Ready for the Real World?

Why Hawaii’s public education system isn’t doing enough to prepare your kids for life after high school.


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In a press release, Education Week editor and publisher Virginia Edward said, “Smart states, like smart companies, try to make the most of their investments by ensuring that young people’s education is connected from one stage to the next—reducing the chances that students will be lost along the way or require costly remedial programs to acquire skills or knowledge they could have learned right from the start.”

Hawaii is not one of those states. Most kids don’t even realize how much they’ve been shortchanged by the public education system until after they’ve graduated. A majority of recent graduates—65 percent of those in college and 77 percent not in college—say that, knowing what they know now, they would have worked harder in high school, according to a nationwide survey by Achieve Inc. What’s more, eight out of 10 say that they would have worked harder, had their high schools demanded more of them.

Photo by Sergio Goes

Adelina Reyes
College Student
University of Hawaii at Manoa

After graduating from Pearl City High School, Adelina Reyes took advantage of UH Manoa’s College Opportunities Program (COP), which helps students who don’t meet the college’s minimum admission requirements gain admission. The program puts students through an intensive, six-week summer program that includes classes on writing, history and college-survival tips. Through COP, Reyes got a head start over other incoming freshmen. “I got all A's in English in high school, but that’s because the classes I had weren’t that challenging,” she says. “I thought I was so good at writing, but when I came to my first COP class, I realized how different college writing was from high school. It helped me find out where my weaknesses were.”

Ready for College?

Last March, more than 60 educators, counselors and program directors gathered at the Hawaii Convention Center for the first time to discuss ways to get more kids into college and to keep them there. Attendees were all members of the Hawaii College Access Network, an association of the many programs created to fill in the gaps in student preparation left by the DOE.

Before introducing the keynote speaker, Linda Johnsrud, University of Hawaii vice president of academic planning and policy, addressed the crowd. “We have always been interested in enrollments for the sake of enrollments,” she said. “Today we need to think in terms of Hawaii and the state. Access [to college] with success is about the quality of life for all of Hawaii.”

Many public school students don’t even qualify to get into UH Manoa, which accepts nearly 70 percents of its applicants. The university requires most first-year freshmen to have scored 510 in each of three sections of the SAT. Last year, the average public school student scored only 460 in reading, 484 in math and 448 in the new writing section.

Of all of the organizations calling for the DOE to better prepare students, the UH system is the one doing the most about it. Its incentive is not just to boost enrollment numbers, but also to reduce the number of first-year students who need to catch up. More than 60 percent of public school graduates in the UH system require remedial reading classes. At the community colleges, which have no academic requirements, most recent high school graduates need remedial courses—68 percent in English and 89 percent in math.

Students who struggle through classes in their freshman year often get discouraged and drop out. Remember the 34 out of 100 ninth graders who will make it to college? Only 22 will return for their second year, and only 12 will earn a degree within six years.

Even students who arrive on campus with stellar high school transcripts aren’t always ready for college. No one knows that better than Mike Maglaya, director of the UH College Opportunities Program. The program helps students who don’t meet the university’s minimum academic requirements gain admission into UH Manoa. His office reviews more than 300 applications each year and selects 75 students who will get the rare second chance at admission into the university, regard less of their transcripts and test scores.

Certain public schools are more likely to give students A grades for work that might be considered mediocre in other schools, Maglaya says. He’s seen local valedictorians flunk out of college.

“Some schools are known for grade inflation—nobody wants to touch that, but it’s a reality,” Maglaya says. “We see a lot of students who get As in English for four years, but their application essay is like sixth-grade writing—why is that? We’re seeing more and more of that. A lot of people look good on paper, but there’s a disconnect between what’s on paper and their actual ability.”

Ready for Work?   

Most public high school students will skip college for the workforce, but the outlook for those graduates is no brighter than that of their college-going classmates.

 “If you look at jobs that pay well, many require college education,” says Michael Rota, UH associate vice president for academic affairs. “But you can get a living-wage job that doesn’t require college education. The issue is that if students aren’t prepared with the right set of skills in high school, they’re not prepared to go on to college or work.”

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