NPAC and Robin Kitsu Featured on Milken Educator Award Website

Original story posted on Milken Educator Awards website at:

Program Builds Confidence, Dreams for At-Risk Students

Robin Kitsu, a 2001 Milken Educator Award winner from Hawaii, has created a life-changing performing arts program for students – many of whom have faced roadblocks like poverty and substance abuse.

Nanakuli High and Intermediate School, tucked away in a small community on the west side of O‘ahu, at one time had the reputation of being the “worst” school in the state. But Robin Kitsu’s (HI ’01) work leading an after-school program – the Nanakuli Performing Arts Center (NPAC) – has turned that around for countless students.

Since he started the center nearly 25 years ago, Kitsu has tirelessly coordinated program funding, schedules and performances. Students in grades 4 through 12 from across the region voluntarily participate in performance areas like drama, multimedia and video production.

His students have won state and national awards for their plays, newspaper and video news program – all of this in a school where the drop-out and poverty rates are high.

An astonishing 90 percent of students who participate in NPAC graduate from high school and go on to higher education.

The idea for NPAC goes back to when, as a young boy, Kitsu would share in his mother’s passion for performing arts. She was a dancer and an actress in Japan.

“As far back as I can remember, my mother and I would watch old musicals featuring Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, and I remember how we would talk about why each dance number was done well or not,” he said. “I always had a passion for the performing arts.  It was a goal of mine to work at a school that did not have a performing arts program and to develop one.”

This passion led to his participation in band throughout primary school and later to the performance of literature speech courses and productions in college. The self-assurance he gained through those pursuits laid the groundwork for NPAC’s purpose today.

Kitsu’s goal for NPAC is to leverage performing arts to help students develop self-confidence, positive character traits, and improve academic and other skills, such as communication and problem solving, needed for life after high school.

With a high rate of students from NPAC going on to enroll in college, he’s been very successful with that ambition since the program started in 1991.

Kitsu, or, “Mister” as he’s known to his students, said a big reason for that is because he makes a point to promote post-high school education. Program “alumni assistants” who are enrolled or have already graduated from college return to volunteer and serve as role models.

“[It] just reaffirms the benefits of college,” he said. “They talk about college life, they talk about the advantages, they talk about the challenges. When you have students from grades 4 to 12 hearing this each year, I think that helps to plant the seed that college is something that’s beneficial and fun.  We stress to all of our students to find their passion and we explain how college will help them develop it.”

One alumni assistant, Talitiga Ulufale, said he wouldn’t have graduated if it weren’t for “Mister” and the program.

“I probably would have been behind bars,” Ulufale said in a 2011 PBS Hawaii documentary highlighting NPAC. “But after seeing this outlet for kids like me … I believe in this program. It will help you graduate, help you be a better person and prepare you for the real world more than anything else.”

There are also guest speakers, tutoring and other kinds of academic assistance. But more than any other factor, Kitsu said the confidence developed through the program is a “tremendous reason why the students go on to college.”

“If they know that they can learn to sing, act and dance on stage in front of an audience, then nothing is impossible,” he said. “The skills they learn and apply in NPAC are the same skills needed to succeed in college.”

NPAC is now a sought-after program with up to 75 new students joining each school year, some of them going to great lengths to participate.

“What’s amazing is that many of the students who come from other schools have to travel miles to get here,” Kitsu said. “In fact, we have two students who catch two buses and walk a mile to get here and then have to do the same to go home; that’s pretty impressive.”

Another important factor in the program’s staying power? The message of equality.

“Our philosophy is that everyone is important and that it doesn’t matter if you are chorus or ensemble, you are as important as the lead,” said Kitsu, adding that no one needs to audition to participate. “You can have two left feet or be tone deaf, it doesn’t matter. Creating this accepting culture allows students to try new things and make mistakes and grow.”

Student Samuel Hedin said before joining the program as a freshman, he was “closed off and lonely.” NPAC changed all of that.

“I can’t really describe the feeling of your first performance,” Hedin said. “It’s one of those things you would say is one of your greatest accomplishments.”

Academics are also an important part of NPAC. Students develop skills in reading, math and social studies through the production process by reading scripts, researching characters or themes and applying math concepts in the creation of sets.

Plus, they have to maintain a good grade point average to stay in the program. But Kitsu said it really all comes back to confidence building.

“Being successful in NPAC gives them the confidence to do the work in their core content subjects,” he said.

Kitsu was honored with the Milken Educator Award in 2001 in large part due to his incredible work with NPAC. He said the award has given the program more credibility and recognition.

“Winning the Milken [Award] brought a sense of pride not only to the NPAC members but to the community and the school,” said Kitsu. “I’ve been involved in more leadership roles at the school, such as curriculum coordinator, literacy coach and teacher mentor. I think it does provide credibility when giving testimonials or promoting ideas in education.”

NPAC is a challenging, yet rewarding, endeavor for Kitsu. So, what keeps him motivated?

“To see a student who is so shy and lacking confidence at the beginning of the year, but by the end of the year is singing and dancing on stage in front of hundreds of people – that is the kind of growth that keeps me going,” he said.

Over the years, Kistsu and his students have successfully produced and performed a variety of dramatic and musical productions. There was Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” (they were the first group to produce the musical in the state of Hawaii) and “Rent, the School Edition,” to name a few.

In 2011, NPAC was selected as one of 62 schools to perform at the American High School Theatre Festival at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland– “a once in a lifetime, and humbling experience,” said Kitsu.

From parents and families helping with meals, working concessions, and supporting their children, to community members watching the performances, Kitsu has witnessed the power of NPAC to bring the community together. Another big source of motivation for Kitsu is his family. His wife, Michelle, assists with costumes and his daughter, Chloe, has participated in the program since she was 4 (she’s now 12).

“I couldn’t do it without their support,” he said.

Visit the NPAC’s website to see photos and watch videos of their performances. “Like” them on Facebook and follow them on Twitter @nyapa to show your support!

Robin Kitsu also serves as curriculum coordinator and Title I supervisor for Nanakuli High and Intermediate School.  

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