2022 Hawai‘i Private School Guide: All About That Student Base
Student learning shifted across our state last year as educators explored different ways to reach out, teach, keep schools safe and remain flexible to ever-changing situations. Now, schools small and large have strategies they will continue to use to help students navigate future challenges.
All the students at The Children’s House in Pearl City—even the wee preschoolers—hop out of their family cars as parents wave their phones under a scanner that logs them in. Next, each student heads down a landscaped covered walkway through a thermal scanner to check for fever, sticks their hands into a hand-wash station, then heads to class. It’s the way each school day has begun since August 2020, when The Children’s House began ramping up health precautions and assuring students and staff that the school is a safe place.
Learning through the pandemic underscored the school’s core values of communication, creativity and collaboration with students, families and staff. “We’re going back to our beginning roots more,” says principal/president Todd Los Baños, which meant focusing on the younger grades at this private preschool-to-elementary school along the road to Pacific Palisades. The shady campus embraces trees—wrapping benches around some of them—flowers, native plants, fishponds, even a succulent garden.
In 2020, schools were forced to shut and The Children’s House sent home videos and lesson plans to provide a schedule that resembled in-person classes to keep students connected to learning. And the school made a big change that year, reducing the number of students from 320 to 220 by eliminating fifth and sixth grades. School administrators helped those students find placement at other schools, then moved to transition out fourth graders the following year—to provide space for the physical distancing recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—“even though it was sad to do,” Los Baños says. Today, he says, the focus is on “recovery and rebuilding.”
In 1965, his mother, Mary Los Baños, founded the school at Waipahu United Church of Christ. Three years later the school was invited by those developing the community about 6 miles away to move to its now 5-acre campus. For the next 52 years, the school educated an expanding group of students.
“We teach them independence, how to work on their own.” –Todd Los Baños
As a Montessori school, “we teach them independence, how to work on their own,” Todd Los Baños says. So the hands-on lessons during the pandemic included things people already had at home, including pantry items. “We didn’t believe that Zooming for 3- and 4-year-olds was really that good for them,” Los Baños says, “and we didn’t want to lose who we are as a school.”
While connecting with families, the school also scrambled to identify and acquire safety equipment. Before students were welcomed back to campus for the 2020-2021 school year, Los Baños searched for a thermal temperature scanner that looked more like an airport screener and less like a gun aimed at students. The school sent home iPads for kindergarten and elementary grades and used Zoom for classes, which meant buying more tablets for the three 20-student kindergarten classes. The school created a COVID-19 manual to spell out precautions. Still, not everyone was ready to return.
“We lost most of our 3-year-olds because they could stay home another year,” Los Baños says, while the 4-year-old classes remained steady.
Facing the initial uncertainty and attendance drop, Los Baños did what experienced administrators often do: He trimmed costs by shifting some full-time staffers to part-time. “Well, that lasted a week and then we’re taking them all back because we need full-time workers.” The school needed its caring, familiar and knowledgeable staffers to reassure families. Also, as part of the school philosophy, the team includes staffers who are cross-trained to work in various positions. It’s designed so the school can efficiently cover any absences due to routine illnesses, but it also means fewer people on campus, which helped calm anxiety at the height of the pandemic, and more trusted staffers to guide parents through changing guidelines and procedures. “The more I communicated with the families early on, the more comfortable they felt,” he says.
Los Baños also needed his full team to balance the needs of working parents and the school community as the school rebounded. Traditionally, the school offered before- and after-school care spanning from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. In 2020, the school maintained the 6 a.m. start but shifted to a 4:30 p.m. close to avoid 12-plus-hour shifts while maintaining separate student-teacher pods. Normally, before and after-school care allows mixed grades to share teachers and spaces.
Some unexpected bright spots appeared. “All this hand-washing that keeps us from getting COVID also keeps us from spreading colds and the flu and other little germs,” Los Baños says, which means fewer students getting sick and missing school. And siblings who normally would be split up into different classes were placed together, including quintuplets in prekindergarten at The Children’s House. The school reasoned that if any of them got sick, one class would be affected rather than several. Both the family and the school’s staff agreed with the temporary shift in policy: “So that was a change that we did that turned out to be pretty positive.”
