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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Whether a parent wants his or her child in a religious or secular environment is an important consideration, as religion undoubtedly shapes the school’s overall environment and curriculum. “I think [religion] is a big influence,” says Souza. “We make no apologies for being Catholic. We teach accepted Roman Catholic doctrine.” St. Francis’ students take a religious class each year, which can include world religions, church history or a class on the sacraments. They also attend religious assemblies once a month and an annual retreat led by the campus minister. Iolani School, one of the state’s largest private schools, was started by the Episcopal Church, and requires weekly chapel services, as well as more than two semesters of religious classes, including survey of world religions and Bible study, for kids in eighth through 12th grades.

At Pacific Buddhist Academy, the tenents of Buddhism permeate everything from the curriculum to discipline, even though only a small percentage of the students are practicing Buddhists. The Buddhist Living class, which all students must take every year, “isn’t so much on doctrine or facts about Buddhism,” says Toyama. “The main emphasis is on the student. For example, the first Noble Truth is life is suffering, which comes out of ignorance and attachment. We ask them to look at their lives—are there delusions or false attachments that you have? Are there Buddhist principles that can make your life one of less suffering?” Even disciplinary action takes a decidedly Buddhist approach. Instead of scraping gum from beneath desks, students go to lunch meditation, where they sit and reflect on the events and conditions that brought them there. “Meditation helps the transformation,” says Toyama. “And for a teen to sit still for 15 to 20 minutes without talking or sleeping is torture.”

The single-gender issue remains a hot topic in education. Whether you’re for or against it, there’s no doubt that a single-sex campus feels decidedly different from a coed one. La Pietra has an I-am-girl, hear-me-roar approach, providing its all-female population with an education based on empowerment. “I’m so blown away by how physically free they can be,” says school head Nancy White. “They’re free from worrying about their appearance, which gives them the freedom to express their thoughts.”

St. Francis School students Maxyne Salvador, Samantha Lau and Chardonnay Pao.

photo: Olivier Koning

The effects of the school’s all-female enrollment trickles into the curriculum, resulting in such classes as Thinking Women, which looks at the lives of influential women throughout history and teaches logic. Other original class offerings include Math for Independent Women, a math class in which students learn how to manage a stock portfolio and invest in real estate, and Writing for Fanatics and forensic science. “Our teachers have the freedom to develop courses that interest them,” says White. “The forensic science class resulted from a teacher saying, Can I teach a class in this?'”

St. Francis School is about to figure out what a coed campus is like, after having been an all-girls establishment for 80-plus years. The change was motivated, says Souza, by a desire to serve more students, particularly the school’s preschool boys. The move will be gradual, with the first coed kindergarten class starting this year. A new grade will be added every year as that class moves up.

Souza acknowledges that the switch will change the campus atmosphere, though, she says, the girls were all for it. “The girls cheered when I told them last year,” she says. “But then I told them that we were starting with kindergarten.” Souza also says that the school is “not averse,” to having all-boys and all-girls classes in certain subject areas, such as math, science and English, but that the decision will depend on the particular student population. St. Francis’ change to coed will definitely influence the school culture, says Joyce Gregory Evans, as it requires teachers and the administration to take into consideration how they teach classes, what they teach (sex education, for example, would need to be changed to address boys’ needs), the actual physical needs of boys and girls (buildings may need to be altered), how to handle sports, scheduling and the arts, among other things.

Here in Hawaii, parents are blessed with a variety of private schools from which to choose. At your fingertips (and pocketbooks) are more options than you can probably fathom, and each school is remarkably different. The environment in which your child will spend his or her days is shaped by a large number of influences, among which are the curriculum, class structure, religion (or lack thereof), student population, teachers and traditions. All of these elements help to shape a school’s culture, and knowing what you want from each of these will go a long way in helping you choose the right school for your child.

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