PROVO — For Latter-Day Saint Stake President Semisi Makai, getting an education is important, especially since he was never able to get one himself.
Makai, who grew up in Tonga, had no official schooling past grade school. He moved to America at 18 and took a few college courses at Utah Valley University as an adult before being called to his position in the church.
He now has three children set to graduate from college.
"We came from the island to America to live a better life and that's what's important. You have to go to school and be educated to not only to be a good citizen of America but to be a good member of the church," Makai said.
Last August, the Tongan and Samoan Community in the Provo Utah Wasatch Stake began the Makai Reading Initiative. It was developed to get kids engaged in reading throughout the summer.
More than 1,000 people from the Provo Utah Wasatch Tongan Stake gathered Saturday at Grandview Park to celebrate 11,000 hours of turning pages and the first anniversary of the reading initiative.
The festival included enough food to feed an army and kids of all ages ran from bounce house to dunk tank dancing and laughing.
With over 400 kids in the program after just a year, program organizer 'Afa Palu feels like they are on the right track.
"A lot of Pacific Islanders are dropping out of high schools so we wanted to address the reading problems we face in the primary level," Palu said.
Only five percent of Pacific Islanders in Utah tested "college ready," in reading, math, science and English according to ACT testing scores from 2013. Only 16 percent were proficient in reading.
"If only 16 percent are ready you can deduce that 84 percent of them are not," Palu said. "We would like to eliminate that, or reduce it significantly to less than 10 percent over the next ten years."
With the help of his wife Kalisi, Palu, who is working on a Ph.D. in Educational Leadership and Foundations from Brigham Young University and is set to graduate in August, is hoping to change that by getting young students interested in reading.
Makeili Ika, age 9, read every single day in preparation for the festival. She said that she understands the importance of reading when it comes to her goal of one day going to BYU.
"It’s been really fun and exciting because I've gotten to read a bunch of different stories," she said. "It will help me learn different words in school and help me get better grades."
Makeili's mom, Lupe Ika said she was proud of her daughter and what she has accomplished with the help of the program. "It has been good for her ... sometimes I have to remind her to read but most of the days she knows she has to do her reading."
"When they catch us reading, in fact my 7-year-old saw my husband reading ... and told him to fill out his own reading sheet for the Stake Carnival," Stake Primary President, Nani Foster said. "My kids have been reading every day for 20 minutes; I don’t even have to remind them anymore."
The Utah State Office of Education also appreciates the work of the Tongan community because it bridges the gap between teachers and parents, taking the goals of the classroom back to students' home life.
"It should be a good stepping stone towards higher achievement … If more groups would do that, I think they would see the benefits as well," said Jennifer Throndsen, the Literacy Coordinator for the Teaching and Training Department of the Utah State Office of Education.
Throndsen said Utah students are required to take a benchmark assessment at the start of each school year to help teachers pinpoint learning areas that need improvement.
"We still have kids who struggle with reading no matter what their background, so what we do doesn’t depend on the race or ethnicity or background of that student but rather what they need instructionally to move them forward," Throndsen said.
According to the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress Scores, there is still some work to be done in reading proficiency in Utah’s Polynesian community. But the gap is closing.
Eighth-grade reading scores for Asian and Pacific Islander students in Utah climbed seven points between 2011 and 2013, to 264 on a 500 point scale. That is 10 points below their white peers.
Those numbers encourage people like Palu to push forward with the goals of the reading program.
By next year, he hopes to increase participation to 1,000 readers and double the amount of reading time logged to 20,000 hours.
President Makai hopes so too. "Today I have been one-on-one with over 400 little primary children, meeting with them, encouraging them, and talking to them about reading and education."
Makai said the program has been a blessing in his own life and in the lives of the families who have participated.