Photo by Logan Mock-Bunting

Talk Story: Livingston “Jack” Wong

June, 2017

Five months after being named interim CEO, Wong became CEO of Kamehameha Schools in September 2014. He oversees a portfolio that includes a $10.6 billion endowment; ownership of more Hawaii land than any other nongovernment organization; and developments in Kakaako, Moiliili, Kapalama and Kona; three K-12 campuses and 30 preschools with a total of 7,000 students; plus another 7,000 learners in a variety of culture-based programs. Wong, who has a JD from the UCLA School of Law, joined KS in 1997 as senior counsel.

Q: Kamehameha Schools has an ambitious strategic plan, SP2020. Could you talk about its underpinnings, especially about the overall goals for Kuhanauna, “a Generation on the Rise.”

A: When we set out to develop this plan, we looked backward before we looked forward to try to understand what Princess Pauahi wants from us. The mission has to be more than running a campus; it has to uplift a generation of people. From that comes the plan to see a generation of Hawaiian people restored; we have to make an impact across the entire Native Hawaiian population.

The premise of our plan is we recognize we can’t do this alone. As an organization with an endowment of $10 billion plus, you’d think we could do it alone. But we recognize the need for partnerships with entities such as the Board of Education and UH, partners who can really make a great impact in education, trying to find ways to create educational change in our systems together.

So a lot of our strategies have to do with working with others, building a network of Native Hawaiian schools, and using our culture as a foundation for all of that. We’re looking at ambitious goals across a generation, but we break it into five-year chunks and the first (2015-2020) is setting a foundation for a generation’s worth of work.

We see educational success of Native Hawaiians in all age groups, including post-secondary educational success. This is not only one of the important milestones but one way to measure the success. Now 14 percent of Native Hawaiian learners achieve educational success, but the number we’re using for 2020 is 21 percent. We’ll look at our success in the first five years and build on that.

Q: The first goal of SP2020 is a network of Native Hawaiian schools. What type of expansion do you mean and how will it be accomplished?

A: This is not about building new schools, but connecting a lot of schools already doing great work in education. It’s focusing on Native Hawaiian charters, immersion schools and aina-based, project-based schools (included within the Hawaiian charter school group) and connecting them through cultural education. It’s about network-building and creating connections in Hawaiian-based education. A lot of our initial work is meeting together and figuring out how this network is going to function, and figuring out common goals and outcomes. One level of connectivity is through an IT infrastructure that connects the schools so we can share success stories and activities, and all get stronger together. We always want to make sure we build upon the great work that has come before us.

Q: What are some numbers you’re working with under this foundational plan?

A: We look at education as a journey from 0-24. The way we look at our direct impact with 152,000 Native Hawaiians in the state, is we have about 7,000 students in the school system with 30 preschools and three K-12 campuses. But we also have scholarships – the Pauahi Keiki Scholars program – for another 1,900 keiki who go to 150 other private preschools. Depending on family need, scholarship awards may cover up to $700 a month in assistance.

Looking across the population, we see that 54 percent of Native Hawaiian children go to preschool and are ready for kindergarten. We are targeting increasing this to 75 percent, which would be an increase of 2,000 more keiki going to preschool. One thing we’ve been working on is a regional plan, reorganizing our organization to work with nine different regions aligned with the Department of Education regions. That gives us the ability to work with the complexes and schools, to coordinate our activities, and compare educational data. We have leaders in the organization whose job it is to work with the communities and help uplift the numbers and educational outcomes.

Q: Kamehameha Schools already gives funding to Native Hawaiian charter schools and provides college scholarships. What are the figures?

A: KS is providing up to $1,500 per pupil to students in Native Hawaiian charter schools, to enhance funding from the state Department of Education. This has stayed constant since 2002. Currently, 4,063 students in Hawaiian-focused charter schools are supported through per-pupil funding. KS provides around $29 million in scholarships annually, and that includes scholarship funds for 2,000 college students, also need based.

Q: With the goal of creating a Native Hawaiian identity, what do you feel has been lost, and why does it need to be recaptured? Why is this important for the Native Hawaiian community, especially for children?

A: What’s important for us is to understand that one can have great strength in one’s cultural identity – and have academic success – by understanding who one is and where one came from. One’s culture and genealogy will drive academic success. We look at Hawaiian identity and culture as being both content and context – not just what we learn, but how we learn. We talk a lot about cultural identity as a competitive advantage for Native Hawaiian learners. You can use that as part of your competitive advantage as you compete in a global world. Our belief is that, if you’re strong in your identity, and understand who you are as a Hawaiian, that will be your competitive advantage because it’s a source of pride and grounding.

Q: KS is rebuilding the nine blocks it owns in Kakaako, with 20 percent of the housing reserved for people with average or below-average incomes. What are the goals and the accomplishments so far?

A: In Kakaako, we have a range of housing and have led in large part with a number of reserved housing projects. We have about 450 reserved housing units, and the target was 20 percent – or 550 units – over the entire master plan of the total 2,750 Kakaako units. The goal was to deliver 450 units at the beginning. The target for the master plan development is 2025, and that doesn’t only include residential units but retail units and the SALT project as well. SALT is anticipated to have 47 to 50 tenants by later this year. Retail spaces are already operating: Moku’s, Highway Inn and several other tenants. In terms of the economic contribution to the county and the state, the Kaiaulu o Kakaako Master Plan is expected to generate $386 million in tax revenue during the construction phase, with ongoing annual tax revenues for the county and state projected at $41 million.

Q: What are KS’ other development goals?

A: In Moiliili, we’ve been working with UH to envision what that will look like and we’re in pre-development work. It would include the Puck’s Alley property. It’s prime for redevelopment. We’re getting approvals internally and we’re excited about it but there’s no firm timeline yet. We’re still doing our due diligence around development possibilities and feasibility. In Kapalama, we’re also in the planning and discussion stages for 104 acres in the industrial area. One thing we recognize is it’s tied mostly to rail and transit-oriented development. The rail runs right through the middle of the Kapalama industrial area. We have 63 leases in the area now. The Kona Village redevelopment (on Hawaii Island) is under lease to a lessee and they’re working through their process as well.

This interview has been edited for length.

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