After 25 Years of Success, INPEACE Expands Its Mission

The numbers say that in the 25 years since INPEACE started providing educational opportunities on the Waiʻanae coast, the organization has had a remarkable impact.

Like a 100% high school graduation rate for kids who the organization has served and tracked through their Keiki Steps program. And two-thirds of those students attending college.

But the secret to INPEACE’s success is that they don’t focus on numbers like these — they focus on relationships.

Teach The Kids, Support The Parents

Nearly all Keiki Steps teachers are hired from within the communities they serve. The reason is simple, says INPEACE CEO Maile Keli‘ipio-Acoba.

“They understand the kids. When they look at those kids, they can see the dreams. They can understand the issues. They can relate to the families.”

And those family relationships are what makes Keiki Steps so effective.

“From the outside, it looks like we have a preschool program,” says Keli‘ipio-Acoba. “But the foundational goal is helping parents to be their child’s first and best teacher, and have the confidence to advocate for and support their child all the way through their academic career.”

The program arose from a community need. A preschool-aged boy in Nānākuli was ready for school — he’d even sling on a backpack every morning. But there wasn’t a local educational program for him to attend.

The boy’s mom, Michelle Mahuka, began asking around and connected with INPEACE, and Keiki Steps was born. They started under a tree at Nānākuli Elementary, and invited other mothers to come.

michelle mahuka inpeace

Michelle Mahuka, who helped start Keiki Steps, is a program manager at INPEACE.

Twenty years later, the program has expanded to Kauaʻi, Hilo, Molokaʻi, and down the Coast to Kapolei. Twenty years later the organization has expanded to Kauai, Hilo, Molokai and down the Coast to Kapolei Classes run from August through May, from 8:30-11:30 am, Monday through Thursday. (If you’re interested in registering, use this link).

The Keiki Steps curriculum is tailored to each community.

“For a native Hawaiian population, place is really important,” says Keli‘ipio-Acoba. “We go on field trips to places that they haven’t been, that their families don’t typically go to, and we expose them to those places and those spaces.

“Understanding who you are and where you’re from and what the place names mean and why it’s relevant to your family or to your community is really important.”

Even Harvard Researchers Are Impressed

Last month, a group of early childhood education experts from Brazelton Touchpoints Center, which is part of Harvard Medical School, visited the west side to assess the Keiki Steps program.

Joanne Roberts, a Senior Project Director, was among the observers who made the 5,000-mile trip from Boston.

“I’ve literally been in thousands of programs and worked with thousands of teachers,” Roberts said. “I’m so impressed with how good Keiki Steps teachers are. How to soothe children, focus children, I’ve been so impressed with their skill level. It’s really exceptional. And not only at working with children but working with families.”

Roberts related one story from her observations.

“There was a two-year-old girl who was very active. At one point the child started to run off. The mother went over to her and started to say something like, ‘You need to stay here.’ And then she stopped herself and refocused the child on an activity. It was more like: ‘Oh look at this, look at this choice,’ which is a lot more interesting than just ‘Come back over here.'”

“That’s exactly what the teacher was doing when playing with her. As she would get restless, she would refocus her on something else. Then you see the parent really changing how she was interacting with her own child. That was really wonderful to see.

“I do a lot of training, and I thought, ‘I wish I had a video of that.'”

The Harvard researchers are developing a report that will assess the overall efficacy of the INPEACE approach to childhood education and parental support. Through a grant, INPEACE is funding the project, hopefully laying the groundwork for other communities to launch their own version of Keiki Steps.

Maile Keliipio-Acoba

INPEACE CEO Maile Keli‘ipio-Acoba (walking in foreground).

“We feel like it’s our kuleana to share that with other indigenous populations, native Hawaiian and native American and Pacific Island populations,” says Keli‘ipio-Acoba.

How INPEACE Trains Exceptional Teachers

Keiki Steps teachers often are Keiki Steps parents first. INPEACE identifies local parents with the skills to become teachers, and supports them along that path, all the way through college.

