This is an archived article that was published on in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The grassy farmland off Redwood Road in Salt Lake City was once a gang hang-out. A vacant barn on a lot near 1000 North drew troublemakers. Drug activity wasn't unusual outside apartment complexes in the area, a reality neighbors in the surrounding blocks lined with quiet single family homes hoped would change.

Now those hopes have been realized: A new charter school scheduled to open in a few weeks has not only changed the face of the neighborhood but is changing the way education will be offered to Utah's Pacific Islander community.

After four years of planning, construction is furiously wrapping up on a 33,000-square-foot facility that will open as the Pacific Heritage Academy on Sept. 5.

The charter school, which will launch with 450 students in grades kindergarten through 8, is the first in the nation based on this concept: Teachers will incorporate Pacific Islander culture into lessons while using a method called expeditionary learning, which encourages a hands-on approach to education.

Ofa Moea'i, Pacific Heritage's executive director, got the idea for a school incorporating Pacific Islander culture after seeing the positive impact a charter school had on her own children's lives in Utah County.

She rallied friends Malia Thurman and Lia Whitman to join her in creating a first-of-its kind school in Salt Lake City. The group submitted a proposal in 2008, but were rejected when the State Charter School Board found holes in their plan. Her second proposal, submitted in 2010, was approved.

"What I was learning about with the charter-school movement is that it could be powerful for a specific target population, like Pacific Islanders," said Moea'i, who is a social worker. "We've been very warmly welcomed. A lot of families, even broader than our target population, are finding the school appeals to them."

Expeditionary learning • Pacific Heritage Academy is among seven new charter schools opening in Utah this fall.

Currently, 95 charter schools are authorized to operate in Utah, including six that will not open until the 2013-14 school year, according to the Utah State Office of Education. Most are authorized by the State Charter School Board, but several are approved by school districts as allowed by state law. All charter schools are publicly funded.

Moea'i said what makes this charter school unique is the expeditionary-learning concept, a growing trend, particularly in charter schools across the country.

Expeditionary learning revolves around five ideas: Learning is active, public, meaningful, challenging and collaborative. That means students should learn not only while sitting at desks during class but through field trips, projects and applying skills to real-world issues that might not be addressed in a traditional classroom, said Moea'i.

At Pacific Heritage, students will learn core subjects including science, language arts, math and social studies using island culture and history as a backdrop.

For example, eighth-graders studying world history will examine architecture around the world. Students will learn about the pyramids, the Colosseum and other famous structures in a classroom setting. But they also will read case studies involving the fale, a type of house in Samoa and Tonga.

Utah history lessons will include reading about the Mormon pioneers' trek west, but the unit also will feature a less-studied topic: the settlement of Hawaiians in Utah in the late 1880s.

Students will travel to the ghost town of Iosepa in Tooele County's Skull Valley, where they'll learn how their ancestors were taught to survive in the desert by the Goshutes.

"This is how we bring relevance to them. They can say "Oh, I have pioneer ancestry," said Moea'i. "A lot of Pacific Islanders have no idea there were Hawaiians here back in the 1800s. The kids think, 'I thought I was the first.'"

And children will demonstrate what they learn through unconventional methods in addition to written tests.

"Kids are always working on a project. We call that 'authentic assessment,' " Moea'i said. "How do you want to show us what you know? It may be a dance performance. It may be an original song about Iosepa settlers [or] a photo essay."

Preserving culture • While the school's cultural focus will have an island feel, its inaugural student body is diverse, said Moea'i. Latino, Somali and white students from Rose Park are enthusiastic about the idea, she said.

Moea'i said the school will open in Rose Park because of the many Pacific Islanders who live there and because several area schools had received failing marks in student achievement under the federal No Child Left Behind standards.

In its 2009 Graduation and Dropout Rate Report, the State Office of Education cited lower educational achievement and graduate rates among minorities, including Pacific Islander students. A charter school specifically geared at Pacific Islander cultures could bolster the academic performance of minorities, said Moea'i and other Pacific Islanders.

"The Pacific Islander community is a significant citizen group that contributes to the vibrant culture of Utah but is also at-risk," said Fotu Katoa, director of Pacific Islander Affairs at the Utah State Office of Ethnic Affairs, in a letter recommending the school during its charter approval process.

"They are comprised of large families who are concerned about the education of their children, some of whom feel uncomfortable to approach and partner with the school system. The vision for this school will give these parents a community to belong to."

Moea'i said she hopes to eventually expand Pacific Heritage into satellite campuses in Provo and St. George. For now, she's celebrating an idea finally coming to fruition.

"The model requires us to move beyond thinking of static topics that we think of in school. It enables educators to be really creative in choosing a topic and then addressing how do we bring in state standards with this theme," said Moea'i. Emphasizing Pacific Islander culture, she said, will "appeal to families to help preserve cultures and to help teach the next generations."

Twitter: @mrogers_trib —

New charter schools opening in fall 2012

Aristotle Academy

Where » Alpine School District, American Fork

Grades » K-8

Students » 540

HighMark Charter School

Where » Davis School District, South Weber

Grades » K-9

Students » 695

Pacific Heritage Academy

Where » Salt Lake City School District

Grades » K-8

Students » 450

Promontory School of Expeditionary Learning (formerly North Peak Academy)

Where » Box Elder School District, Perry

Grades » K-9

Students » 500

Valley Academy

Where » Washington School District, Hurricane

Grades » K-7

Students » 450


Where » Granite School District, Kearns

Grades » K-9

Students » 500

Pioneer High School for the Performing Arts

Where » Alpine School District, American Fork/Lehi

Grades » 9-12

Students » 1,000

Source » Utah State Office of Education