Here’s How Hawai‘i Schools Are Encouraging Students to Follow Their Passions

Molding kids into well-rounded students no longer means just checking a list of activities. Educators are encouraging students to follow their passions for nature, volunteering, music and more, resulting in more meaningful and creative learning.
Digging Deeper

Educational institutions have historically rewarded well-rounded students who do it all. But as educators try to keep pace with preparing kids for the jobs of the future, curriculum is shifting toward more progressive, creative learning that focuses on digging deep into fewer areas of interest. Here’s how some of Hawai‘i’s independent schools are helping students follow their passions while also providing them with a diverse education.


Hongwanji Mission


For Sarabecka Mullen’s 6- and 8-year-old daughters, learning doesn’t stop when school ends.


Around 3 p.m. at Hanahau‘oli School, they’re off to their after-school activities—camping and coding classes for the eldest, and art and Spanish for the youngest, plus baseball and Honolulu Museum of Art classes on the weekends. There always seems to be something going on outside of regular school.


But the girls still sometimes feel like they’re falling behind some of their classmates and friends, who have been playing sports and taking music lessons since they were toddlers. Mullen says she doesn’t feel pressure for her daughters to be jacks-of-all-trades. She’d rather have them try different activities at an early age in the hopes that they develop a passion and pursue their interests when they’re older.


“That’s the challenging part, you have to make sure they’ve been exposed to enough things. It’s really finding something [they] enjoy, and with practice, [they’re] pretty good at it,” she says. “I don’t think you should be forced into a track that you maybe don’t like—it’s just having an awareness.”


Defining what it means and takes to be a well-rounded student can be just as daunting as trying to be one. Some educators hope exposure to different opportunities will help kids develop a passion down the line. But others in the education world still value the traditional meaning of a well-rounded student: A kid who does it all—academics, sports, music, community service and more—fairly well. 


What seems to be clear among several of Hawai‘i’s independent schools is a shift toward deeper, project-based and interdisciplinary learning, with the goal to help kids forge their own paths without becoming too “tracked,” or stuck in one lane.


Hongwanji Mission


Finding a Balance

Most students at Hongwanji Mission School don’t leave campus when school ends around 3 p.m. They’re heading to aikido, archery, hula, robotics, swimming or any of the nearly 30 after-school activities offered on campus.


Head of school David Randall knows this all too well—his son, a soon-to-be fifth-grader, has taken tennis, swimming, chess, coding, ceramics and archery. And it doesn’t end there—Randall, 48, also took his son off campus to flight school, golf and basketball.


One of the school’s main goals is to give its 350 students in pre-K to eighth grade opportunities to try a broad range of activities. That’s important in helping them choose a path when they get older, Randall says.


Students can enroll in up to two afterschool programs per day, and it isn’t uncommon for some kids to sign up for 10 activities a week. About 91 percent (320 kids) were enrolled in after-school programs this past spring, says Denalee Vasconcellos, director of communications and extended school programs.


“We have more of an emphasis on exploration,” she says. “It lets kids figure out what they’re good at, what they want to do and what they like."


Several of the after-school programs are an extension of subjects that students enjoy during school—students who like science can join robotics, and kids who like performing arts can take ballet.


Hongwanji Mission


That early exposure goes hand in hand with the school’s move toward deeper, project-based learning to mold well-rounded students, Randall says. They’re not there yet, he admits, but the trajectory is toward more student choice.


For example, students take art, music, technology, library studies, Japanese and drama classes in elementary school. In middle school, they choose electives, one per trimester, as credit/no-credit classes. In seventh grade, science class focuses on environmental sustainability, and in eighth grade it’s science research, allowing students to really dig into the material. The school is also prototyping a middle school schedule that allows students to choose more electives.


“The ideal goal is to find the balance,” Randall says. “They’re still getting the broad range of experiences and skills, but they have some choice within that. You don’t want kids to necessarily eliminate something just because they think they don’t like it. We want students to go deeper into content that they’re interested in without getting tracked.”


Elementary school children often thrive in the exploratory phases, where they try a broad spectrum of activities. As kids get older and reach high school, that focus narrows, allowing them to pursue their interests in-depth.


