School Choice & Charters

Schools Attended by Winners Report ‘Great Pride’ in Outcome

By Lesli A. Maxwell — November 11, 2008 4 min read
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Educators at the Punahou School in Honolulu—the alma mater of President-elect Obama—have watched many of their students graduate and move on to professional and athletic careers worthy of being featured in a glossy campus brochure or alumni magazine.

But the day after Barack Obama—or “Barry,” as his classmates and the faculty at Punahou knew him—decisively won the election to become the nation’s 44th president, leaders at the independent K-12 school on the island of Oahu were marveling at the achievement. Mr. Obama, who enrolled at Punahou in the 5th grade, graduated in 1979.

“There is a great pride of association because of this, even for all of our students and faculty who do not know him,” James K. Scott, a graduate of Punahou who has served as its president for the past 15 years, said in an interview last week. “His vision for America resonates with the vision we have for our school, which is to educate kids to be critical and creative thinkers, to have a sense of social responsibility, to have a global perspective, and to become global and ethical leaders.”

But when Mr. Obama attended high school at Punahou, he did not show obvious signs of ambition that would lead to the White House, said Paula Kurashige, a college counselor at Punahou who served as dean to Mr. Obama’s graduating class.

“He was thoughtful and bright, and certainly he had drive as an athlete and a competitive spirit that showed up on the basketball court, but like most teenagers, we just saw him for who he was at the time,” Ms. Kurashige said. “But now, when I see the qualities of his that have appealed most to people in this campaign, I can remember the roots of that when he was here at Punahou.”

Visits to Punahou

Mr. Obama has stayed connected to Punahou, Mr. Scott said, with a visit last summer to play basketball with students. He spoke to students in 2004, shortly after his election to the U.S. Senate, and made an impression on them by disclosing that he had received financial aid to attend the private school, where tuition now runs nearly $17,000 a year.

The 3,700-student school is the largest single-campus private school in the nation.

Educators at Archmere Academy—the Roman Catholic school in Claymont, Del., where Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden earned his high school diploma—were also basking in the accomplishment of a former student. Mr. Biden, who graduated from Archmere in 1961, has been in close contact with his alma mater for decades.

“I think it’s more than fair to say that he is our best-known former student,” said the Rev. Joseph McLaughlin, the headmaster of the 521-student high school, which became coeducational in 1975. “We are very proud, and all of us, especially our students, have been more engaged in this election because of our direct connection to the vice president-elect.”

Louis D’Angelo, a mathematics teacher at Archmere who was a freshman at the school when Mr. Biden was a senior, remembers the vice president-elect and veteran U.S. senator as a talented varsity football player and as the president of the senior class.

“I think he was one of the very first people I was aware of on campus, partly because I was on the practice football squad that the varsity team would run over,” joked Mr. D’Angelo, who has since taught Mr. Biden’s three children at Archmere. “I’ve encountered him more as a teacher when he would come for back-to-school nights. It’s pretty interesting to have a U.S. senator show up for your back-to-school nights.”

Like Mr. Obama, Mr. Biden was able to attend the private school because of tuition assistance, which he earned by working on campus, Father McLaughlin said.

At the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, where Mr. Obama’s daughters, Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, are students, the post-Election Day atmosphere was “electric,” according to David W. Magill, the school’s director of administration. Applause broke out in the hallways when Michelle Obama dropped the girls off, he said.

Students at the Menteng 1 Elementary School in Jakarta, Indonesia, where Mr. Obama spent two years, also were jubilant after learning he had captured the presidency. “It’s amazing to know that the man who will be the next president of the United States studied here, at our school!” said 11-year-old Muhamad Yodi.

Fundraising Help

Mr. Obama’s candidacy reunited some of his classmates from Punahou to support and spread the word about his campaign, Ms. Kurashige said. As he became the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, the group held more-formal events and activities that raised roughly $11,000 for the campaign, she said.

“It was our small way of supporting someone that we not only had known as a friend and as a classmate, but as someone we think is an inspirational leader,” Ms. Kurashige said.

Next June, the class of 1979 will be gathering to celebrate its 30th-year reunion, an event that Ms. Kurashige said Mr. Obama’s classmates are hoping he can attend.

“Of course, his classmates can’t help but joke now that maybe they can have the reunion on the White House lawn,” she said.

To Mr. Scott, who has worked to expand access to students who can’t afford Punahou’s tuition, Mr. Obama’s story “reinforces the need for all private schools to make themselves as accessible as possible. You never know who might be in front of you and where they will go.”

Associate Editor Kathleen Kennedy Manzo and the Associated Press contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the November 12, 2008 edition of Education Week as Schools Attended by Winners Report ‘Great Pride’ in Outcome

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