Hawai‘i’s Private Schools Offer a Variety of Settings, Experiences and Opportunities
think private school and you may conjure images of sprawling learning centers and a sea of graduation gowns. But parents often turn to independent schools to give their kids the opposite experience—small classes, more personal attention and greater access to opportunities.
Every campus is different but when we visited three schools—Assets School in Honolulu, Parker School in Waimea and Saint Mark Lutheran School in Kāne‘ohe—we found some common traits. For one, they have a scrappy, can-do ethos that sees possibility everywhere. An old storeroom tucked into the side of a portable? With cyan and magenta paint, a wall-sized chalkboard and a collection of large wooden blocks, you have a space to create. Middle schoolers at Assets School helped conceptualize and execute one such makeover.
Teachers are hardworking, able to cross disciplines and fill gaps. Spearhead spring trips to Hawai‘i Island and the Challenger Center at Barbers Point, coach students to big wins in the 2019 Stock Market Game, and lead a fourth-grade classroom every day? Miriam McMillian from Saint Mark Lutheran has calmly managed to pull all these off.
And these small schools know their students. Not only is homework tracked, but teachers also keep tabs on a more personal level. Do kids seem happy and engaged? Are they struggling with friendships? Are they ready for the next chapter of their lives, and taking steps to get there? For the latter, Parker School’s dedicated college counselor, Joanie Brotman, makes sure they are. She helps match seniors with the colleges that fit them best, and their parents to funding—a sometimes overlooked piece of the college puzzle.
Despite similarities, each school takes its own approach to education, tailoring curriculum to the student body and focusing on programs that make sense from logistical and financial perspectives. Let’s take a look at some of these small campuses that pack a big punch.
The old Parker Ranch headquarters in Waimea now houses classrooms for 320 students.
An academic powerhouse, deep in paniolo country
65-1224 Lindsey Road, Kamuela, (808) 885-7933
Enrollment: 320 students in K–12
Student/faculty ratio: 9:1
Award-winning speech and debate team
Soccer, cross-country, basketball, volleyball, and track and field teams
Financial aid and academic scholarships
At 2,676 feet above sea level, the air is noticeably crisper in Waimea than along the perimeter of the Big Island. Views of Mauna Kea, often wrapped in bands of clouds, lend an otherworldly quality to the place. In the center of town is the old Parker Ranch headquarters, a set of red wooden structures that now form the heart of the 23-acre Parker School.
Students from as far away as Hilo and Kailua-Kona commute to this campus of 320 students, kindergarten through 12th grade. They’re drawn to the strong academics, arts, sports and activities—all the offerings of a big school in a homey setting. For a small school in a small town, the ambition and drive evident is striking, though it’s tempered by a laid-back sensibility.
It’s Monday morning and the beginning of Family Meeting, a weekly assembly in a former theater constructed by Marines during World War II. Students lead the meeting, sharing news and information. Senior Malia Dills takes the stage to explain how the United Nations sustainable development goals relate to Hawai‘i. She’s heading to Columbia University next year through a QuestBridge scholarship for economically disadvantaged students. At Parker School, nearly half the students receive aid of some kind.
Hunter Kalahiki-Arnbrister, a junior studying in the main hall, an airy structure built in 1915, jumps up from his work to greet us. Headmaster Carl Sturges praises the student’s recent success at the statewide speech and debate tournament. Hunter says he had to catch up some after transferring in ninth grade but has excelled since. He’s now looking forward to studying political science, gender studies, history and/or linguistics at a Mainland college.
Parker School offers 10 honors classes and 12 Advanced Placement courses including English literature and language, U.S. and European history, calculus, biology, chemistry, physics and fine arts. In Heidi Buscher’s art studio, students are finalizing their portfolios to send to an outside review committee. A record 60 students signed up for her three AP art classes—2D studio art, 3D studio art and drawing. Last year, nearly all passed the difficult exam, as did most of the 58 students who took 109 AP tests in the previous year: 91% passed with scores of 3, 4 or 5, compared with the state average of 53%.
