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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 a central garden, which the students consider the heart of the school and the defining element of MOMI’s culture. A full-time naturalist and gardener lead weekly formal lessons in the garden, and classroom instruction is tied back into the environment. “You have to, of course, teach individual disciplines—reading, writing and math,” says Winans-Burns. “What we do is wrap those learning tools back into contextual learning.” Students may go outside to study ants, then write a report, which could include the historical aspect of how ants got there. “The garden helps them understand that human beings aren’t the only beings in town,” says Winans-Burns. “If you become a lawyer, or doctor, you’ll look at life with a sense of we’re all interconnected and interdependent. It’s education for peace.”

Iolani School, which offers kindergarten through 12th grade and has approximately 1,800 students, is an emphasis-on-academics kind of school. Virtually 100 percent of the seniors go on to four-year schools, and, last year, about 350 students took one or more of the 18 Advanced Placement (AP) exams offered, with more than 50 percent scoring fives (the top score). “Our students, the high achievers that they are, aren’t embarrassed to be high achievers,” says headmaster Val Iwashita. “There’s a cultural value placed on academics. We think it’s important.” Iwashita, however, admits that it’s sometimes hard for his over achievers to strike a balance between being kids and being straight-A students. “The kids are competitive academically,” he says. “Stress is something we deal with.”

With approximately 235 students in grades six through 12, La Pietra Hawaii School for Girls also takes a fairly structured approach to education. Girls in grades six through eight build their class schedules around core subjects, such as English, history, science, math, art, music, theater and computer skills. Once they reach ninth grade, they can enroll in a variety of electives while continuing with their required subjects; and as juniors and seniors, they have the option of taking AP courses, including AP literature, U.S. history, biology and calculus.

La Pietra’s Lady Panthers won the state Division II basketball title last season.

photo: Matt Thayer

Nearly 100 percent of the graduating seniors go on to four-year universities, a statistic that reflects the school’s college-preparatory emphasis. “Culture is often defined through expectations,” says Gregory Evans. “[For example], homework is always completed. If there are difficulties, if a student is ill, if unusual circumstances arise, exceptions for timing may be made, but [the homework] is done. This is a cultural expectation that is known and accepted by all.” Likewise, a student enrolled in college preparatory has the expectation (as do the parents) that their education will prepare them for a four-year university.

“We are definitely not a school for certain types of families,” says Pieper Toyama, the headmaster of the Pacific Buddhist Academy, a relatively new high school that will have its first graduating class in 2007. “We believe our students will be very competitive, but we don’t measure ourselves by the number of students in top 10 schools. We’re concerned with, are we making the right match between the school and the individual?” The school’s Buddhisminfused curriculum stresses the importance of experiential learning. Ninth-graders, for example, are required to take judo and Japanese drumming (taiko), because of the opportunities they present for hands-on learning.

Lest you think a Buddhist school is a low-tech school, think again: The entire campus is wireless, and math classes are conducted on laptop computers, which the students are required to purchase. The computer-based lessons allow the students to move at their own pace. “It’s a Buddhist approach,” says Toyama. “They’re all learning math, but they’re learning at their own rates.” Math is, in fact, the only class in which students receive letter grades to track their progress, though the school does not issue F’s. If a child takes more than a year to pass algebra, he or she must attend summer school to complete the course.

Interestingly, a number of schools have chosen to forego the standard grading system. Hanahauoli implements a continuous progress approach, which rates what children are capable of at a particular time in relationship to proficiency levels. Every year, parents, their children and their teachers meet to come up with learning goals, which are later reevaluated, later with the child presenting data about how he or she thought they performed. Teachers also send home anecdotal write-ups detailing how a child is progressing.


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Honolulu Magazine March 2018
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