SF’s Pacific Islander community calls for additional resources

Fried chicken and Hawaiian sweet rolls were on the menu at a family gathering on a recent Tuesday evening at John McLaren School.

The dinner is a weekly tradition that precedes a two-hour family “Strengthening Families” class at the Samoan Community Development Center, a nonprofit serving San Francisco’s Pacific Islander community that operates out of the school at 2055 Sunnydale Ave.

“Most of our families, they don’t get to eat together. We are giving them a day where they can all come together, eat and talk about how everybody’s week is going,” said Tino Felise, a caseworker and health educator with the center.

Felise is one of two instructors leading the class that aims to bridge gaps between parents and youth by facilitating group activities and conversations meant to build trust, respect and collaboration.

“In our culture, it’s the parents, the elders, the aunts and uncles, who have the last word,” Felise said. “Where before, it’s the parents talking at the children, here they are talking with the children, and now it’s a conversation.”

Pacific Islander refers to people with roots in Hawaii, Samoa, Guam and other Pacific Islands.

For Felise and about a dozen other SCDC staff members, providing a safe space that supports their community with services that are culturally nuanced and language sensitive is critical in uplifting one of The City’s historically underserved communities.

The San Francisco Health Improvement Partnership estimates that 0.42 percent of San Francisco’s population — 3,693 people — identify as native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander.

Members gather in small groups during an evening at the Samoan Community Development Center. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

For 26 years, the Samoan community center has been one of the few service providers focused on offering economic, academic and social support to Pacific Islander youth, seniors and families living in San Francisco, servicing some 400 to 500 people annually.

For more than half its life, the nonprofit has operated out of just two classrooms at John McLaren School, which it leases from the San Francisco Unified School District.

But staff said it has long outgrown those facilities.

On Sept. 26, more than a dozen of the community center’s staff and supporters flooded a Board of Education hearing to ask for a partnership with the district that includes access to more space at the school — and potentially buying the building from the school district.

“The ask is to be able to see how we can get this building to be ours,” said Patsy Tito, SCDC’s executive director.

SFUSD spokesperson Gentle Blythe said many nonprofits use SFUSD facilities and that, besides SCDC, “other organizations can rent the site through the district’s facility use permit process.”

The Samoan community center currently shares the school building with several SFUSD departments, and its expansion “depends on the district’s needs and its future plans for the site,” Blythe said. Per California Education Code and SFUSD board policy, the use of school property is “primarily for public school-related purposes,” she said.

Last month, Pacific Islander leaders also pressed the school board to prioritize addressing issues affecting their community’s youth, like poor academic performance and a lack of college preparedness.

According to 2015 data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau, 88.8 percent of Pacific Islanders nationwide received a high school degree or higher, but just 21.5 percent received a Bachelor’s degree or higher.

“It’s a cultural thing. For us, it’s you graduate, you go to work,” said Bayview resident Liai Aukuso-Gut, who identifies as Samoan. “Now, it’s different. I want my children to have more than we had.”

Tito said SCDC’s need for more space was raised with the district’s previous superintendent, Richard Carranza, but has “laid there since.” Now, The City’s increasing unaffordability and a growing need for services within the Pacific Islander community has pushed SCDC’s leadership to mobilize around claiming a physical space as their own.

“We never really asked for anything unless it was broken,” Tito said. “Now, with all the redevelopment happening in Sunnydale and all over The City, it feels like we have to do something. We need to start talking, start claiming what it is that we need.”

Murals are seen outside the Samoan Community Development Center, located at John McLaren School, in the Sunnydale neighborhood. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

The center has long supplemented the school district by serving Pacific Islander students at schools throughout The City with a variety of programs, including “PI” clubs facilitated by caseworkers, on-site conflict mediation and one-on-one support and an afterschool program for elementary school students at John McLaren School.

On a good day, the afterschool program draws some 45 participants, said Felise — far exceeding the capacity of SCDC’s multipurpose room. During its summer program, that number is closer to 100, forcing the center to pay for additional rooms in the school, according to Tito.

