Jolene Chongchua always knew she’d like to work with kids. Figuring out exactly how just took some time.
She got her start with at-risk youth at nonprofits like Hale Kipa, before finding her way to Hawai‘i Behavioral Health. There, she met her toughest case yet—a severely autistic 5-year-old girl. She was low-functioning and nonverbal, Chongchua recalls, but roughly five years later, transitioned into public school.
It was a challenge that forever changed Chongchua’s life. Eventually, after spending some time consulting for children with Austism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Chongchua found her way to Variety School of Hawai‘i, where she has remained for the past
12 years. For two years now, she has served as its executive director.
Established back in 1961, Variety School of Hawai‘i as Chongchua explains it, is a small private school for special-needs children—those with autism, and attention deficit and speech disorders, as well as any type of learning difference. The campus currently numbers 44 students, and accommodates youth ranging in age from 3 to 22. (The state Department of Education offers assistance to special-needs children up to age 21-22, which Variety School of Hawai‘i matches to give families the same opportunity.)
It all begins with an individualized application process. During this time, school staff meets with parents (and sometimes even potential students, too) to determine whether it is a good fit—if students have the potential to independently learn in a classroom and if the school has the right tools to help.
In some cases, Variety School of Hawai‘i may not be the solution. But whatever the case may be, Chongchua understands that it can be a trying experience for families— and she wants the community to know that Variety School of Hawai‘i may be looked upon as a resource for information and assistance.
“We are an alternative,” she says. “I want parents to feel comfortable and safe that, when their child is diagnosed, they can just come to Variety School, and then we’ll help them in whatever way—whether it’s them being here and applying, or it’s me trying to guide them through the whole process.
“I’ll take the time to try and help these families—whoever comes through the door—but at least it’s a first step,” she adds. “It’s very complicated once your child is diagnosed. There’s just nowhere to go, really, for that kind of information. So at least we can be a starting point for them.”
Classrooms at Variety School of Hawai‘i are small, with anywhere from five to as many as 10 children, depending on the collective needs of the children. Each comes equipped with one teacher and one assistant. Variety School of Hawai‘i also has a reading coach and adaptive PE teacher on hand, and offers speech, language and occupational therapeutic services, thanks to full-time therapy staff.
It all makes for a unique, personalized experience for both students and staff—and has become a rather rewarding job, to hear Chongchua tell it.
“I love that I’m able to see the kids progress from at a very young age and see them develop,” she says. “A lot of the kids that are at the high school level, I actually worked with them back when they were 6, 7—some of them were 5 at the time—and now they’re 15 and 16.
“It gives you that rare opportunity to see how it all works together,” Chongchua adds. “That’s the part I love.”
Not much will be changing for Variety School of Hawai‘i in terms of physical growth, at least in the near future. Chongchua says its maximum capacity is about 55-60 students, due to space limitations. In the future, though, the school would like to create a wing that provides additional space to accommodate more students.
In the meantime, Variety School of Hawai‘i is focusing most of its efforts on raising money to provide scholarships for students. As Chongchua points out, “There’s a lot of families out there that are in need, but they can’t afford our tuition.”
To this end, Variety School of Hawai‘i will be hosting a gala fundraiser in April 2019.
To find out other ways to help the school, visit varietyschool.org.