Eliandra Yatilman, a fourth grader at Auburn Elementary School, and Dale Dela Cruz, a North Salem High School senior, sing "Lava" at the Auburn Islander Club's first family night on Feb. 6, 2020 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

When Kimo Lewis attended Auburn Elementary School, there were a lot of Pacific Islanders, but they often didn’t feel connected to the school.

Now a junior at McKay High School, he’s helping create a community he didn’t have.

Lewis is among 10 Islander high school students mentoring Auburn’s newly created Islander Club.

Twice a week, they meet with Auburn students before school to teach ukulele, sing and dance, and do crafts, then stay with the students for breakfast.

“They’re talented,” Lewis said of the roughly 20 students in the club.

Pacific Islanders are a small but growing group of Salem-Keizer students: about 1,100 last year, largely concentrated in north and east Salem. Many are from the Marshall Islands and the Chuuk Islands, which are part of the Federated State of Micronesia.

Auburn Elementary is one school with a larger Islander population, about 30 students. Principal Katie Shumway said school staff were looking for a way to engage them and their families in school and started the club in October.

She and her teachers have seen participating students more enthusiastic to come to school. They’ve improved their attendance and feel more comfortable talking to adults at Auburn.

“It’s been a great way to build some relationships,” she said.

Auburn Elementary Islander Club members dance the Hokey Pokey at the school's first Islander family night on Feb. 6, 2020 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

As a group, Islander students have shown gains in attendance and graduation rates in recent years, but still lag behind district averages. State data shows they enter kindergarten in Salem-Keizer recognizing fewer letters and sounds than the average, score worse on state assessments and graduate at lower rates.

Many families struggle with language barriers. While Salem-Keizer has ample translators and materials available for Spanish-speaking families, information often isn’t available in Marshallese or Chuukese.

“Some of us, our parents, they just came from the islands. They don’t really speak English,” Lewis said.

To help close the gap, district administrators hired Ken Ramirez, a community outreach worker who mentors Islander students, helping them with scheduling, transportation, and checking in on those struggling with grades.

He created a peer mentorship class for McKay and North Salem high school students active in their respective Islander clubs to mentor the Auburn students. It’s a task they’ve taken on with enthusiasm.

“It reminds me of my little cousins back home,” said DJ Andrew, a senior at McKay and the treasurer of the school’s Islander Club.

“It’s a blessing to be here,” Lewis said.

Auburn Elementary School Principal Katie Shumway, right, dances the Hokey Pokey during the school's first Islander Club family night on Feb. 6, 2020 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Thursday night, Auburn hosted its first family night for Islander families. High school students passed out plastic leis at the door as Auburn club members practiced their ukulele skills.

A few dozen parents and relatives sat at tables in the school gym, eating fried chicken, salad and rice. After a brief introduction by Shumway and Ramirez, the Auburn students sang “Lava” and played “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” on their ukuleles, with help from their high school mentors.

Then, the group led everyone in a high-energy rendition of the Hokey Pokey. It’s not a traditional Islander dance, but students wanted to start the Auburn kids off with something they were familiar with.

Several high school students said the Auburn club members can already show them up on the dance floor.

“These kids got skills. And they usually make fun of me,” North Salem senior Dale Dela Cruz said.

Reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.