The center’s members hope to make room for a larger vision of bringing the Pacific Islander Collaborative — a network of some eight organizations that includes SCDC — under one roof.

“At some point, we would want all of our organizations to be in one building so that we can provide the services to our community,” Tito said. “We all have our different strengths in the work that we do.”

The group has found allies on the Board of Education.

Similar to his community in the Bayview, Commissioner Stevon Cook said the “Polynesian community in general has been under-resourced and overlooked.”

“They have a lot of the same challenges that the black community has. What we see are high dropout rates, poor health outcomes and low achievement outcomes,” Cook said.

Blythe said that just 539 students who identified as Pacific Islander were enrolled in kindergarten through 12th grades in the 2016-17 school year, which amounts to less than 1 percent of the district’s 55,613 students.

According to Cook, the district has been grappling with tracking the education outcomes of Pacific Islander students.

“They get grouped in with the larger Asian community, and their needs are so acute — it’s a disservice to them,” Cook said. “The school district knows of some of the disparities, but we have yet to initiate that type of intentional focus, similar to what we have in the African-American Achievement and Leadership Initiative, we need something like that for [the] Polynesian community.”

Income data collected by the API Council, a citywide coalition of organizations that advocate for Asian and Pacific Islander equity, shows that Pacific Islander households in Visitacion Valley make an average annual income of $23,063, while those living in Bayview-Hunters Point earn an annual income of around $12,515.

In contrast to high poverty rates, college attainment rates among Pacific Islanders have been historically low.

“PI’s are graduating but college-ready-wise, that number is so low,” said Faauuga Moliga Puletasi, a behavioral health clinician with the Department of Public Health and the director of the Oceana Sunrise Initiative, which aims to close the achievement gap among Pacific Islanders in San Francisco, San Mateo and Alameda.

Within the last three school years, college readiness among Pacific Islander SFUSD students hovered at 24 percent and “ [community] college-wise, in the state, they have they the highest dropout rate,” he said.

At last month’s board hearing, Moliga Puletasi pointed out that Pacific Islanders are underrepresented not only on college campuses but also in The City’s workforce as “teachers, counselors, principals, social workers and board members.”

This year, the school district has recruited several Pacific Islander teachers, including three at Balboa High School, according to Moliga Puletasi.

“There’s not a lot of us out here doing that kind of work,” he said, adding that space is a factor in tackling these disparities. “Even within the schools, Pacific Islanders need space. Without the space [to do this work], it’s going to be difficult.”

Members share a family dinner during an evening at the Samoan Community Development Center, which offers economic, academic and social support to Samoan residents. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

While some schools already have Pacific Islander representation — Pacific Islander staff run an excel program at Bret Harte Elementary School, and Martin Luther King Jr. Academic Middle School houses Fa’atasi, a nonprofit that supports Pacific Islander youth development — the school district “needs an intentional plan to address the achievement gap amongst Pacific Islanders,” Moliga Puletasi said.

At SCDC, staff often act as the gateway between parents and their children, as well as between families and school administrators.

“We check on the grades, making sure [our] freshman and sophomores are on track. We talk to the counselors to see if they need extra support,” Felise said.

Language and economic barriers sometimes prevent parents from being as deeply involved in their children’s education as may be necessary, he said.

“You got conflicting schedules, parents working two jobs, and some parents are not available for extracurricular activities after work,” Felise said, adding that families in his community spend an average of four hours per week together.

Bayview resident Beke Lepolo is a single mother of four. Often working 12-hour shifts to support her family, Lepolo said she has learned how to make the time to also support her children academically and emotionally, through classes at SCDC.

When her daughter was the victim of bullying at her high school, SCDC staff helped mother and daugher open the lines of communication.

“This program has taught me to call family meetings, the positive way,” Lepolo said. “We are here because we love our kids. There’s a lot of single mamas in this community. Being here makes me feel like I am not the only one.”

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