The Learning Curve

Each private school has its own traditions, philosophies, teaching styles and more. How do you find the right match for your child?


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There’s no doubt about it: Choosing a private school for your child can be challenging. Adding to the difficulty of the decision is that no two private schools are exactly alike. Each school has not only its own way of providing students with an education, but also its own distinct culture. Every campus looks and feels different, and the day-to-day experiences—from teacher and student interactions to how classes are taught—are unique to each school.

Here, we look at the cultures of a handful of Island schools, and the philosophies that shape them.

Montessori School of Maui headmaster Cynthia Winans-Burns and several students feeding the worms that help compost food waste and paper

photo: Matt Thayer

There are more than 128 Hawaii Association of Independent Schools (HAIS)-accredited primary and secondary schools. In fact, Hawaii has one of the largest private-school populations in the country; in the Honolulu district alone (the general area between Koko Head and Pearl Harbor), approximately four out of every 10 children attend private school. As new schools open and established ones grow and change, parents face numerous considerations when trying to find the right fit for their child. Perhaps key among these, second only to cost, is what it’s actually like to attend that school. Sounds rather obvious, but once you begin sorting through everything from class structure to curriculum, it becomes clear that a lot goes into the making of a school.

“The culture is the living mission statement, how we daily live who we are as an institution,” says Joyce Gregory Evans, an educational consultant who has recently worked with a number of schools to help them redefine their missions. “Much of it is in the woodwork, or the essence of the school.”

Gregory Evans points to a number of defining terms that help shape a school’s culture. For instance, one school may place a heavy emphasis on academic statistics—SAT scores or the number of students who earned scholarships and went on to four-year colleges—while another may view the child as a work in progress, tracking his or her development through written progress reports, rather then a standard report card. Other factors to consider include the school’s history, traditions, educational philosophies, whether it’s religious or secular, coed or single gender, how the school views its role in the community, even extracurricular activities and uniforms.

“Education is a process, not an end product,” says Dr. Robert Peters, the head of Hanahauoli School, an 88-year-old institution with 200 students in kindergarten through sixth grade. “The purpose of learning is to improve the social community. We’re looking at the individual as a significant part.” Peters and his faculty, who number 22, get their message across by focusing on direct, experiential learning. “We’re a school without walls,” says Peters. “We try to show the kids that school and life are connected. We don’t go on field trips; we go on learning trips.”

Second graders at Iolani School performing in a school program.

Photo courtesy of Iolani School

These excursions can include groups visiting Waikiki-to study tourism, or touring a harbor while learning about waste management. Social studies and science form the base of the curriculum, again linking what the children learn in the classroom to the world around them. The arts are also emphasized, with classes in music, French and literature.

The notion of students applying what they learn in the classroom to the world around them is nothing new, but it’s taken to a whole new level at Montessori School of Maui (MOMI), a 26-year-old school of 207 students that has operated on its current 9 acres in Makawao for the past 11 years. The campus itself occupies about 4.5 acres, including the space used for its garden. “One of our fundamental teachings is that nature is the best teacher,” says Cynthia Winans-Burns, the head of the school.

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