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A Tale of Two Schools in Hawaii

Nanakuli High and Intermediate School. Moanalua High School. Both of these public schools have big reputations, good and bad. We spent time on each campus to find out what they’re really like. It may surprise you.


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2012 Grading the Public Schools Chart

Inside one of Nanakuli’s New Tech Academy classrooms, 10th grader Gabe Asinsin learns about U.S. history.

photo: david croxford

"Don’t leave for recess until you think of something to protest,” hollers Dennis Tynan over the chatter of 50 tenth graders. No, Tynan isn’t trying to incite a school riot. Rather, in small groups, his students need to come up with something, anything, to protest for their next humanities class project: Occupy American Studies.

The sophomores sit grouped at tables. Every student wears a gold T-shirt, emblazoned with the school’s mascot, a hawk; it’s their school uniform. In front of them are black, 13-inch Toshiba laptops, used to research and create their projects. Next to the classroom’s whiteboard is a poster with the Batman logo; below it reads, “Be a Hero.”

This is Nanakuli High and Intermediate School’s New Tech Academy, the school’s innovative project-based learning model. They are early adopters; the academy is supposed to include all Nanakuli high-school students by school year 2013-2014.

For more than a decade, HONOLULU Magazine has scrutinized Hawaii’s public education system, and ranked the schools using DOE data. Year after year, Hawaii state assessment scores and school surveys show a wide performance gap. We wanted to spend time in two of Oahu’s high schools to explore why that might be, to see what life is like, for students, teachers and administrators. Nanakuli, for instance, has an islandwide reputation as a rough school in a rough, low-income neighborhood. Start typing “Nanakuli” in the YouTube search box and the first suggestions that appear are “Nanakuli fights” and “Nanakuli riots.” But the school is more than the on-campus fights, its students are more than they’ve been stereotyped to be and not all of its teachers give up and leave. Not that the school doesn’t face big challenges.

 We also went 23 miles east and visited Moanalua High School, another public school with a reputation, albeit a more positive one. The school is perhaps best known for its prestigious orchestra and symphony, and its high-achieving students. We wanted to know, why is Moanalua well ranked and why does Nanakuli struggle?

What’s Working: New Tech Academy

It’s 8 a.m. on a sunny Tuesday at Nanakuli. The sprawling campus, with the Waianae Mountains as its backdrop, has undergone recent, modest renovations. Inside the round, one-story E Building, most New Tech students are in their classrooms staring at their computer screens.

In 2010, Kamehameha Schools granted $1.4 million to provide teacher training and support to get New Tech—part of the national New Tech Network—off the ground, at both Nanakuli and Waianae High School. So far, among its participating students, attendance has skyrocketed to 98 percent and the ninth-grade failure rate has dropped 15 percent from the 2009-2010 school year. Right now, it’s the most concrete example of Hawaii’s Race to the Top reforms in progress at the school level. (Race to the Top is a federal education initiative: In 2010, the Hawaii DOE was awarded $75 million over four years, for several statewide initiatives.)

How does project-based learning work? It’s markedly different from traditional teaching, or “sage on the stage,” as teachers call it. Many teachers were wary of the model at first, says Tynan, including himself. Instead of students listening to a lecture, scribbling notes and taking tests to show they retained—or memorized—the content, they learn by working in groups on workshops and projects as well as individual assignments.

“For the vast majority of kids, I don’t think they retained the content anyway from my traditional teaching,” says Tynan. “Whereas, with project-based learning, what I see with kids is they really retain the content … I see it from project to project.”

These projects require extensive teacher planning. “You have to be communicating constantly,” says Kim Coleman, who teaches American Studies together with Tynan. Coleman and her colleagues mold each project around what students need to learn in their core subjects by using DOE education benchmarks. The teachers also meet every Thursday. “This is something that never happened when I was in the traditional classroom.”

Want to read more of our education coverage from May 2012? Check out the links below.

Video Q&A with Don Horner and Kathryn Matayoshi

From Iolani School to Moanalua High School: A Parents’ Tale

Q&A: How is the DOE helping poor-performing schools?

Q&A: Why don't all public schools have midterms and final exam weeks?

Q&A: Why don't student representatives get a vote?

Q&A: What do schools have in place to ensure communication with parents?

Q&A: Kamehameha Schools Focuses on Public Schools Along the Waianae Coast


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