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Samoan Education Adapting with the Times

After a century as a U.S. territory, the American influence on the Pacific islands of American Samoa is plain to see, from the halls of government to the halls of the local high school. As Al Hulsen reports, the territory has strongly embraced the U.S. system of education.

In Samoa, as in the rest of the United States, education is free and compulsory for children between the ages of 6 and 18. As a result, literacy among American Samoa's population of about 58,000 -- most of whom speak both English and Samoan - is 97%, significantly higher than in many independent Pacific Island nations. The Department of Education is the largest government agency in the territory, with 1,600 employees providing educational services for some 16,000 students in early childhood centers, elementary schools and high schools.

Elementary school teacher Kotane Deau says classrooms in American Samoa are just like classes anywhere else in the United States, except for one thing: "We teach [in] English and Samoan, more of a bi-lingual way of teaching and learning for the students." Other than that, she says, students here get a typical American education. "We have all the core subjects, which [are] basically English, math. … science, social studies, in these areas. And we do have extra-curricular activities like music, physical education." By including Samoan language arts in the curriculum, she says they are teaching the culture as well.

Following graduation from high school, most young Samoans join the work force - mostly small local businesses. Others enlist in the U.S. military. Some - like Aaron Va'ai Hall - go on to college, primarily , the territory's only institution of higher learning.

After his 2 years at ASCC, Aaron plans to get his bachelor's degree at a school in Hawaii. Eventually, he hopes to become a lawyer, and then return home. "A lot of things down here need to be changed with the government," he says, explaining his plans. "Hopefully, we'll all come back and put those ideas to work."

But that's not a typical career path, according to ASCC Culture Professor Aleni Ripine. He says once they've completed their education, it's difficult to keep young college graduates at home. "The problem is that when someone graduates from the community college and gets a good job as an accountant, they end up in Hawaii, they end up in the States. Because there's more money there than here."

Student Aaron Hall agrees. He says it's the low American Samoa pay scale that keeps many of the territory's best and brightest from returning home after completing their education in Hawaii or elsewhere. "A lot of them find the pay up there is better and down here it's the minimum wage," he says. "That's, I think, the main reason why they stay up there."

Kotane Deau didn't stay. She got her degree in Hawaii before returning home to teach, but says she understands those who don't. "People with master's degrees, doctor's degrees, a lot of people, they go for that because they want to get higher salaries." She says that's just not available in American Samoa. "Unfortunately here, with our government, I guess, the pay, the salary they're getting is not [commensurate] with the degree they hold." She thinks it's up to government officials to figure out how to change that situation.

While government officials wrestle with the problem, community college officials are trying a different approach. ASCC Vice-president Seth Galea'i says the school is reinforcing traditional values. "Sometime in your life you have to return and provide some service to your country," he quotes a Samoan saying, and explains, "it means that in order for you to get into a leadership position, you need to serve first. And that's an ongoing statement that we give our students here."

He is convinced that approach will work. But for right now, it appears the most important key to keeping American Samoa's best and brightest at home, relates to better pay - a problem still in need of a solution.