from scratch with everyday materials like foam board and empty shampoo bottles, students in Hasan's class designed and created their own rocket-powered hydroplanes, 2-foot-long boats that skim over the water's surface on a cushion of air. Along the way, the 12 teenagers are learning math, science, hydrodynamics and aerodynamics.

Some of them are also discovering, for the first time, how it feels to succeed. Assigned to special education because of emotional and behavioral problems, they now find themselves the envy of the regular education kids.

"Everybody wants to be in this class," Cagata said with a knowing smile, her dark eyes sparkling.

At the recent Waipahu Cup Regatta, earsplitting hisses and blasts of smoke filled the air as competing craft raced along a 70-foot moat dug in the grass outside the classroom. The crowd erupted in cheers when Williams' boat pulled ahead of "Mr. Ha's" sleek model. The teenager's face lit up with joy as his teacher called out: "I got smoked!"

Boat builders and racers line up for races at the Waipahu Cup Regatta.

While the other students had been testing and refining their boats for months, Williams had no idea how his would perform. Expelled a year ago, the sophomore had been allowed back on campus just a month earlier, and rushed to complete his boat in time for the race.

"My boat did wonders for me," he said at the end of the heat, modestly adjusting his knit cap. "I've still got butterflies."

It was a rare moment in the limelight for someone whose young life has been streaked with anguish. Not only was he kicked out of school last February, but he was thrown out of his own home. He now lives in shelter provided by the Lighthouse church in Waipahu, he said.

"I'm trying to fix my life," he said. "I was hanging out with the wrong people. I used to drink, smoke, do weed. ... I'd like to thank our principal for letting us do this project. I'm honored to be in Mr. Ha's class."

Hasan, a former crew member on real hydroplanes, spent 10 years teaching in the Seattle school system. There he focused on "the real tough kids," gang members and juvenile delinquents, as early as elementary school. He went on to become an education professor at Eastern Michigan University, but missed the hands-on work with students.

When he was recruited away from his university job to come to Waipahu last fall, EMU's president gave him a two-year academic leave and predicted he'd be back in two weeks.

"Those two weeks are long gone," Hasan said with a grin, his safety mask pushed up into his curls. "I'm not going back."

"I wanted to do something that I felt was really worthwhile," he added. "I'm loving it."

Hasan's students, a combined class of freshmen through juniors, wouldn't have it any other way. "Mr. Ha, he's a good man, he's cool," said Tauai, a junior whose boat wound up the regatta champion. "I always used to cut out of school last year. This is my first time getting all A's."

Hasan, who has visited Hawaii for years, used to go by his initials, H.A., but was given the name "Ha" by a Hawaiian elder. It means "breath of life." People who know him find the name apt.

"He's energetic, always happy, it's almost unreal," Williams said. "He enjoys life to the fullest. That's my motto now, too...

Crystal Cagata gets her boat "Be True to America" ready for the first heat of the Waipahu Cup Regatta.

"He's cool with you no matter what, as long as you try your best, as long as you don't swear. He wants us not only to do our work but show each other respect."

Behavior management is part of the lesson plan. Whenever anyone swears, for example, Hasan takes a marble out of the classroom poi bowl. Depending on the number of marbles left at the end of the week, the class celebrates with a potluck or even a field trip.

The students backtrack sometimes and fall into old patterns, Hasan said, but "we rebuild." Hasan recalled asking one recalcitrant student early in the school year, "What do I have to do to get you to follow instructions?"

"Just yell at me," the young man replied. Hasan told him he didn't want to resort to that. "We work a lot on throwing off the old ways," the teacher explained, "and accepting a more civilized approach."

Hasan is collaborating with Orlan Underwood, a special education English teacher at Waipahu, on the hydroplane project. Underwood had students write graphic descriptions of what their boats would look like before they were even built, then saw how well they matched up with reality. They had to write summaries of how boats travel in wind tunnels, and predict how theirs would perform.

The two teachers are documenting the hydroplane project as a possible pilot program for other public schools, videotaping it and keeping track of variables such as school attendance, behavior referrals and suspensions, as well as scores on curriculum content. They have already made presentations to teachers on Oahu and Kauai.

Waipahu Principal Patricia Pedersen said the project holds a lot of promise in that it integrates academics -- from geometry to English -- in a way that engages teenagers. Students in the class now throw around words like "template," "sponson" and "cowling" as easily as they once let loose with swear words. And they have a sense of accomplishment.

"They realize they have the ability to build something from complete scratch," she said. "It was true discovery from day one. What it's done to motivate the students is remarkable."

While the hydroplane project doesn't work for every student, said David Yamamoto, another special education teacher at Waipahu, "the ones that it works for, it really works."

"The kids have taken giant steps," Yamamoto said. "Crystal has really blossomed this year. She was a very tough girl, with a lot of anger. She doesn't even have a bit of that now. This is a really different Crystal."

"Mr. Hasan is very, very inspirational," Yamamoto added. "His attitude is infectious."

At the regatta, Cagata zigzagged among her classmates, most of whom are a foot taller than she is, offering them pats on the back and words of encouragement. When the trophies were handed out, she was named the team's Most Valuable Player.

The class will soon start on the next stage of their project, building more sophisticated hydroplanes from balsa wood, with gas engines and remote control units. They also have hopes of eventually getting their hands on a real hydroplane, owned by Jody Patten, a racing professional from Saskatchewan, Canada, who served as referee for the Waipahu regatta.

Cagata already knows what she wants to do next year, her senior year at Waipahu. She's signed on as a teacher's aide for "Mr. Ha."

"He's changed my life," she explained simply.

To learn more about the program or help sponsor the hydroplane project with materials or a donation, call Ha Hasan or Orlan Underwood at 675-0222.

E-mail to City Desk


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