“We have more of an emphasis on exploration. It lets kids figure out what they’re good at, what they want to do and what they like.” — Denalee Vasconcellos, Hongwanji Mission School director of communications and extended school programs

That focus on meaningful learning coupled with exposure at a young age is shared miles away at Asia Pacific International School in Hau‘ula. Students learn by doing—kindergarteners learn science and math by building a garden. In middle school, they study the watershed and ahupua‘a through a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration grant. Students also take a “lifelong learner” class, which carves out time during school for them to pursue an interest, such as learning a new language or building a robot.


Scott Paulin, deputy head of academics, shares a similar view to Randall—a broadly diverse education serves as a foundation that helps kids choose their own paths later on.


“We have to have well-rounded kids who can demonstrate mastery in academics,” he says. “But they also need to be developing some kind of interest and passion that makes them stand out at the same time.”


Hongwanji Mission
PHOTO: Courtesy of Hongwanji Mission School


An External Pressure

As students enter high school, preparing for college and beyond seems to become more of a driver than exploration. Many high school students feel pressured to fit the mold of what they believe colleges want.


At La Pietra—Hawai‘i School for Girls, some students have found a way to get the best of both worlds. Recent La Pietra graduate Georgina D’Sanson, 18, says she felt an obligation to fill her schedule with extracurricular activities while maintaining good grades. She tried her best to find a balance between what she liked and what she thought she needed.


D’Sanson loves music but decided to pursue math as a major. She combined the two to start a math-meets-music club at school and researched the mathematics of music for her senior project. She also served as class treasurer for three years. She plans to attend Johns Hopkins University this fall.


Georgina D'Sanson La Pietra School
La Pietra graduate Georgina D’Sanson
Photo: David Croxford


“Music is something I’ve grown up with, but mathematics is something I want to pursue,” she says. “It’s nice to be prepared for whatever life throws at you, but it’s also nice to be good at that one thing that you’re specifically passionate about.”

Like D’Sanson, recent Damien graduate Lea Cayanan also stacked her senior year schedule with plenty of extracurricular activities: student government, paddling, glee club, and speech and debate. But it was the school’s women-in-leadership class that she says helped her pursue her passion. The seminar allows students to shadow mentors and gain real-world experiences in the field of their choice. Cayanan, 18, chose to work with a mobile hygiene center to help homeless women get much-needed services. She says the project went beyond what she probably would’ve learned in a typical classroom setting, particularly by emphasizing what are sometimes known as soft skills, such as working collaboratively and taking initiative.


While she felt pressure to be well-rounded to appeal to colleges, she says the school she chose, Gonzaga University, seems to fit her values and needs.


“We figure out what our strengths are and how we can capitalize on them,” she says. “It’s really about the transferable life skills, not necessarily learning by the book. Student government teaches you a lot of planning and budgeting. With paddling, the teamwork comes in.”


Damien vice principal Daniela Checinski says the goal is to run the school by blending two worlds: the traditional model that still focuses on SAT and ACT scores and the aspirational model that emphasizes interdisciplinary, creative learning. The school recently switched from a traditional bell schedule to a block schedule, which allows high school students more time to pursue their interests off campus. (Block schedules typically consist of longer class periods that meet fewer times a week.)


Lea Cayanan
Damien students, including Lea Cayanan (right), shadow mentors and gain real-world experiences in the school’s women-in-leadership seminar.
photos: courtesy of damien memorial school


“Well-rounded is still used, but the meaning has changed. The shift is really, ‘Are we really helping our students expand on what they’re organically good at?’ It’s less about how well they play the game,” Checinski says. “I think we had, like, 30 years of the checklist era. That list is gone, and now it’s helping them create [their own] list.”


Across town at La Pietra, deeper learning is also incorporated in ways that school officials say seek to engage students. Juniors shadow mentors in a field of interest as part of their independent project. The school is also toying with the idea (in the long term) of allowing students to self-direct their schedules, using teachers as resources.


Passion projects help students find the right college match. That’s something Angie Dolan, La Pietra’s academic dean and college counselor, advises students, rather than going for a name-brand school.


“The pressure [students] feel is from external places (parents, colleges, etc.) most of the time. [We need to] let them know that there are multiple ways to get to their destination. There’s no recipe,” she says. “After college, you’ve checked off all of the boxes and you’re like, ‘Now what do I do?’ The focus is on having the students understand what they’re doing, why they’re doing it and then giving them the skills beyond college.”


