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A Five Year Retrospective: Part One

Updated: Aug 3, 2018

As we enter into our sixth school year, we reflect on our first five years.

When we opened our doors in 2013, half of our building was still under construction. Due to safety codes our contractors overlooked and other issues that delayed our opening, we had to push our opening date back two weeks. Thankfully, after passing the safety inspection and working out the other kinks, we were able to move in and operate in the functioning half of the building which was large enough to fit all our scholars.

When planning and conceptualizing a new school, especially one as unique and ambitious as Mana Academy, everything looks good on paper and in our imagination. But that was far from the truth and we learned some hard lessons our first year. Fortunately, the love, trust and support from our school community—especially when we met and got to know our scholars—was the catalyst we needed to refocus our energies on our mission and vision.

We finished our first year strong and graduated our first seniors, siblings Ace and Birdie Schwenke. It was a happy day for all of us! Birdie is now a student at Utah Valley University and Ace served attended BYU-Hawaii before serving a mission for the LDS Church in Sāmoa. He is currently employed at Mana in our cultural department and is a wonderful mentor to our scholars.

Since our first year, we've worked hard to build on the success of our inaugural year. The data from our first round of reading assessments (DIBELS) showed that we had a lot of work to do to improve literacy. Fortunately, we made some big gains in competency and growth in a short amount of time, and literacy continues to be a target area for improvement. [ We will be publishing a five year report on DIBELS and other assessment data in a future blog]

Here we grow!

On our third year, we built out another campus a block away from our elementary campus to serve a growing secondary student population. We encountered another code snafu (déjà vu all over again) when we were told that the building, after construction was nearly completed, did not meet earthquake code for a school. This pushed the opening of the secondary campus back almost two months while the contractors added shock absorbing braces to the wall. Lucky for us, our neighbor was another charter school and had space to house us—but that was a long two months for all of us. We continued to provide instruction to our scholars while we wait for the green light to occupy our new space. (below are before and after photos of the space)

Moving into the new space was an exhilarating moment for our school community and we celebrated with a party.


As we continue to serve our scholars and fulfilling our mission and vision, our school has been tremendously blessed by visitors who also share the same commitment we have to our scholars.

Our visitors over the years include: NFL star Will Tukuafu; local and international media outlets including KSL, Fox 13 News, Telemundo and Māori Television; NFL star Haloti Ngata; Samoa Rugby Academy; NFL star Paul Soliai; Sāmoan novelist and author of the popular Telesa series, Lani Wendt Young; former University of Utah President David W. Pershing and his wife Dr. Sandi Pershing , Assistant Vice President Outreach & Engagement and Dean of Continuing Education; the University of Utah football team; Miss Sāmoa United States 2015 Megan Moana Palelei Ho Ching; Dr. Nia Aitaoto, Director of the Center for Pacific Islander Health at the University of Arkansas, and international model Diamond Langi, who is of Tongan descent and used to live here in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Cultural Exchanges

Because we are a culture based school, cultural exchanges and the transference of cultural knowledge and values is a foundational part of our scholar's learning experience. We've been blessed to host cultural experts and practitioners from all over the world, sharing their mana with our scholars. Our visitors have included the 'Atenisi Performing Arts Group from the 'Atenisi Institute, Tonga; Tongan artist and educator Dagmar Vaikalafi Dyck from New Zealand; Tahitian cultural practitioners Cathy Teriipaia and Iona Papi Teriipaia from Lā'ie, Hawaii; Tahitian drumming expert Teraboy Tekurio of the award winning 'Ori Tahiti dance group Hitia O Te Ra; Kūpuna from the NAPALI Leadership Institute, Hawaii; internationally renown modern dance group Black Grace from New Zealand, and Māori educators Rereata Mākiha and Nikora Wharerau, visitors also from New Zealand.

College Access

Preparing our scholars for higher education is one of our highest priorities. In our research, access to college and universities is often met with many barriers for communities of color. One of those barriers is simply the lack of access, a barrier we figured we can easily remove by creating partnerships with local colleges and universities to bring college to Mana Academy. Another solution was to integrate higher education into the culture of our school so that our scholars, even as young as kindergarten, are exposed to thinking and talking about higher education. Our scholars participated in college door decorating contests, wore college attire on every first Friday of the month, conducted science labs, nutrition classes, learned about medicine from University of Utah medical students, took many field trips to universities and sat in on classes, and received direct advice and guidance from college admission experts.

Part 2 (coming soon)

[More photos are on our Facebook page]

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