Hawai‘i’s Independent Schools are Finding Ways to Teach the Right Stuff

Being good 101.
Sunflower illustration.
Illustration: Jing Jing Tsong 


Traditionally, most independent schools have been all about high academic standards for students. Kids had their brains filled with factual information from teachers who adamantly believed good grades equaled good careers. Tests drove education forward, while everything else took a back seat.


Today, Hawai‘i’s top educators see things differently. Robert Witt, executive director at the Hawai‘i Association of Independent Schools (HAIS), says, “With the world becoming increasingly complex, students today will be called upon to create and sustain relationships defined by understanding, openness, tolerance and empathy.” Straight A’s are great, but will these children make right decisions and grow up to become responsible citizens in the 21st century?


Now, independent schools are redesigning their programs so students can learn valuable lessons that aren’t from a textbook or an iPad. The new lessons are as much about values and emotional intelligence as they are about academic or intellectual achievement. Here, we take a look at how this works at three schools, ‘Iolani, Honolulu Waldorf School and Pacific Buddhist Academy.


Community Service

At the suggestion of a student there, ‘Iolani students launched a project to clean grave stones at the Hawai‘i State Veterans Cemetery.
Photo: Courtesy Allison Ishii


Three years ago, English teacher Shirley Longo began a mandatory summer class at ‘Iolani School called “Serving Your Community:  Supplement to Summer Reading.” Eighth graders would read Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture and then apply character values in the book to community service. According to Alison Ishii, the school’s community-service director, the class provided a new and necessary direction for the school.


“We wanted to be the strongest academic institution in Honolulu, but we reached a point where we thought maybe this isn’t the healthiest thing for our students,” says Ishii. “Yes, we can put out all these nationally recognized scholars, but are they happy? Ten years down the line, what are they doing? Are they good people?”


Longo has taught at ‘Iolani for 20 years, and she’s seen how the school’s educational programs have evolved. “It used to be, ‘I’m the teacher; I’ll tell you, you write it out and we’ll test on Friday.’ Now it’s more project-based,” she says. “Students are very aware of values as foundation but it’s a newer thing to put your values to work. It’s one thing to embrace them. It’s another to exhibit them.”


The summer class is unlike most courses at ‘Iolani. Ishii says that ‘Iolani students take one look at the syllabus and then “freak out.” They are not allowed to fundraise or volunteer at an established organization. There are no tests, quizzes or any memorization; only the multi-media presentation and reflection papers are graded.


“The students are so structured to think in a certain way,” says Ishii. “They ask us, ‘How is it going to be graded?’ and we say, ‘Well, those are your only guidelines.’”


Madison Moser is one of many students who started out unsure. Then, the weekend after receiving the assignment, she visited her grandmother’s grave at Hawai‘i State Veterans Cemetery and noticed that graves nearby were covered with moss and dirt. “It hurt to see people who fought for our freedom weren’t getting respect even after they’ve passed away,” she says. “No one was really remembering them.”


It became her summer project. She cleaned 10 gravestones for eight hours of service learning and, to her surprise, Longo suggested Ishii expand the project to include the entire school. Today, 50 students clean the cemetery every year on Memorial Day. “I was happy to see we could get a big group to go,” says Moser. “It multiplied the work that got done so much more. People could do something just by showing up and cutting grass.”


The class did more than just give Moser a sense of accomplishment. Because her project became school-wide, Moser spoke in front of all the volunteers about her idea, which is something she never would have done before. “She’s usually a very quiet girl, not so much a leader type,” says Jo, Moser’s mother. “But then she stood up and spoke to everyone. It was really wonderful to see how she grew.” According to Ishii, learning leadership from a young age encourages students to believe they can contribute to the community instead of feeling like “a hamster at a wheel.”


Interactive classes also give students experiences to include in college cover letters. Good schools are no longer simply looking at the students’ accomplishments or grades. “Colleges are looking for students with passions,” says Longo. “The resume sense of ‘I’ve done 17 things’ isn’t as compelling as, ‘I started loving this when I was 14, and this is how I’ve learned to be part of my community.’”



Seniors at pacific buddhist Academy (PBA) may be young, but they graduate from high school as engaged citizens in the local community. Joshua Moore, assistant headmaster, began the PeaceBridge Project in 2010 because he was dissatisfied with the traditional academic program for high school seniors. They were getting “senioritis,” and Moore wanted to shake them out of it. Then he had an idea: “If our school was dedicated to empowering students to be peacemakers in their communities, shouldn’t we get out there in the community and begin doing that now?”


The project partners the senior class with the Buddhist Study Center at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, giving students a taste of college experience through attending lectures and classes. Most importantly, they examine issues in the local community and use science, social science and journalism to take action.


Last year’s seniors took a close look at the problem of income inequality, and conducted ethnographic fieldwork at Thomas Square with the (De)Occupy Honolulu Community. The day they interviewed the protestors, the City of Honolulu came to confiscate some of the belongings at their encampment. PBA seniors disagreed with the way the state handled the situation, so they self-published a report of their findings and sent it to the mayor’s office. Although they did not receive a response, the experience made them realize they had a voice in the community. “The students learned that being engaged citizens can be carrying a broom and cleaning your space, and can also be as powerful as agitating in a town square and getting people to create a large system,” says Moore.



Moore isn’t joking about cleaning up with a broom. Chelsea Toyama, PBA alumnus, remembers having to take turns with her classmates to clean classrooms every day after school because there were no janitors. “It gives you a sense of responsibility,” she says. “It sounds cheesy, but it’s like how you take care of the school that takes care of you. It’s the place where you learn, you have to respect it.”


