Ready for the Real World?

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


(page 3 of 5)

Photo by Sergio Goes

Hawaii Carpenters Union
Apprenticeship Program

In 2004, around 40 percent of applicants to the Hawaii Carpenters Union’s apprenticeship program flunked its entrance exam—an eighth-grade level math test. Union head Ron Taketa says recent high school graduates are often surprised that math skills are essential to the trade. The apprenticeship program includes this class on metal house framing, where student A.J. Luis (center) is learning his trade.

Employers have had to come up with ways to compensate for what the DOE didn’t teach kids in the 13 years it had them. Take the Hawaii Carpenters Union, which, in 2004, launched its biggest recruitment drive in years for new apprentices. Applicants were eligible if they had a high school diploma and passed an eighth-grade-level math test, which  focused mainly on basic functions—addition, subtraction, multiplication and division—and fractions and decimals.

Forty percent of applicants flunked the test. But rather than eliminate nearly half of its potential new members, the union created a remedial math class to prep applicants for the test.

“It’s not our role to fill in these gaps for the DOE,” says the union’s financial secretary and business representative, Ron Taketa. “But given the fact that you face huge shortages of qualified people, do you wait for the DOE to change? Or do you do what you gotta do to make sure your business stays afloat now?”
Taketa feels that students who don’t plan to go to college get the least benefit out of their high school educations, a gripe shared by many employers around the state. Schools need to do a better job of exposing all students to a range of career possibilities, he says. 

“The school system does not help orient them to what jobs are available in the community and the kind of skills they’ll need for gainful employment,” Taketa says. “Learning needs to become more relevant to what they’re doing in the competitive world, as opposed to sitting in a class and getting ready to take a test in the absence of any practical application.”

Most trade jobs don’t require applicants to be college educated, but many do require on-the-job training beyond high school. Applicants are often surprised at the level of complexity and technology in today’s blue-collar occupations, which require workers to master much more than just the hammer and nail.
At the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1186, ideal candidates would have taken Algebra II and III in high school, because electrical calculations often involve trigonometry and quadratic equations. But the union can’t afford to raise its minimum math requirement above Algebra I, because many applicants fail to meet even that standard.

“The level of applicants we’re seeing, especially on the Neighbor Islands, is pretty sad,” says Gerald Yuh, IBEW’s business representative and financial secretary. “They think they’re going to work in air-conditioned buildings and change light bulbs, and that’s far from the truth. When you’re putting up multimillion-
dollar high-rises, you’re working out in the hot sun and the level of understanding necessary to decipher engineering specifications and blueprints is very, very high.”

Graduates who realize they don’t have what it takes for the workforce often enroll in community college. The community colleges specialize in teaching skills students didn’t acquire in high school, says Rota. Anyone age 18 or over can enroll; they don’t even need a high school diploma.

“Students who come to the community colleges tend to be a few years older than first-year students at UH Manoa,” he says. “They’ve run into the reality that they don’t have a set of skills to make them employable as apprentices or to go into a company training program.”

What Is Anyone Doing About It?      

If so many graduates leave high school unprepared for college or work, what is a Hawaii diploma even worth? For all this talk of standards-based education in the DOE, many local employers dismiss a high school diploma as nothing more than a certificate of attendance.

“For the most part, after the fifth grade, the Hawaii public schools are very much like a day care versus an educational institution,” says local advertising executive David Rolf, a longtime proponent of a uniform, more rigorous curriculum for all DOE schools. “An educational institution would have a specified curriculum and would have a central objective, but we don’t have anything like that.”

The state is finally starting to ask itself what a high school diploma should mean for all 11,000 students who graduate from its public schools every year. Last year, the DOE, UH, Gov. Linda Lingle and the Business Roundtable signed on to the American Diploma Project (ADP), a national effort to help public school systems close the gap between high school requirements and post-graduation expectations. The project helps states align the curriculums of high schools and colleges to improve the transition.

 “In the DOE, there’s a flood of info, explaining things soup to nuts—what this does is strip a lot of that away and ask, 'What is the barest minimum a student needs to get out of high school?’” says Kathy Jaycox, interim director of the Hawaii P-20 Initiative. “Employers and college expectations are virtually identical, so if we’re saying high school graduates should be college- and work-ready, it’s only fair to high schools to tell them what college- and work-ready means.”

While the state tries to figure out how to make a Hawaii high school diploma more meaningful, individual schools have already implemented their own ideas. Several high schools have changed not only what they teach their students, but how they teach them.   

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