Beyond advanced classes, Upper School students are required to take four years of English; three years of history/social studies, math, science and Spanish; and two years of visual/performing arts and athletics/PE. An additional five required electives can be filled with engineering classes or by competing on the speech and debate team, serving on the student council or working as a teaching assistant—great ways to get more reluctant kids to participate in school life.
Educators here work hard to engage students to try new things without fear of failure or ridicule. “The gift we give these kids is just to be who they are. The classes are so accepting of everyone,” says Brotman. “As a teen, that’s rare but valuable.”
While grades six and nine are common entry points at Parker School, possibly the most competitive year is kindergarten, where 16 children start their education in the L-shaped Lower School. The decade-old building is on the eastern edge of the campus, flanked by playgrounds and rolling green fields. Jackie Sills, a Parker School graduate herself, teaches kindergartners fundamentals such as reading and socializing. Her calm but playful classroom features a loft area and an incubator, where a baby chick has just emerged from its shell and is testing its muscles.
Elementary and middle school students take core subjects just like their older peers, complemented by field trips, campouts, and club and team activities. The entire school is looking forward to the completion of a new multipurpose building, which will house a gymnasium, dance studio and 3,600-square-foot technology center to support the expanding STEM program.
“We’re not trying to be the biggest,” notes Sturges. “We just like to pack a lot of programming into a small school.”
The all-grade art show at Saint Mark Lutheran School.
Providing a solid education and moral foundation
Saint Mark Lutheran School
45-725 Kamehameha Highway, Kāne‘ohe, (808) 247-5589
Enrollment: 215 students in K–8 in the 2018-2019 school year. Pre-K for ages 3 and 4 opens in fall 2019
Student/faculty ratio: 12:1
Christian values emphasized
Cross-country, basketball, volleyball, and track and field teams
Financial aid available
Wednesday mornings at Saint Mark Lutheran start in the chapel. The older middle school students file through the doors with their designated buddies in the youngest grades for the lively event, filled with pop songs, movement, multimedia presentations and an undiluted Christian message. Saint Mark Lutheran takes its religious mission seriously. “We try hard to provide a sound education with character development and a strong moral foundation,” says David Gaudi, the head of school.
Like Parker School, Saint Mark Lutheran draws families from various communities, mostly from Waimānalo to Kahuku. Located near the juncture of the Likelike and Kamehameha highways, the 2.5-acre campus is surprisingly quiet and secluded, tucked between houses with expansive yards, beyond the commercial areas. With just one class per grade, and about 15–26 students per grade, the K–8 students are known and supported.
After chapel, we head to the gym, where teachers and students are installing an all-grades art show that opens the following evening. Fourth graders Halia, Mia, Josie and Peyton are helping to hang more than 2,000 pieces of art, from self-portraits to rock art. They’re excited to show off their creations. Working alongside them is teacher Miriam McMillian, whose students placed first and second in the 2019 state stock market competition. McMillian used the contest to weave in lessons about market trends and trading, how to research industries and companies, and how to use math to make predictions.
In Nathan Fosket’s fifth grade classroom, views of the Ko‘olau mountain range can be spotted from the north-facing windows. The class is enjoying downtime on school-issued iPads after turning in essay assignments, while individual students get one-on-one feedback on their writing—an essential but labor-intensive skill to teach.
On the south side of his classroom is a hill that kids race down to get to recess. Mele Manu watches over them. A librarian, teacher’s aide and playground monitor, she goes where help is needed most. She loves the family environment, having had two children graduate from the school. “We know all the students and most of the parents,” Manu says. “Teachers try to help kids individually if they need it. We know their strengths and weaknesses.”
That individual attention also goes into prepping kids for their next schools, says Gaudi. The staff meets with parents at the start of eighth grade to go over the application process and answer questions. The vast majority of students fan out into O‘ahu’s private high schools, both parochial and secular.
Saint Mark Lutheran offers music, which includes choirs in grades one through six and band for grades four through eight, as well as a robust financial aid program. About half of the students receive assistance, both from the school directly and from the Kīpona Scholarship Program administered through Kamehameha Schools.