Respect is necessary for students in independent schools, because class sizes are often small. Students develop long-lasting relationships from growing up together. Toyama was in the first graduating class from PBA in 2007 and received her high school diploma with only 14 other students. “We were the guinea pigs,” she laughs. “We worked out all the kinks. But going to a small school was great because you get to know people better.”


Being with the same classmates every year also forces students to maintain relationships. Andrew Starzinski is an alumnus and math teacher at Honolulu Waldorf School. Like Toyama, he grew up with the same people every day. “You learn how to deal with them and resolve any conflicts,” he says. “I remember developing a sense of relationship with the teachers.” Now that he is a teacher, he tries to have the same relationship with his math students. “I try to show them that math can be beautiful. It may be a ‘head’ class instead of a ‘heart’ class, but it builds confidence.”


Working with Parents

Parents may view private schools as fast tracks to Ivy League colleges, but Philip Bossert, director of the Schools of the Future program, believes such a mindset can prevent schools from changing for the better. Ethical values do not have to come at the cost of academic standards—you can have both. “Parents think schools determine colleges, and colleges determine career,” says Bossert. “But what if their kids are happier in life going to a community college? Schools can prevent learning when they keep the kids so busy they don’t have time to think.”


Bossert doesn’t mean kids should be lazy, but that it may be beneficial for students to slow down, take time to reflect and shift focus from hardcore academia to life lessons. For example, at Island Pacific Academy, classes are structured around two values: human kindness and generosity of spirit. The school motto, “Whenever you can, help,” is repeated every Monday when headmaster Dan White talks to the elementary-school children. There have been times when children question their parents for using plastic or withholding money from the homeless. White laughs, saying, “We’re independent schools. We teach children to think independently and we suffer consequences when they do.”


From community service to fundraising, White’s students are taught to solve problems whenever they can. Last year, IPA initiated a contest among the independent schools during Thanksgiving to see who could collect the most cans of food for Hawai‘i Foodbank. IPA students raised 8,952 pounds and won. “Our kids think, ‘If I see some kind of need, then I can do something about it,’” says White. One young student designed and sold T-shirts to send proceeds to aid the people of Indonesia after the tsunami in 2004. “She just got it into her head that she wanted to do that,” says White. “It’s because the school’s values were our starting point. It’s not just the academic program, but habits of the heart, how they’re developing as productive citizens.”


As long as parents agree with those values when enrolling their children, students are in good hands. White says, “Parents choose us for who we are, so we have to be pretty clear about our focus. If they’re looking for a direct entry into Harvard, we need to tell them to go somewhere else.”


Above all, parents need to remember that family is the primary source of children’s values. “It’s not the schools that have a programmed set of values to transfer to students,” says Moore. “Institutionally speaking, we don’t replace parents.” Instead, teachers can work together with parents and lead the children by example. “We’d like to engage parents in our conversations to help change the school for the better,” says Moore.



Pacific Buddhist Academy senior Andrew Tom assists  students during his internship at Palolo Elementary School.
Pacific Buddhist Academy senior Andrew Tom assists students during his internship at PĀlolo Elementary School.
Photo: Courtesy Herman Kwan


At Honolulu Waldorf School, stories are the most powerful teaching tool. From preschool through 12th grade, kids are exposed to tales that teach life lessons. “Students feel a connection to the characters and, through that feeling, they come to an understanding of truth and human relationships,” says English teacher Frances Altwies. 


Although this practice is as old as the school itself, Altwies believes storytelling is especially important today. “Technology makes factual information more available, but the finer aspects of learning are not always there,” says Altwies. “I feel children need story more to have their senses stimulated.”


In second grade, children learn empathy and compassion through the story of Saint Francis, who gave away everything he owned to the poor and took care of leprosy victims. Fifth graders read about the fall of Rome and understand the consequences of wrong decisions, while the epic of Gilgamesh teaches the importance of friendship. In seventh and eighth grade biology classes, teenagers are inspired by the biography of George Washington Carver.  “You tell a story in a way that’s appropriate for the age and temperament,” says Altwies. “Some students want more description, others respond well to hearing about someone overcoming challenges.” The class sometimes performs plays based on the stories, which allows students to act out noble activities and imitate good people.


Although results may not be immediate, children apply what they learn in the stories to real life. For example, eighth grade students learn about Africa through the true story of Joseph Lemasolai Lekuton, an African Maasai warrior who pursued an education and returned home to teach his people. After hearing the story, one of the eighth graders went on in high school to fundraise for Invisible Children, a nonprofit organization to save child soldiers in Uganda.


Teaching children important values isn’t new; teachers and parents have been doing it for years. But, because technology makes a wealth of knowledge available to children, it’s time to refocus on old school lessons. Values and character development are more important than ever, and teachers now know how to teach integrity without sacrificing academics. Thanks to independent schools finding innovative ways to teach the right stuff, the world is well-equipped with students who can shape the future for the good.


What’s Good?

Robert Witt, executive director at Hawai‘i Association of Independent Schools (HAIS), narrows down the word “good” to one of seven essential capacities listed in the Schools of the Future program, a joint effort with HAIS and Hawai‘i Community Foundation. According to Witt, these capacities are necessary for students to be successful in the modern world. The seventh and, arguably, most important, is integrity and ethical decision-making. “We need to focus more than ever on this capacity because that may be what distinguishes our schools in the future,” says Witt.


Seven Essential Capacities for 21st Century Learning

1. Analytical and Creative Thinking and Problem Solving

2. Complex Communication—Oral and Written

3. Leadership and Teamwork

4. Digital and Quantitative Literacy

5. Global Perspective

6. Adaptability, Initiative and Risk-Taking

7. Integrity and Ethical Decision Making

For more information, visit hawaiicommunityfoundation.org/strengthening/schools-of-the-future.


This story originally appeared in the 2013 Private School Guide.