Building bridges

Summit + Pacific Buddhist Academy

Oahu K-12 Schools
Place Nuʻuanu
Text Will Caron
Art Will Caron
Thread School of the Future

Pacific Buddhist Academy is an independent college preparatory high school located right outside downtown Honolulu, and part of a coordinated system of Buddhist education, pre-kindergarten through grade 12. The mission at PBA is to prepare students for college through academic excellence; to enrich their lives with Buddhist values; and to develop their courage to nurture peace.

It's mid-morning at Ala Moana beach park and the surf is up. As is the learning.

"I've already become more aware of the ahupua'a that I live in; how I can take care of it and how it takes care of me," says Branden Wood, a senior in "Mr. V's" (Van Velasco's) class.

At Pacific Buddhist Academy, students are asked to do more than simply study the world around them: they are asked to immerse themselves in it and take an active role in making it a better place. In their senior year experience, a capstone course the school calls the "PeaceBridge Project™," students learn to pay careful attention to the community and environment around them and to come to their own conclusions about what their observations mean.

Developed by PBA's new Head of School, Josh Hernandez Morse, "PeaceBridge" prepares students for college through academic excellence, enriches their lives with Buddhist values, and develops their ability and courage to nurture peace. "Most young people think they need to defer mattering in the world today. We believe our students can make a difference now," says Hernandez Morse.

Photos by Will Caron

Teachers like Van Velasco guide students through three trimesters focused on the themes of truth and justice, beauty and aesthetics, and how to live the good life. All along, students learn to apply the principles of the Shin Buddhist faith in a community-focused research class. The result: engaged, thoughtful student-citizens.

"These are the hallmarks of a Buddhist education," says Hernandez Morse. "Critical listening and thinking, compassionate action, and the experience of a positive interdependence. The seniors' student experience at PBA culminates in PeaceBridge."

Velasco's students are down at Magic Island studying the intertidal habitat along the coastline of the ahupua'a of Waikīkī. Over the course of several hours, students document the shift in the habitats as they move from freshwater to brackish water to salt water using both qualitative and quantitative methods.

"The class helps us learn to study our environment and become aware of it—I think that skill will really help me in my career," says Lisa Roerk, who wants to become a zoologist.

The students are taught by different teachers during each of three trimesters. Velasco teaches the first section, which builds the students' skill in research and scientific method, teaching them to question, as well as to find their own answers.

"The course is based around huaka'i, which is a journey with the intent of gaining knowledge or awareness," says Velasco. "It's hard to make a decision about what you want to do without really understanding the community that you're going to be working in. This class breaks down barriers between the students and their community."

Velasco's students call out measurements and record them, they joke with each other and with Mr. V as they pick trash out of the water, and they share their observations of the habitats with each other, reveling in their own discoveries.

"It's important to get them out of their comfort zone," says Velasco. At one point, he had them walk the coastline from Kaimana beach to Diamond Head and write a descriptive narrative of their experience. "Some of them had never been there before and wrote that they had to overcome a lot of fears they had about that kind of environment, or that they discovered they're stronger than they thought. It was really amazing to see what they learned about themselves along with the habitat."

Branden, who is half-way submerged in the water as the students continue their observations, had almost never been in the ocean before taking the capstone class. "Now we can't get him out of the water," Velasco says with a laugh.

"I don't usually go in the water, but when we were over by the Natatorium side I decided to just jump in and I realized that I actually really like it," says Brandon. "I think I learn better out here."

"College prep is about more than just getting accepted," says Velasco. "Once you're there, if you just stay in your shell, if you don't talk to your professors, if you don't get out of your comfort zone, you're not going to be as successful. You need skills that go beyond the ability to take a test. That's what this class is all about."


Summit is Hawaii's magazine of ideas and style for the global citizen. We're named for Queen Kapiolani's motto, "kulia i ka nuu," strive for the summit. Summit is available on fine newsstands throughout North America and the Asia-Pacific region.

2017 S King Street
Honolulu, Hawaii 96826
Ikaika Hussey
Creative Director
Mae Ariola
Will Caron
Copy Editor
Karen Shishido
Assistant Editor
James Charisma