In a district where more students than not rely on free school lunches and seemingly insurmountable program cuts just keep coming, three teens have won the country's "gold standard" of scholarships.
Gates Millennium Scholars on Friday announced the selection of Hana High School seniors Cheyenne Kamalei Pico, Nina Mei Thorne and Hauoli Kahaleuahi.
The program, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and administered by the United Negro College Fund, picks 1,000 minority students annually to receive a "good-through-graduation scholarship" to use at any college or university of their choice. The months-long application process includes an educator's review of the student's academic record and an evaluation of the student's community service and leadership activities.
"I was so excited," Pico said, adding that she plans to use the scholarship to study medicine. "I won't have any debt. No student loans."
Pico said she has 10 days to decide which school she wants to attend. She has it down to the University of Washington or the University of Colordado-Boulder.
Aside from having to write eight essays and fulfill a host of other requirements, the scholarship's application process also included an open-ended question that simply asked why she should be chosen. In a word, Pico said, "hula."
"I wrote how it's shaped my character, becoming a strong-minded person, confident," she said.
A jubilant Tad Bartimus told Civil Beat Friday that the Gates Millennium scholarship is "huge." The award-winning journalist has worked with Hana students for the past nine years as a writing coach and mentor, helping them study for scholarships and apply to college.
"It's the gold standard of scholarships in the United States," she said. "It's potentially a 10-year free ride. You can walk out of medical school and not have spent any money of your own and have no debt."
Twenty-two students comprise Hana High's senior class. The entire K-12 school only enrolled some 350 students this year.
School officials believe this is the first time in the Millennium program's 13-year-old history that three winners have come from a single school of that size, Bartimus said.
"We think it's unprecedented," she said. "These are amazing kids. This is an amazing place. The Gates people get it. I can't tell you how grateful we are."
As small and isolated as the eastern Maui school may be, Pico, 18, Thorne, 18, and Kahaleuahi, 17, are not the first Gates Millennium scholarship winners.
"We've had three in the last five years, and Hawaii only ever gets six or seven or eight (each year) for the whole state," Bartimus said. "That includes Kamehameha, Mid-Pac and all the prestige schools."
The 2011 winner was Hana alum Miracle Helekahi. Kahaleuahi's sister, Lipoa, and brother, Tevi, are also Gates scholars.
Lipoa, a 2008 winner, graduated from UC Santa Barbara and now works with the Teach for America program on the Big Island. She's getting her master's degree simultaneously. Tevi, a 2010 winner, is a sophomore at Oregon State majoring in forestry.
Vicky Kahaleuahi, proud mother of three Gates Scholars, said she had been on the phone most of the morning with the other parents.
"We're all single moms and our kids got the scholarships," she said. "I had a little bit of doubt I could be blessed three times. It just means Hauoli will have the same opportunities her brother and sister had to go off to the college of her choice instead of being limited by financial burden. It's huge for us ... mind-boggling."
Pico, Thorne and Kalaheuahi have known each other since kindergarten. The trio saw what past winners had done with their scholarships, Vicky said, and set their minds to doing the same.
"They all worked together and shared the responsibility of pushing each other," she said.
Vicky, who has worked on a flower farm the past 14 years, said the scholarships help turn the students into "global-minded" people.
"There's so much more opportunity available out there on the Mainland, this just empowers them," she said. "It opens their world so much more. And that's, of course, what we mothers have always dreamed of for our kids." Hana has consistently had Gates Scholars, Bartimus said.
"There's a reason for that," she said. "Our kids are so smart, so worthy and they work so hard."
But the achievements are far from singular efforts, she said.
"It's an amazing village," Bartimus said. "The whole community takes pride in it. It's shooting through town like electricity."
Hana principal Rick Paul agreed.
"The coconut wireless is sparking right now through this little community," he said Friday afternoon. "It's exciting for everyone."
Paul has served as Hana's principal since 2004. Over the past eight years, he said he has seen a profound shift in how the community views education.
"This kind of thing can change a culture; it already has," he said, adding that his students used to rarely even talk about going to college. "We hope these kids come back and contribute to the community when they're finished with their education. It lets people know about the possibilities and what you can do."
The school's students have received thousands of dollars in scholarships in recent years. Paul gave special credit to Bartimus and guidance counselor Linda Gravatt.
The support — whether it's time, energy or money — that students receive from community members outside the classroom is particularly important in Hana due to the obstacles the district has to overcome internally.
"A real challenge for us is we get our funding on a per-pupil basis," Paul said. "We really don't have the students to generate the funding to provide the opportunities that most schools offer. We're bare bones."
Hana is one of the two poorest schools in the state, Bartimus said.
"We've been hammered by the weighted student formula because we're so isolated," she said. "But the more they cut us, the more determined we are, by God, to show them we have these great kids."
Like Pico, the other two Gates winners this year must decide soon what university they will attend. They could not be reached for comment by deadline Friday.
Thorne intends to major in international business at the University of Washington in Seattle, Bartimus said. Kahaleuahi's first choice is Washington State University, but she is also looking at two Colorado schools.
Vicky said her daughter has a volleyball game tonight, but after that she's thinking pizza and a "big group hug."