“The majority of the community isn’t looking at college because they don’t see college as an option,” says Keli‘ipio-Acoba. “But the skills that people have, they could absolutely succeed in college if they had the opportunities. So, we look at the skills and we’ll hire them.”

These prospective teachers typically start as teacher aides, then go to school to get child development credentials. INPEACE supports them, providing coaching so they can improve both as teachers and students. When a teaching position opens, they can be hired even if they are still working towards their associate’s degree.

“We create in our organization an environment that really encourages people to go back to school,” says Keli‘ipio-Acoba. “Many of our positions in our other programs are the same where we will hire somebody and mentor them up and encourage them to go back to school, help them to find scholarships and financial aids to support them through school.

“Once people get their degree, if they decide that they’re going to go out and work somewhere else, that’s okay,” she says. “Because it’s one more person that we’ve helped to increase their credentials to be able to contribute to their community — and we can take one more person in.”

The organization’s employees are nearly all from the communities they serve. Keli‘ipio-Acoba, for example, is a native of Mā‘ili.

All of this suggests that INPEACE is much more than just an educational program. By supporting so many people in the community to further their education and develop their professional skills, they are actually more of a community development organization.

And that’s exactly where Keli‘ipio-Acoba thinks the organization is headed for the next 25 years.

INPEACE’s Next 25 Years: Building Communities

While INPEACE’s education programs are well-known, their community development successes haven’t gotten as much attention. Keli‘ipio-Acoba aims to change that.

Ho’oulu Waiwai Financial Capabilities and Business Development

One new community development effort is the 2Gen Secure Families Project. The program helps parents start or grow a small business, through training, mentorship, and financial support.

The program helps with business fundamentals like business planning and financial literacy, but also has a matching funds program that can provide up to $2,000 in business startup costs.

“We have helped over 70 businesses get started, and now we’re moving into looking at establishing a business incubator,” says Keli‘ipio-Acoba. “Those businesses that we help get started, we’re not just leaving them — we’re helping them to get the resources they need to continue to grow and to continue to remain stable.”

Indigenous-Based Science Center

For two years, INPEACE staffers have been working with an advisory committee including experts from the University of Hawaiʻi, Kamehameha Schools, and Lili’uokalani Trust to develop a pop-up science education center.

“Our kids don’t realize that they’re scientists,” says Keli‘ipio-Acoba. At least they don’t show it on tests.

West side students have some of the worst science-proficiency test scores in the state, with some schools scoring as low as 7%. Keli‘ipio-Acoba thinks students just need to be shown to think of science in a culturally-based way.

“What if they knew that when they grabbed their surfboard and they’re figuring out which wave to catch, that it’s all science? What if they knew that their kupuna were these brilliant scientists that traveled across miles of open ocean, and they didn’t get lost? That’s all science,” she says.

“It really is science. There’s a science in our DNA. But native Hawaiian kids hear the word, don’t automatically say, ‘Oh, yeah. We know science.'”

Sometime next summer, look for the pop-up in Waiʻanae and Kapolei. It will a place with hands-on exhibits for parents and keiki. The goal is to locate it in places with lots of foot traffic so people can just come and interact with it.

Looking Back to Look Forward

For a grassroots organization, INPEACE had a very solid start. The program has enjoyed the support of the Hawaiʻi State Department of Education, which has permitted INPEACE to run Keiki Steps on school property. And Kamehameha Schools has been a consistent financial supporter and source of thought leadership.

But it’s the three founders — Dr. Kathryn Au, Sherlyn Franklin Goo, M. Ed., and Dr. Alice Junco Kawakami, all award-winning educators and researchers, who set the tone.

INPEACE Founders (L to R): Sherlyn Franklin Goo, M. Ed., Dr. Alice Junco Kawakami, and Dr. Kathryn Au

“The founders, in all their wisdom, looked beyond the idea of just providing educational programs,” says Keli‘ipio-Acoba. “They looked at the system. How do we strengthen the system?”

That principle will guide INPEACE as it heads into its next 25 years.