A Class Act

Public Schools of Hawai‘i Foundation’s board members (front, from left) Nolan Kawano, Sharlene Tsuda, Dana Gusman, (back) Sharon Brown and Ken Hiraki stand for Hawai‘i’s students and teachers.

Public Schools of Hawai‘i Foundation has been a champion for state-run educational institutions for more than three decades, and year after year has petitioned business leaders to pool their resources together and make a bigger impact with teachers and students.

Though a money-raising, workshop-organizing machine, the nonprofit remains a grass-roots effort. There’s no office space and no paid staff — everyone is a volunteer, including its board of trustees.

“Most of us on the board graduated from public school and are really proud of our public school background,” says president Ken Hiraki, a Roosevelt grad. “When you look at our board, it’s all outstanding people who have this passion for helping students.”

The organization has succeeded by offering aid in two different ways.

The first way is through its Good Idea Grant Program.

The concept is simple, as the foundation provides monetary support to DOE teachers who can then use those funds — up to $3,000 — to make their unique ideas become reality.

Public Schools of Hawai‘i Foundation’s board of trustees pose at last year’s Kulia I Ka Nu‘u dinner. PHOTO COURTESY PUBLIC SCHOOLS OF HAWAI‘I FOUNDATION

“It’s a way to enhance student learning,” says board member Sharon Brown, who also attended Roosevelt. “We’re funding these teachers, so the students can benefit from their great idea. There’s not a lot of red tape.

“If we think it’s something different, innovative or motivating for our students to excite them and make them want to learn, we’ll fund it,” Brown adds.

Past ideas have lived up to the hype, exuding creativity and hands-on learning that’s fun and out-of-the-box. One educator used the Good Idea Grant money to purchase sewing machines and materials to teach students how to quilt — while also incorporating geometry and math skills into each learning opportunity. To top it all off, quilts were then donated to a local senior care home.

Another teacher bought an inflatable dome to show students the night sky during daytime school hours as part of an immersive astronomy class.

“We even had one teacher buy bee-keeping equipment,” says Hiraki. “Or sometimes, it’s just good old-fashioned books.”

This year’s deadline to apply for a Good Idea Grant has been extended to July 10. For more information and to apply, visit

The second way Public Schools of Hawai‘i Foundation supports teachers is through design thinking workshops, a program developed by Stanford University, and successive Design Thinking Boot Camps. These events offer niche training to teachers and faculty, who then can use that knowledge to educate their students and better their schools.

According to the nonprofit, the process “combines creative and critical thinking that allows information and ideas to be organized, decisions to be made, situations to be improved and knowledge to be gained.”

It’s a state-of-the-art idea that the organization took a chance on a handful of years ago — and it’s been working wonders for the state ever since.

“We were the ones who brought it to Hawai‘i,” explains Brown, who also serves as director of First Hawaiian Bank Foundation. “This program is so great.”

At the heart of design thinking are local experts with valuable skills who train teachers in a specific field. Program participants are able to immerse themselves in a number of different areas and creatively collaborate to solve problems. That’s what happened back in 2016 when Public Schools of Hawai‘i Foundation partnered with University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa’s Department of Urban and Regional Planning to facilitate a design thinking workshop for ‘Aikahi Elementary School during which teachers, staff, parents and students gathered together to form ideas for a forthcoming STEM innovation lab.

That focus on creative problem-solving is one of the main skills Public Schools of Hawai‘i Foundation wants to instill in Hawai‘i’s students.

“It’s important, especially now,” Hiraki continues. “Those who are able to solve problems and make connections and bring ideas to life, those are the ones who can provide us strategies to overcome obstacles.”

“And we want to teach them be a leader,” adds Brown, “because everyone has a voice.”

While COVID-19 changed the landscape of learning during the last quarter of the school year, Brown, Hiraki and the rest of Public Schools of Hawai‘i Foundation continue to have faith in the state’s students.

“We just want to tell all our students, ‘You got this!'” says Hiraki. “Use this experience to become more resilient.

“There’s a whole community behind you, and we have your back.”

Keep Up With Kulia I Ka Nu‘u

Due to stay-at-home orders this year, Public Schools of Hawai‘i Foundation had to reschedule its annual Kulia I Ka Nu‘u awards banquet that honors outstanding public school graduates, teachers and principals.

It was a pretty devastating blow for the nonprofit, which relies almost solely on this fundraising dinner to garner funds for its Good Idea Grant program and other endeavors.

There is a bit of good news, though. This year’s honorees — Outstanding Public School Graduates Mike Irish (Kalani High) and Saedene Ota (Baldwin High), as well as Corporate Honoree Alaska Airlines — will be celebrated at the organization’s rescheduled dinner, slated for April 1, 2021, at Sheraton Waikīkī.

Good Idea Grant Goes Far


Each year, Public Schools of Hawai‘i Foundation gives out Good Idea Grants for public school teachers with, well, great ideas. The nonprofit offers up to $3,000 per idea, and since its inception has given nearly $5 million to the state’s educators.

Two years ago, the nonprofit funded an idea from Farrington High math teacher Sean Witwer, who had a big dream of filming math tutorials that his students would then share with the world.

He used the money to buy tech equipment like computers, iPads, tripods, microphones and more — everything they’d need to make that dream a reality.

“We use YouTube to make math instructional videos that amplify their voices,” Witwer shares. “They can demonstrate their knowledge of what they’re learning by teaching others.

“What I love about Public Schools of Hawai‘i Foundation is they gave me the funds and a lot of flexibility. They send you the money, and you don’t have to go through the long procurement rules of the state.”

It’s now two years later, and the program continues to grow. Witwer now has students working on virtual résumés and personal websites to showcase their accomplishments. But the videos still remain the focal point of his class, and the public can check out their work online at (search Govs Math Lab).