#RethinkSchool: From Language Skills to STEM to Industrial Training, Preparing AAPI Students for the Next Step

I remember the excitement of going back to school after the long, hot summers in Texas where I grew up. Preparing for the first day back to school meant getting the book bag ready with new school supplies, selecting an outfit and thinking about all the familiar and new faces I would be seeing. That was a generation ago. Although the students going back to school now prepare in a similar way, they (and their parents and guardians) have a whole host of other things on their minds – school safety, being selected in special programs, college readiness and how to prepare for the workforce needs of the future.

For this week’s back-to-school tour, I visited six unique schools in the western part of the country to address how schools are rethinking the education that students receive, including how Asian American and Pacific Islander students’ needs are addressed.

Students in an advanced math class at Coral Academy of Sciences in Las Vegas, NV.

We kicked off the tour with a visit to Coral Academy of Sciences, a K-12 charter school, in Las Vegas, Nevada.  Coral Academy of Sciences opened its doors in 2007 with one campus. Today, there are six campuses throughout the Las Vegas and Henderson areas emphasizing math, science and technology. We were greeted by Executive Director Ercan Aydogdu and Principal Yolanda Flores at the Sandy Ridge campus and a “robotic” welcome by students. We learned about the academy’s history, growth and how it is preparing students for STEM-related fields and careers. Over a quarter of the students are Asian American, Native Hawaiian, or Pacific Islander – all highly engaged and proud to showcase their work during our visit.

Visited with Native Hawaiian students along with Stacey “Dallas” Johnston with the NV Department of Education and Cimarron-Memorial High School Principal Lori Sarabyn in Las Vegas, NV.

We also visited Cimarron-Memorial High School in Las Vegas, a school with a 2% Native Hawaiian student population. Clark County has seen a large volume of Native Hawaiians migrating from Hawaii with opportunities for employment, improved education and lower costs of living. Principal Lori Sarabyn provided a briefing of the high school and its programs. We toured the vast campus, making note of the diverse student population, including Native Hawaiian amongst the sea of students. Two percent is a small population for any school, however, when less than 10% of the population in Hawaii identify themselves as native, then 2% is a substantial volume outside of the islands, including within a school. A roundtable discussion was held with faculty and students sharing how the student-centered programs at Cimarron-Memorial will prepare them for what’s next after high school.

A third grade class learning math at Rose City Park Elementary in Portland, OR

From Nevada, we visited schools in Oregon – ranging from an elementary school with a specialized language immersion program to a technical high school that partners with community colleges to build a pipeline of skills for the future professional. Our visit to Rose City Park Elementary School in Portland was a treat, seeing eager and enthusiastic K-5 students engaged in classroom activities and excited about visitors to their school. Rose City Park Elementary School recently re-opened and is one of a handful of public schools across the country that offers a Vietnamese language immersion program. Clackamas County has seen an increase of Asian Americans moving into the area, especially Vietnamese Americans where the children are native speakers. A program such as the one offered at Rose City Park Elementary School allows the young students to formally speak, read and write in Vietnamese while they continue to develop  English proficiency. The individualized and personalized learning experience at this elementary school is addressing students’ needs to help them succeed.

Executive Director Holly Ham and RN National Co-Chair Ben Raju with senior administrators at Sabin-Schellenberg school in North Clackamus County in Oregon.

We also visited Sabin-Schellenberg Professional Technical Center of North Clackamas Schools in Milwaukie, Oregon. Sabin-Schellenberg is a public specialized high school that is educating America’s future with career and technical programs with hands-on, performance-based learning where students earn high school and college credits simultaneously. Students choose an education pathway – agriculture and food, industrial and engineering systems, health services, business and management, digital design, or technology – that can lead to success in high school, college, and their chosen professional career. Although students have not returned to school based on the quarter system, we toured the South Campus and met with Asian American students. These young students shared their experiences as they learn about health services, computer science, and education.

One of the key technical programs at Mt. Hood Community College is the Machine Tool Technology Program.

One of the community colleges that the Sabin-Schellenberg Professional Technical Center partners with is Mt. Hood Community College in Gresham, Oregon. At Mt. Hood, students can earn degrees and certificates in 19 different fields. Similar to Sabin-Schellenberg, the college is on a quarter system so it was quiet around the campus when we visited. A group of Asian American and Native Hawaiian students shared their incoming experience from various parts of the country to Mt. Hood Community College, highlighting the college’s Diversity Center’s focus on helping students adapt and engage. Faculty and staff from the machine tool technology, automotive technology and shield metal welding programs provided a tour of their classrooms and training facilities, highlighting state of the art equipment used in today’s real world workplaces. Preparing the student of today for near future careers is a primary focus of the schools we visited in Oregon.

Executive Director Holly Ham and Senior Advisor Debra Suarez, Ph.D. with
Rosie Rimando-Chareunsap, Ed.D, President of South Seattle College and the AANAPISI Center team in Seattle, WA

We concluded our weeklong back-to-school tour at South Seattle Community College in Seattle, Washington. Chancellor Shouan Pan and President Rosie Rimando-Chareunsap greeted us, a rare site to have Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders as top officials at an institution of higher education. Since coming on board in 2016, Chancellor Pan has been laser-focused on making Seattle Colleges the most transformative and the most relevant community college system in the country. Seattle Colleges is a flagship community college district in the state of Washington, and Dr. Pan’s goal is to provide excellent, accessible educational opportunities to prepare students for a challenging future. We toured the AANAPISI Center where they showcased programs that serve AAPI students at South Seattle Community College and facilities that provide a welcoming and supportive environment every day. At the college’s Georgetown Campus, we toured an apprenticeship program of cement masons in session. The hands-on skills that students learn coupled with critical thinking, problem solving and teaming skills will prepare these students well for their professional lives.

The leaders at the schools and programs we saw this week have been rethinking how they educate and serve our students. From language skills to industrial training, students at the schools that our team visited this week will be better prepared for the next steps in their education or vocation.


Holly Ham is the Executive Director of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

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Note: This is a post in our #RethinkSchool series. The series features innovative schools and stories from students, parents and educators highlighting efforts across the United States to rethink school. The #RethinkSchool series presents examples of approaches schools, educators, families and others are using to rethink school in their individual and unique circumstances. Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. The Department of Education does not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.