LAIE, Hawaii — Some people at the Mormon-affiliated Polynesian Cultural Center only know her as Sheena, a part-time Maori musician, but to 600-plus students as well as the 52 faculty members she oversees every weekday, she’s Mrs. Alaiasa, principal of Samuel Wilder King Intermediate School in Kaneohe, Oahu.
The Hawaii Association of Secondary School Administrators recently named her State Middle School Principal of the Year, based on her excellence in professional growth, collaborative leadership, advancements in curriculum, instruction and assessment, and personalization of learning.
With that honor, she went on to become the first person from Hawaii to be nominated as a national middle school principal of the year finalist; and she recently returned from Washington, D.C., where she’s vying for the national principal of the year title, which will be announced in September.
“It was a humbling experience in D.C. to be around people who have had more tragedy and troubles than I’ve ever had,” said Alaiasa, who is part-Maori. “One principal had to deal with all of the tragedy during Hurricane Katrina, and build the school up from rubble. Another was the principal who dealt with the shooting at Columbine High School. They are amazing people.”
Win or not, Alaiasa has come a long way from the small North Island town of Turangi, New Zealand; and as with some achievement stories, she almost didn’t become an educator: After graduating from Church College of New Zealand near Hamilton, she migrated to Australia where she worked for six years on the trading floor of the Sydney Stock Exchange.
“We had an economic crash in 1988,” she said of going from a high-paid job in Australia to being a BYU-Hawaii student in Laie. “I saw a trader jump out a window, which freaked me out. We also had riots on the trading floor, and we had to be escorted out by police. That scared me into thinking that’s not where I wanted to be. I knew I needed to get an education so I’d know what I can do.”
She enrolled at BYU-Hawaii in 1989 and started working that same year as a Polynesian Cultural Center musician. She married Norris Alaiasa from American Samoa in 1992, and they have two daughters: Risha, who recently left for Taft College in California, and Sheris, who graduated from Kahuku High in 2012 and “is saving up for a mission.”
After earning an elementary education degree from BYU-Hawaii in ’95, Alaiasa taught for four years at Kahaluu Elementary, served one year at Kailua Elementary as a vice principal, put in another year as vice principal at Heeia Elementary and then became principal there. She has spent the past six years as principal at King Intermediate.
It takes balance for Alaiasa to work as principal of a large intermediate school throughout the day, then sing for several hours at the Polynesian Cultural Center night show.
“I’ve done many educational presentations, and been in many others, and they all say you’ve got to have balance,” she responded. “PCC is my balance. It’s the place I can come to enjoy the ambiance and be around friends. You don’t get that very often in the Department of Education. Church, my family and PCC help me to maintain balance.
“I also use a lot of the concepts I’ve learned at PCC and apply them throughout my day,” Alaiasa said. “For example, I use former PCC President Lester Moore’s SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis, although as educators we call it comprehensive needs assessment. I also like the center’s customer service focus.
“I’ve actually brought our teachers to Laie every other year so they can have the PCC experience, and share it with their students and parents as well as each other. It’s been quite successful. One of the things we’ll do is a scavenger hunt in which we look for characteristics and values we might take back to the classroom."
Sharing her talents at the Polynesian Cultural Center of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has also helped her be bolder about sharing the gospel.
“PCC has also been a great missionary tool learning experience for me. Because I am grounded and know gospel principles, and at PCC we actually work and live them, I’ve been better able to share them," Alaiasa said.
“My colleagues and supervisors always ask me, ‘Why are you so different?’ Even when I was in Washington, they asked me, ‘Why is it that you’re different?’
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“I tell them it’s the core values of being a Latter-day Saints and having had fundamental gospel principles taught to my brothers, Sean and Seamus Fitzgerald, and I at a young age," she said. "It also has a lot to do with learning and growing here at Polynesian Cultural Center, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. I try to promote it and what we stand for whenever I can.
"I even wore my PCC shirt to the nominations banquet.”
Mike Foley currently volunteers his Internet content skills for the Polynesian Cultural Center's 50th anniversary website at www.pcc50.com and other outlets.