Kamehameha Schools recently gave Saint Mark Lutheran a grant to help with the new Early Learning Center, a preschool scheduled to open in fall 2019. Three spacious classrooms and an outdoor play area for 3- and 4-year-olds will share space with a library, technology center, meeting rooms and more. The two-story facility is an exciting new endeavor for a small school.
Gracianne Young, a rising 10th grader at Assets School, adds color to a team-created mural on the Upper School campus.
Helping kids with learning differences succeed
Assets Lower School (K-8)
1 ‘Ohana Nui Way
Assets High School (9-12)
913 ‘Ālewa Drive, (808) 423-1356
Enrollment: 346 students in K–12
Student/faculty ratio: 8:1
Caters to students with learning differences
Mentorship program for grades 10–12
Full range of ILH sports in grades 7–12; CSAL basketball and volleyball in grades 4–6
Financial aid available
For some kids, school can be a source of frustration. If they struggle to follow instructions or can’t stay on task, that can land them in a downward cycle of feeling bad and acting out.
That’s where Assets School comes in. Unique among O‘ahu’s private schools, Assets caters to bright kids with learning differences—dyslexia, ADHD, or math or writing challenges. It uses what incoming head of school and former Lower School principal Ryan Masa calls a strengths-based approach. “Parents, teachers and pediatricians often talk about what kids don’t do well,” he says. “But it’s important that children are recognized for their strengths, interests and passions.”
Designated spaces for enrichment activities dot the Lower School campus, where students and teachers can pick from art, technology, drama, music, cooking and design-studio projects with 3D printers, laser cutters and materials such as wood, leather and porcelain. In grades seven and eight, student teams meet weekly to explore big-picture topics that grab their interests, then produce final projects showcasing their findings.
Located west of the Honolulu airport, the Lower School campus is made up of about 20 well-kept portable buildings loosely interlocked. Tented areas and landscaping link the campus for grades five to eight into a cohesive whole, while a new permanent K–4 Neighborhood has a contemporary flair, with sunny rooms and bright exteriors. A towering wooden play structure hugs the edge of campus.
Core academic subjects are taught in mixed classes, with kids grouped by level instead of age. Students are given lots of time for breaks, snacks and movement. In one elementary classroom, swivel chairs, yoga balls, tactile seat cushions and fidget items abound—nondisruptive ways to get the wiggles out.
Masa notes that landing the right teachers is essential at Assets. Teachers need to be not only open to being specially trained, but also tolerant of noise. “This school is louder and more active than most,” he says. “We find teachers who are OK with that, who totally accept kids for who they are.” One of those is kindergarten teacher Michelle Valenti: “My students are so unique and exciting. I go home smiling and happy every day.”
On a separate Upper School in the hills above town—the former campus of the Academy of the Pacific—about 150 students in grades nine to 12 take a college-prep curriculum that includes English, math, the sciences, social studies, music and world languages. Classes are small here as well, and students are given flexibility, with some advancing into calculus and others excelling in the arts.
Beyond academics, high schoolers participate in a mentorship program. Every Wednesday, students in grades 10–12 head to outside organizations, where they gain real-life experiences. For senior Connor Hummel, stints as an administrative assistant at the state Capitol for Hawai‘i state Sen. Cynthia Thielen, as a lab technician with the School for Ocean and Earth Science and Technology at the University of Hawai‘i, and as a blacksmithing student on the Assets campus have been invaluable. “It’s a great opportunity to take a test run of the real world,” he says.
Connor notes that those experiences combined with the academic load, including a senior independent research project in poetry and writing, have prepared him for the Honors College of Southern Oregon University, which he will attend in the fall.
Mahealani Gardiner is also heading to Oregon, but farther north to Linfield College, a small liberal arts school. She appreciates that Assets has taught her to advocate for herself and ask for extra time when needed. Mahealani’s two-year mentorship as an instructor with Hans Hedemann Surf School helped her overcome shyness, while her senior-year experience with Mokulele Airlines gave her a taste of potential careers in the aviation industry. “They treat you like family here,” says Mahealani. “I’ll miss the bond I have with the teachers and how the students all know everyone and help each other.”
There’s a great fit out there for every kind of learner. When families expand their search to schools of every size, they improve the odds of finding a nurturing environment where their children will learn and grow.