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High School: An Inside Story

Minutes before the bell for the day’s first class, kids lean against the gray cinder-block walls of the I Building, sit on the sidewalk next to the soda machine outside the Student Center, hang out on benches in Mene Square, named after the school’s mascot, the menehune.


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Drama students David Serrao IV and Rachel Nagata.

The boy he’s singled out is dressed almost all in black—plain black T-shirt, baggy black pants and spotless white sneakers. His girlfriend, a sophomore, is almost all in white, wearing a cropped polo shirt and miniskirt. She sits beside him, her arm linked through his.

Their conversation stops as soon as I approach. But they’re willing to talk.

“So what do you guys think about school?” I ask.

“Shitty,” says the boy, who tells me he’s a junior. He looks up at me from the top of his reflective sunglasses. “It’s the same thing every day,” he says.

“I’d rather just stay home,” says his girlfriend.

“Well, what can Moanalua do to make school better for you?” I ask.

“Have less classes,” he says.

“Aren’t there any classes that you do like?” I ask him.

“No, it’s all the same.”

“You like Team Sports,” his girlfriend reminds him helpfully.

“Oh yeah, I like Team Sports,” he says.


“Is that ice cream for breakfast?” I ask Isaac*, as we walk to his first class of the day.

“Slush float,” he says between spoonfuls. “From Byron’s [Drive Inn].”

Galera introduced me to Isaac, a special education student, earlier in the week. For privacy reasons, I can’t divulge many details about him. But I can say he was probably one of the most good-natured, insightful students I met during my week.

He used to attend a leeward Oahu school, but likes it much better at Moanalua. “It’s so different here,” Isaac says. “Over there, you get D-plusses and the teachers just pass you, not say nothing. Here, you get a D-plus, the teachers expect you to improve. They ask you if you need help. That’s the difference, they come to you.”

Special education classes tend to be much smaller than general classes. For example, it’s not unusual for one special-education teacher to have just a handful of students, even with an educational assistant.

“I want to be a stevedore,” Isaac tells me, as he finishes up his final project of the quarter. “I got uncles who work for them. Once I get in, I’m set—get dental, medical, everything.”

I tell him, “It’s good you know people in the union.”

“Yeah, that’s the only way you get in,” Isaac replies matter-of-factly. “It’s not what you know. It’s who you know.”

One in 10 students at Moanalua—or 200 out of 2,000—are considered special education. Earlier in the week, I’d met students with physical disabilities—a girl with Downs syndrome, a boy with cerebral palsy, students who worked on skills more functional than academic. Like picking up a cup or crossing the street.

Special education students range from students with physical abilities to those with learning disorders, such as dyslexia. Though it may surprise people, under the Felix consent decree, Hawaii’s public schools even consider emotional disorders—anxiety and depression, for instance—potential disabilities. Kory Kazo-Fukuda is Moanalua’s behavioral health specialist, working with students who need help beyond what their academic counselors can offer.

“It’s just as debilitating to have an emotional impairment as any other impairment, and we have to treat it that way,” Kazo-Fukuda says.

Emotional disorders can lead to aggression or agitation in class, she says. The frequency and severity of such incidents separates the kids who are just acting up from those with serious emotional problems. Many of those same students often deal with substance-abuse problems, mainly alcohol and marijuana.

“Some of the stories these kids will tell you are horrible,” Galera would tell me later. Stories of domestic violence and abuse—one student even had a murdered relative die in his arms.

Isaac admits he wasn’t always this outgoing when he first came to Moanalua. He’s had to deal with tragic events in his own life.

“I don’t tell a lot of people about what happened, because I don’t want to use that as an excuse,” he tells me. “I still gotta work hard, you know.”


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Honolulu Magazine May 2019
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