Until keiki of all ages are vaccinated and the pandemic is declared under control, Los Baños expects many precautions will remain in place. He sees benefits in keeping the temperature scanners as a tool that helps identify kids with fevers and get them home faster. “And I think that’s a good thing.”
Across town, in August 2020 ‘Iolani School was one of the first large private schools to bring students back to campus five days a week. Head of school Timothy Cottrell credits planning, safety precautions and communications. “Our main focus was not only the academics but the social and emotional well-being of our student body, that they had been isolated because of the pandemic,” Cottrell says. Recognizing the developmental importance of time together with peers for all students, kindergarten through 12th grade, he says, “we were fairly aggressive with wanting to get back on campus.”
To make that happen, the school—which traces its origins to 1862—went beyond sanitation, social distancing, tracking and tracing to manufacturing its own face shields as personal protective equipment, Cottrell says, although students could use those they had purchased. “We fabricated face shields for the larger community over the summer and gave them away,” confident that students could eat lunch and navigate their day all while wearing the protective barrier. And ‘Iolani required face masks: “Our primary strategy for students on our campus was ‘don’t share breath.’”
Cottrell says the school offers a fully online version of schooling for families who don’t want to return just yet, but found the vast majority wanted to get back on campus. ‘Iolani saw enrollment increase during the pandemic.
And the school practices social distancing: “We have fairly sophisticated tracking and tracing, we’re an iPad school for our kids and we have QR codes [so that] wherever they sit they scan in [and] we know who sits next to who all the time,” Cottrell says.
Another important element to keeping the campus running smoothly while bringing together about 2,400 people daily—2,100 of them students—is frequent hand-cleaning. “Our kids are required to either sanitize or wash their hands every time they go in and out of any room.” ‘Iolani also received approval to have on-campus nurses conduct rapid COVID testing, yet another tool to ease anxiety.
“Our primary strategy for students on our campus was ‘don’t share breath.’” -Timothy Cottrell
‘Iolani took advantage of Hawai‘i’s balmy climate and the school’s sprawling grounds to place about 15 circus-size tents around the campus. “We have our students doing a lot more things under those tents; that’s where they eat, that’s where they have their free periods,” Cottrell says. And it’s where they can take a break from wearing a face mask all day but had to keep their shields on.
“Our bands would normally practice in a room, sitting next to each other,” Cottrell says. Now the bands practice outside, socially distanced from each other, and if you look closely you can see the face masks that allow them to play and caps that go over their instruments.
‘Iolani also used its communications network to share information with faculty, staff and parents throughout the school year and over the summer. “We had webinars that explain the science behind transmission, what COVID is, all those kinds of things just to get everybody aligned on this is what we believe scientifically,” Cottrell says. While a larger debate raged nationally, the school focused on sharing the what and why behind its actions and policies. Cottrell says that resulted in 98% of the people who work at the school being fully vaccinated by early April.
All of these practices allowed the school to still hold special events. Instead of the traditional two-day senior trip to another island, students spent the bonding night on campus and at Kualoa Ranch. While 2020 called for a drive-in movie-style commencement, the 2021 graduation allowed students to sit together with physically distanced and mask assigned locations for families.
To ease the transition for new incoming students, the school offered free summer courses. And in response to the statewide challenges for students who were online for most of this year, ‘Iolani School offered a 25% kama‘āina discount to students who enrolled in the 2021 summer residential program.
Cottrell remains optimistic that some of the pivots during these two school years will prove helpful even after the pandemic fades from daily prominence. Previously students (and many of us!) felt pressure to show up even when they felt sick rather than risk falling behind, especially at a challenging school. “The old joke would be sick one day and it’s three days to catch up,” Cottrell says. But the tech needed to get through the pandemic also provided tools to help avoid such risky behavior. “Stay home when you’re sick and you can watch your classes,” get assignments, even collaborate with classmates if you’re feeling well enough to do that without spreading any illness, he says.
Another pandemic adaptation that he believes will continue to prove useful is meeting by videoconference rather than insisting on in-person, Cottrell says. “I don’t think that’s going to go away. In a very nice way it makes the world smaller and hopefully decreases the climate-change impact of having to travel to see people all the time; I think that’s really wonderful.”
