From Iolani School to Moanalua High School: A Parents’ Tale

When private school wasn’t working for their son, a Honolulu family turned to public education.

Moanalua High School students hang out during their lunch break.

Photo: Harold Julian

Editor’s Note: This story is part of HONOLULU Magazine’s public education coverage this month. Be on the look out for additional stories online and watch a video Q&A with Board of Education chair Don Horner and Department of Education superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi here. To read more about what it’s like, day-to-day at Moanalua High School and Nanakuli High and Intermediate School, buy the May issue on newsstands now, or subscribe here.

*Names have been changed for privacy reasons.


Every school year, 400 to 500 students receive geographic exemptions to attend Moanalua High School (out of a total population of 2,010 students), because of its high-caliber programs, such as its orchestra, and its curriculum, including its seven advanced placement courses. Ikaika Collins,* a Moanalua junior, is one of those GE students. He didn’t always attend public school, however. From the sixth to eighth grades, he was a student at Iolani School.

“We felt he’d have a better education there; it’s a smaller environment,” says his mother, Alice*. “We heard good things about the school.” Two years in, though, Ikaika wasn’t excelling at the level his parents envisioned, particularly for the tuition they were forking over (Iolani’s annual tuition is currently $17,300).

Alice explains that, while Ikaika is intelligent, he’d always struggled to apply himself and find motivation to do his class assignments. While many private school students are self-driven, Alice believed that better support would be in place for those that are not. “They weren’t as good at that as I thought they would be,” she says. “I felt they were complacent in the way they taught.”

Ikaika shared his unhappiness with his parents, Alice and James*. He was active in the school’s sports—he played football, volleyball, basketball and soccer—and was close with many of his teammates, but athletics was only half of the equation. He didn’t enjoy his classes and wasn’t connecting with any of his teachers, or even counselors.

So, after he graduated from the eighth grade, rather than applying for another private school—he had previously been accepted to Punahou School, and paying the tuition costs wasn’t an issue—the Collins’ looked into public school for their son. Alice had gone to Roosevelt High School, and James graduated from a public high school in Pasadena, Calif., Ikaika himself had attended a public elementary school, so they decided to give the public school route another shot.

“Moanalua is a great fit for our son,” says James. “He felt much more at home here. He says the kids are friendlier here, easier to talk to here.”

Ikaika is not alone. Moanalua High School principal Darrel Galera says that he’s worked with several families whose children originally attended private school. In general, there are so many students who apply for the geographic exemption that the school has implemented a lottery system. “Most of the students we accept [start out as] freshman,” says Galera. “Students want to be a part of something they can feel a lot of pride in.”

“I don’t think he’s missing out on anything by attending Moanalua,” says Alice. “The teaching here is very good, sports-wise the school is excellent.”

Ikaika’s grades have improved, and, as a junior, he is looking into attending college on the Mainland.

Like many Moanalua parents, the Collins’ are very active at the school. Alice is on the PTSA and James is regularly involved in his son’s sports activities. This year, he donated $500 of sod to patch holes in the school’s football field.

Ikaika is still in contact with his Iolani buddies, but has made plenty of new friends at Moanalua. He continues to play sports, and this year, at the end of the football season, even won the program’s Big Three award, for students who are “good in the field, good in school and have good character,” says James. Even though he plays multiple sports, Ikaika has mandatory study hall twice a week, and a weekly grade check that has to be signed by his parents. While such procedures are in place at some private institutions, Moanalua’s approach has worked well for Ikaika.

“In public school, the staff is more aware of the needs of kids who have backgrounds that put them more at risk,” says James. “They try to keep on top of it as much as they can, whereas in a private school setting there isn’t as much concern there because so many of the kids are not in trouble at all, their homes are stable and their study habits are good, they have everything going for them.”


Want to read more of our education coverage from May 2012? Check out the links below.

A Tale of Two Schools in Hawaii

Video Q&A with Don Horner and Kathryn Matayoshi

Q&A: What do schools have in place to ensure communication with parents?

Q&A: How is the DOE helping poor-performing schools?

Q&A: Why don't all public schools have midterms and final exam weeks?

Q&A: Why don't student representatives get a vote?

Q&A: Kamehameha Schools Focuses on Public Schools Along the Waianae Coast