FOR ALMOST half his life, Paul Patu has run the South Pacific Islanders Intervention & Resource Services, a Seattle School District program credited with having led to the downfall of Samoan gangs in the '80s and boosting the number of minorities who made it through high school.

Advocates like Patu hit the streets and talked gang members out of killing each other and themselves. They involved kids in school, sports, drama, summer programs -- anything that would keep them off the streets. They held conferences with speakers, including former gang members, who testified to the life-saving benefits of programs that embrace underserved communities. They launched a task force to negotiate the culture shock Samoans feel in American high schools.

Despite all the good work, there's still more to be done. The dropout, suspension, and expulsion rates of Samoans remain disproportionately high, while test scores are exceptionally low. Statistics compiled by the Seattle School District show that the city's South Pacific Islander population, particularly Samoans, is regularly getting kicked out of school. According to a report released by the district two years ago, "In almost all years, in almost all disciplinary categories, the disproportionality ratio suffered by Samoan students is not only higher than other groups, it is much higher." Samoan high school students were almost nine times more likely than whites to be expelled in 1996-97. Forty percent of Samoan middle school students were suspended in 1997-98. Without programs such as Patu's, these "minorities of minorities" -- as Patu calls the 2,500 Islanders traditionally lumped together with people from all over Asia -- are stranded in a system which the district has unsuccessfully tried to turn into a level playing field.

Evidently, the school board agrees. Last July, school board member Michael Preston pushed through a package to fund Patu's program. However, not only hasn't the money come through, it appears as if Patu's program is about to get nixed. Patu's job description has changed; he has been effectively demoted; and his new supervisor gave him his first bad review in his 25 years with the district.

The real omen that Patu's program is in trouble, however, came last year when the district shut down the Diversity & Intervention Program at Rainier Beach High School, which also provided services to minorities, including Islanders. Patu's wife ran the program.

Patu is based in an office at Sharples Alternative School in the Rainier Valley. He has coordinated Samoan intervention services for the Seattle School District for more than 20 years, and he hopes never to retire. He feels younger than his age, which he's too proud to reveal publicly. He jokes that his mind is only 40, the light brown skin around his eyes wrinkling as he smiles.

He worries that the school district only offers one thing to Islanders -- a free meal. "I've seen some kids come and they leave after lunch," he says.

South Pacific Islander Intervention & Resource Services formed in 1972 under a slightly different name. The district recruited Patu in 1975, at a time when people from tiny islands 5,000 miles away in the South Pacific Ocean were moving into South, Central, and West Seattle, and riots broke out between them and other minorities. By the '80s, the Samoan community in Seattle was engulfed in gang violence.

The South Pacific Islander program acted as a catalyst for the city's efforts to defeat gangs, drugs, and alcohol abuse. Throughout this time, the school district matched the funds Patu raised from other sources to run a summer program designed to keep kids off the streets and out of trouble. Over the years Patu's program has received awards from foreign and local leaders for community service and education. The school district's support, however, has evaporated.

"I have been screaming for funding," Patu says. Each year he writes the district asking for money, and each year he gets no response. "These projects cost money, but much less money than ruined lives or maintaining an inmate in prison," Patu wrote to the school district in a plea for $50,000.

Part of the reason Patu's program is in trouble is because of a recent shift in the way the school district approaches ethnic diversity. According to Superintendent Joseph Olchefske, "A school is not a collection of individual programs; a school is a totality." While Olchefske acknowledges that there are disparities between ethnic groups, he says that mandated funding of special programs isn't the right answer. The district, he says, lets individual schools divvy up funds however they see fit.

The change began in 1997, when administrators decided to give funding to principals, whom the district calls CEOs, rather than to individual programs. Olchefske says the funding specified by Michael Preston's resolution went to the school that houses Patu's program for the staff to collectively ration. He says this is the way to get money to all students. "It isn't [Patu's] money. That money is the kids' money," Olchefske says.

Meanwhile, and somewhat conveniently, the administration has lost its confidence in Patu. After more than two decades of encouraging Patu's leadership by giving him "excellent" evaluations, the district made a few changes to his program. The most significant was their appointment of a supervisor, Marilla Griffin, who, Patu says, promptly threatened his job. Griffin denies the accusation.

For Olchefske, Patu's program is out of sync with the district's new mentality. The brand new school district's theoretic structure operates on the assumption that if academic standards are the same for all kids, every student will meet them. This new idealistic philosophy seems to ignore the result of years of racial discrimination.

The district is confident that after this "transition period," programs like Patu's will become obsolete. African American School Board Member Michael Preston, whose motion it was to give money to Islander programs, isn't so sure we've transcended racial and ethnic discrimination. "In theory those types of programs shouldn't be necessary," Preston says. "But they are.... Some things still have to be race-specific."