An island away, in Ha‘ikū, Maui, Roots School has carved out its identity as a small school that develops its own curriculum with multiple grades of students working together. “We teach the traditional subjects, of course, but we don’t have a traditional approach to teaching them,” says Head of School Melita Charan. “We give students a lot more freedom in our project-based and arts-integrated approach.” Amid the shifting plans and remote learning required by the pandemic, the independent school lost 25 of its 75 students due to parents’ health concerns, job losses and other uncertainties. The Upcountry school then capped enrollment at 50, focusing on student well-being in preschool through fifth grade rather than offering classes up to eighth grade. The school plans to grow to back to 75 students next year.
As with the other schools, officials quickly focused on keeping students safe and engaged. “We were really clear that if students were in survival mode or stuck in trauma that they wouldn’t be able to access their creativity, their integrity, or their critical thinking skills. And so we decided as a staff to prioritize their social emotional well-being and development,” Charan says.
The 2020-2021 school year began as a hybrid model that combined remote and in-person learning for the first two weeks so teachers, students and families could ease back into the year while adapting to new COVID policies. And the school created a comprehensive return-to-campus plan, a check-in app and daily temperature check done by Charan. “During our winter break, cases on Maui were high and teachers were starting to feel nervous, so we chose to take an additional week off,” Charan says. “During that time our teachers and staff met and we collectively decided that we wanted to return to learning together in person.”
The community supported the school, even putting up two large tents in the school’s backyard to provide outdoor learning spaces. In addition, two of the families from Heather Grossman-Benton’s third to fifth grade classes invited the school to hold classes outdoors on their properties. Charan says they also built outdoor sinks and set up bathrooms for the students.
That community support helped immensely as educators worked harder than ever, Charan says. When she’d drop by to check on outdoor classes, sometimes she’d find idyllic scenes: students learning ‘ukulele in a light breeze or pulling tangerines or macadamia nuts off a tree for math lessons. “We were able to then incorporate gardening in a much more major way and composting and worm bins and all of those things; it’s been wonderful.”
First- and second-grade teacher Cynthia Harbert says students adapted in sometimes unexpected ways: “The class learned to use their wingspans, their outstretched arms, to measure a safe distance from classmates, particularly when transitioning, or having to be in a group.” Harbert also credits the Choose Love Enrichment Program with helping students through the uncertainty of the times. It includes a brief midday meditation to transition from morning academics to afternoon studies. “Students have become adept at diaphragmatic, or belly, breathing to fill their lungs and brains with more oxygen. It has been a gradual, beneficial practice in subtle ways,” Harbert says. (The Choose Love movement was started by Scarlett Lewis, inspired by her 6-year-old son, Jesse Lewis, who was killed while yelling for his classmates to run in the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings in 2012.)
Charan first opened Roots School with six students in a small building on Maui’s North Shore. It doubled in size the next year and continued to grow exponentially while becoming a nonprofit and moving to a diverse community in Ha‘ikū town, on property the school purchased in 2017. Family involvement has always been a key component of the school and the recent outpouring of support from families has carried Roots through anxious times. “We have a few families that are well-to-do but most of our families are actually working-class families that have prioritized education,” Charan says. “Being in a private school, there can be a sense of entitlement because people are paying for things,” she says. But that hasn’t happened at Roots: “We have a lot of parents that are absolutely appreciative, and absolutely on board and ready to support what we’re doing.”
Looking forward, Charan joins other schools in supporting a stricter health policy that calls for students to stay home when they’re sick. Charan hopes others will see this time as an opportunity to revamp education in the wake of changes forced by upheaval. “We’re constantly talking about how this pandemic has really illuminated the socioeconomic and racial inequalities in our country and around the world, and all of our systems, and clearly our education system,” Charan says. “I personally hope to collaborate with public and private school administrators so that we can share ideas and hopes and dreams and reimagine and rebuild a system that really does serve all of our communities.”
“I personally hope to collaborate with public and private school administrators so that we can share ideas and hopes and dreams and reimagine and rebuild a system that really does serve all of our communities.” -Melita Charan