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Ka‘ui Lagaret, above, is the ‘Ohana Strengthening Coach at the Thrive Center in Honoka‘a, which will host a soft opening December 12-24, Monday-Friday from 9 a.m. - 2 p.m. The Thrive Center will support Hawai‘i Community College students who are also parents. Following the opening, regular hours for the Thrive Center will be Monday-Thursday, 8:30 a.m. - 3 p.m.

With ‘ohana-based approach, Kō Education Center strives to be model rural education site

In many ways, colleges are designed for young adults without major work and family responsibilities. But that picture of the “traditional” college student does not reflect reality for many students and potential students living in rural areas like the Hāmākua coast and the North Hawai‘i region.

“For our region and in the towns we serve it’s more traditional to work and start a family than it is to go to college,” said Kei-Lin Cerf, the Director of the Kō Education Center (KōEC) in Honoka‘a. “So in order to meet the higher education and lifelong learning needs of the community we need to take a different approach.”

What does that different approach look like? KōEC, which is part of Hawai‘i Community College, is developing a multi-pronged strategy that puts family and community at the center.  

It includes the recent implementation of the Learning 2 Thrive Program, a grant-funded initiative focused on supporting college students who are also parents.

“We want to create an ‘ohana-friendly, family-inclusive and community-inclusive college model,” said Cerf. “One of the best places to start is by supporting students who are raising families.”

Learning 2 Thrive was established after staff at KōEC witnessed the barriers student-parents faced as they attempted to enroll in college, such as access to childcare, housing, food and basic supplies. It also embraces the reality that many local college students have kids, said Cerf.

Learning 2 Thrive is a KōEC and Friends of the Future program funded by an O’Neill Foundation Deep Impact Grant. 

To become a welcoming place for student-parents, Learning 2 Thrive is creating an ‘ohana study room at KōEC with a breast-feeding area, refrigerator, and microwave; is adding diaper changing stations to bathrooms; and is generally making itself welcoming to keiki.

This month KōEc is also opening the Thrive Center on campus, which will be a place for student-parents to learn about community resources and connect with other students. 

On a recent Friday, the new Thrive Center was being set up in preparation for its soft opening. It features a large play pen area, televisions, a sofa, mini fridges, toys, and kids chairs, among other things. 

Ka‘ui Lagaret will operate the Thrive Center as the new ‘Ohana Strengthening Coach at KōEC. Lagaret is a Hawai‘i CC student and a parent to four girls, so she knows how challenging and intimidating college can be for parents, and in her new role she will try to make sure student-parents are set up for success. 

“Our hope is to help students overall as an ‘ohana,” said Lagaret. “By simply finding your people and finding that little community that understands you and your goals, that can help you succeed, and that is the hope for us here.”

A Model Rural Education Site

Many of the challenges students in the Hāmākua and North Hawai‘i region face are shared by students across Hawai‘i Island.

“Hawai‘i Community College is committed to serving island-wide,” said Chancellor Rachel Solemsaas. “Given the size of Hawai‘i Island, that is a challenge, but if we can establish KōEC as a model of what a rural-serving site can be, it can also guide us as we implement programs and services in other regions.”

In addition to Learning 2 Thrive, KōEC is working to establish an academic framework around virtual lectures and in-person labs. A major renovation underway at KōEC will result in labs for science, culinary arts and nursing that would complement virtual lectures.

“One of the challenges of a rural learning site is having enough students to fill a class,” said Solemsaas. “But if a student can join an online class with other students from around the island or state  – and then have in-person resources available locally such as labs, tutoring, study space – that can open up a world of possibilities.”

KōEC is also part of a Title III Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian-Serving Institution grant that will be used to renovate spaces at KōEC and make it a repository for Indigenous knowledge to engage students and the community and ultimately create better student outcomes.

“We’re going to focus on indigenous family and learning community models,” said Cerf.

What’s Next for KōEC? 

One of the biggest challenges facing KōEC is staffing, and Hawai‘i Community College is seeking to restore several positions that were eliminated as part of legislation enacted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Currently KōEC has three permanent staff, which is not enough to adequately serve the community, said Cerf.

“Having those positions is what will allow us to fully capitalize on the other types of funding that we receive,” said Cerf. “Building relationships with families and communities takes time and a caring, consistent team.”

Hawai‘i Community College will be advocating during the next legislative session to have the eliminated positions restored.

To connect with KōEC and learn about the Thrive Center’s upcoming opening, call 775-8890 or email koec@hawaii.edu.