‘American Idol’ Winner Iam Tongi’s High School Hopes He Can Graduate

Iam Tongi

Heavy/ABC Composite image of "American Idol" winner Iam Tongi and a graduation cap

The final weeks of competition on “American Idol” are a whirlwind of activity for contestants, and winning the show — as 18-year-old Iam Tongi did on May 21, 2023 — brings even more schedule-wrangling, from media appearances to travel to meetings with music executives. It would be dizzying for anyone, let alone a high school senior with graduation weeks away.

Though ABC does provide tutoring for minors with on-set teacher Lena L. Liu behind the scenes, keeping up with homework can be challenging given the busy schedule. In 2022, when 16-year-old contestant Emyrson Flora was competing, the Akron Beacon Journal reported that she and other minors on the show were required to attend a certain number of school hours per week behind-the-scenes. During Season 21, 17-year-old contestant Haven Madison shared photos in her Instagram Stories of working with Liu — and a post with her dog Romeo – in between rehearsals and fittings.

Because Tongi is technically an adult, it’s not known whether he actually had to focus on schoolwork as much as his younger castmates while on the show. One of his teachers at his high school has revealed in a new interview that it was sometimes tough for Tongi to get his homework in on time even before he was on “Idol.” With the school’s graduation ceremony scheduled for June 12, the staff is working to help Tongi get caught up enough to receive his diploma with the rest of his class.

Iam Tongi’s Classmates Were Surprised by His Name During ‘Idol’

Though Tongi grew up in Kahuku, Hawaii, he famously told celebrity judges Lionel Richie, Katy Perry, and Luke Bryan during his “Idol” audition that his family had been “priced out of paradise” after his dad, Rodney, suffered a heart attack and they had to move to Federal Way, Washington — located about 40 minutes from Seattle — when he was a freshman in high school.

In early March, he told the Federal Way Mirror that when he lived in Hawaii, “everyone knew everyone” and he was used to walking around barefoot “chasing wild chickens” in the warm climate. The paper said it was “culture shock” for the teen when he enrolled at Federal Way High School in Washington. He later transferred to the district’s Decatur High School and said he had no problem making friends.

“It’s easy for me to make friends,” he said. “I talk to someone, and we’re friends.”

And, according to his current English teacher at Decatur High School, it probably helps that he makes music wherever he goes, too.

“The kid walked around the school hallways with his guitar,” Matt Vaeena told the Seattle Times on May 25. 

The biggest surprise to him and Tongi’s classmates, Vaeena revealed, was that the singer went by the first name Iam on “American Idol.”

He explained, “We were watching in class after his first audition, and he said, ‘Iam,’ and we’re just looking at each other. I don’t know if that’s a previous nickname from his family, but in school, everyone just knows him as Will or William.”

Tongi’s birthname, William, is what will likely appear on his high school diploma, which he’s scheduled to receive with the rest of his class of 2023 when Decatur holds its graduation ceremony on the evening of June 9 — as long as he gets caught up on all he’s missed.

“We’ve built a plan for him to be able to meet the graduation requirements that he needed to and have the opportunity to walk with his class” at graduation, Vaeena told the paper.

Since flying to New York for media appearances right after winning “American Idol,” Tongi has been back at home in Federal Way with his family and his bulldogs, trying to catch up on schoolwork, the Seattle Times reported.

Even before becoming a celebrity, Vaeena said Tongi is “definitely a kid that I had to wrangle a couple times and really get on for getting things done, but he was able to get everything he needed to get done in the first semester and I’m sure in the next couple of days he’ll be able to wrap up the second semester as well.”

In honor of the teen’s continued success on “Idol,” the Federal Way city council declared March 21 “Iam Tongi Day” and he played the song “Courage” for them at one of their meetings, before he headed to Hollywood for the live shows in April.

Iam Tongi Receives Honorary Diploma from Kahuku High School

On May 16, during Tongi’s hometown visit to Kahuku, on the island of Oahu, residents lined the streets to welcome him home and over 14,000 people attended a free concert featuring him and several other well-known Hawaiian acts, including Jack Johnson.

Kahuku High School, where he would have graduated from had he not moved to Washington, gave Tongi with an honorary diploma and red cap and gown, presented by the school’s principal, Dr. Donna Lindsey.

“As an honorary (diploma), it was done by the senior class who wanted to really honor him and give him that,” Kela Miller, Kahuku Alumni Association Chairman of the Board, told KITV4. “It’s the first time in history that i know of that they’ve done something like this.”

Tongi briefly addressed the packed football stadium, full of students who watched him receive the diploma and perform a song.

He said, “I just wanted to say thank you all you guys – Kahuku for bringing me home. Red Raider for life!”

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