Choosing the Right School for Your Child

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Thinking about sending your child to a private school in Hawaii? Robert Witt, executive director of the Hawaii Association for Independent Schools (HAIS), has two words of advice: “Don’t panic.”

“Some parents can work themselves into a frenzy,” agrees Karen Muramoto, director of admissions at Sacred Hearts Academy. The focus on “getting in” can turn the application process into a sustained tactical campaign, with parents swapping the numbers of their tutoring agencies and trading strategies for ensuring that their child’s envelope winds up at the top of the pile.

Well-meaning advice rains in from all sides, adds Elaine Nelson, director of admissions at Seabury Hall on Maui. “Parents hear, ‘Well, did you do this? Did you do that? Oh, you didn’t? Oh, my gosh, well, you’re not going to get in.”

It’s enough to send you running for cover—but “a lot of that, it’s just external noise that parents shouldn’t have to deal with,” says Nelson.

Your child’s education is one of the most important investments you will ever make. Investments succeed when they are based on patient research and clear-eyed judgment—not fashion or frenzy—so it’s important to step back and get some perspective on a process that can easily make your head spin.

The Self-Determining School

There are just under 400 schools in the state of Hawaii. Of that number, 120 are licensed independent schools, operating outside of the state-funded educational system. Unlike public schools, which are held to centralized standards, independent schools are self-determining; they set their own priorities and goals, and choose how they reach those goals. They provide an educational alternative—or rather, many alternatives.

Since each independent school has a distinct mission that defines why it exists and what kind of child it will serve best, every school is different—and each “does a particularly good job with a particular type of child,” says Witt.

Some schools, like ASSETS in Honolulu, serve children with special educational circumstances. Some will give your child a Catholic, Buddhist or Episcopal education. At some independent schools, there might be 400 children per grade—and at others, perhaps only 20. There are schools for hands-on learners and traditional learners, for children who love the performing arts and children who gravitate toward the sciences.

A school is a community, founded around a common purpose.

What the private schools of Hawaii offer are choices—of 120 different missions, locations, campuses, extracurricular programs, sizes, teaching philosophies and learning communities.

The real challenge isn’t getting in. It’s finding the school whose ideal student is a child just like yours.

The Sky’s the Limit

“The right match: I know it comes up a lot, but it’s so true,” says Kelly Goheen, director of admissions at Holy Nativity School. What admissions directors frequently call a good fit is a three-way intersection, the magical confluence of a child’s needs, the family’s beliefs and goals, and what a school can provide.

Goheen stresses that “each school has a unique mission, and each family has a unique child and a unique set of circumstances and beliefs. There needs to be a relationship between a school and a family.”

When the fit is found, “the sky’s the limit,” says Ella Browning, associate director of admissions at Mid-Pacific Institute. “If the child feels they’re in the right environment, if they’re comfortable, they’ll just thrive.”

On the other hand, a school that everybody else thinks is the bee’s knees but doesn’t make Junior look forward to learning is not a good school—for that child. “You don’t want to end up with a square peg in a round hole,” cautions Kathy Shirokawa, director of admissions at Honolulu’s Montessori Community School.

To find the right educational fit, schools emphasize that there is no substitute for doing your homework. And remember, says parent Sherri Okinaga, whose two boys enter Maryknoll’s kindergarten this year, throughout the admissions process, “you are checking out the schools as much as they are checking you out.”

Open Your Mind

Many parents have a firm first choice even before they start looking around—but picking a school without doing your research means that you are probably missing out, says Nelson. “If the parents can get less fixated on one school, if they’re more informed about what the schools have to offer, then they can make the best match.”

That may be easy to say that from behind the admissions director’s desk, but Nelson has also learned the lesson as a mother. “I made a terrible mistake with my first one. He was all boy!” she laughs. Nelson assumed that the strict, structured school she had attended herself would work for her lively son. “So I put him into one of those schools, where it’s kindergarten and they have to sit in their seats all day long. It was just a disaster!” When the family moved to a new state, the son also changed schools, to a learning environment better suited to his active style.

The experience was “a good example of what not to do,” Nelson continues, “and that’s what I keep telling the parents. If you do your homework up-front, it’s like preventive maintenance. You’re going to guarantee your child’s success.”

From a parent’s perspective

“Our main objective was to find an environment where our children would be engaged, and where they could have the right environment for their potential to be maximized. I actually wrote that down before I started the journey, because you can get off-track if you don’t remain true to your objective.” —Sherri Okinaga

Photo by David Croxford