“We figure out what our strengths are and how we can capitalize on them. It’s really about the transferable life skills, not necessarily learning by the book.” — Lea Cayanan, Damien Class of 2018

For admission to the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, which received 1,219 applications from local private school students in fall 2017, the most important factor for incoming freshmen is academics, says Roxie Shabazz, director of admissions. The campus sets minimum GPA, standardized test and credit requirements and also evaluates class type and level of difficulty. But meeting the minimum requirements doesn’t mean an automatic acceptance, she says. They also look for qualities that make students stand out.


In her 30 years in college admissions both in the Islands and on the Mainland, Shabazz says a well-rounded class is a top priority—students from different backgrounds with diverse interests. That doesn’t exclude the traditional well-rounded students—those who can do it all fairly well—but she doesn’t expect an entire class of them.


“A student who does student government, is an athlete and is president of every club at school, that’s great and wonderful, but that’s not going to be the majority of students in a senior class,” she says. “For me, we want students who are strong academically. On top of that, a student’s commitment to whatever they choose to do makes them a well-rounded student.”


Punahou School
Punahou students learn about physics and sound by making ‘ukulele
photo: courtesy of punahou school


A New Model

Schools moving toward deeper project-based and interdisciplinary learning often face the difficult task of communicating that to colleges via the traditional transcript.


To address that, Punahou administrators are in the early phases of revamping the high school’s transcript as part of the Mastery Transcript Consortium, a national collective of about 200 schools formed last year to develop a way to show students’ mastery of skills and knowledge, rather than content retained and courses taken.


The proposed transcript would allow schools to present evidence, in the form of a portfolio, videos, photos, etc., showing how students mastered a skill. Students could earn credits in broad skill sets, such as analytical and creative thinking, and leadership and teamwork. Below each skill set would be a list of specific skills mastered within that category. For example, the analytical and creative thinking category could include earned credits such as “detect bias and distinguish between reliable and unsound information” and “analyze and create ideas and knowledge.” The proposal is preliminary and hasn’t been implemented locally yet, but some officials say it is part of the solution to better prepare kids for college and beyond.


“This is about redefining success,” says Emily McCarren, Punahou’s Academy principal. “Our current system prizes this false sense of you should be amazing at everything. [But] what we know about humanity is … people have things that they’re really good at and love and they have deficiencies. That’s OK if you live in a diverse society.”


McCarren admits the idea is unusual, especially for a fairly traditional institution like Punahou—the alternate transcript proposes no grades and no standard criteria to evaluate mastery. Some faculty members don’t truly understand the concept, nor does the school have 100 percent buy-in yet, she says. But the goal is to offer it as an option in about four to six years, while the traditional transcript would still be available.


“People have things that they’re really good at and love and they have deficiencies. That’s OK if you live in a diverse society.” — Emily McCarren, Punahou’s academy principal

The nearly 3,800-student school is also trying to move in the direction of interdisciplinary, project-based learning, she says. The high school offers a “creative and composition” class co-taught by an English teacher and a music teacher; there, students learn to produce music. It works with the traditional model because students earn English and art credits, but it also fits in with the interdisciplinary aspiration.


Additionally, in anatomy and physiology class, students learn to print 3D hands that are donated to people in need of prosthetic hands. A physics class learns about sound by making ‘ukulele for a local nonprofit. Sophomores take part in a project in which they explore how to produce a quality product, such as building a boat or sewing a ball gown.


The school also holds a community exhibition to showcase student work. Knowing their work will be presented in front of an audience (instead of submitting it to a teacher for a grade) motivates many students to work harder, McCarren says.


At Island School on Kaua‘i, joining the Mastery Transcript Consortium in January also reflected the school’s move toward interdisciplinary studies. Nathaniel Evslin, director of technology and deeper learning, who spearheaded joining the MTC, says a new transcript is needed to prepare kids for future jobs.


The 412-student school plans to switch from a trimester to a semester system this year, which gives teachers more time to delve into topics, says Evslin, who teaches high school digital media and computer science. In Evslin’s computer class, students learn to code websites for community members. Sophomores and seniors learn to write legislation on a topic of their choice. The school also requires 80 hours of community service to graduate. He says they are looking to make changes that require more hours with one organization, so students have a deeper involvement with a particular cause.


“We still have a lot of our traditional courses, but in those courses, we’re trying to innovate more toward the deeper learning,” he says. “You’re not going to change education overnight, but we can start these small changes to go for the bigger changes [in the future].”