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Evelyn Utai at Special Olympics event

A unique Leeward Community College partnership has made it possible for many working professionals in the Hawaiʻi Department of Education (HIDOE) to pursue special education (SPED) licensure through a flexible, self-paced model.

The 3+1 online program through Leeward CC’s teacher education program allows a candidate to earn a bachelor of science in SPED by completing three years at Leeward CC (or equivalent) and the final year at Chaminade University. Through online asynchronous delivery, and funding through HIDOE, the program has resulted in a 90% retention rate of working candidates since its inception in 2017 with a vast majority remaining employed as SPED teachers in local public schools.

To date, 29 Leeward CC students have graduated through the 3+1 online program, and there are 77 Leeward CC students currently in the 3+1 bachelor of science in SPED pathway.

Life-changing opportunities

Graduate holding a decorated cap and hibiscus
Utai at Leeward CC

Recent graduate Evelyn Utai, an educational assistant at Farrington High School, was born and raised in Kalihi. She has always had a passion for her community, and a desire to serve students with special needs. Early in her career, she and her coworkers created a “friends program” for special needs and non-special needs students to meet and interact during lunch. “The general education students’ (including all-star athletes) lives ended up being changed more than the special ed students,” Utai said.

She wanted to do more for the SPED students, and this motivated her to attend online classes for a bachelor’s degree, while still working in the classroom. The 3+1 program also allowed her to count her associate’s degree from Windward CC toward her requirements for the bachelorʻs degree. This enabled her to finish the program in half the time.

Group of people at Aloha Stadium
Farrington High School students from Friends Program meeting Jesse Sapolu

Utai said she wouldn’t have been able to pursue her degree without funding provided by a 3+1 program grant. In May, Chaminade recognized her as the 2024 outstanding graduate, and she credits both Chaminade and Leeward CC for providing the support that enabled her to achieve this milestone. Now Utai hopes to get a position as a special education teacher and do more to get SPED students involved and out in the community.

“To my Leeward ʻohana,” Utai said, “fa’afetai tele lava (thank you in Samoan) for believing in this suga (girl), and I hope I make you guys proud because you made me feel so special.”

—By Tad Saiki

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