How Hawai‘i’s Independent Schools are Evolving in the 21st Century

Many independent schools in Hawai‘i and across the nation are rejecting traditional teaching styles to focus on new skills and project-based learning. Some parents worry this shift away from standard methods and tests puts students’ chances of getting into good colleges at risk. But educators say today’s constantly changing, technology-driven society requires different skills to survive college and beyond. Here’s how. ​

Re-imagining Schools



Look into private-school classrooms across the state and, instead of rows of desks facing the teacher and chalkboards, you’ll see collaborative work stations and high-tech projectors. Instead of textbooks, some classes have iPads. For some, the classroom is a garden.


More schools are evolving, pushing the boundaries of what it means to educate, forgoing standard class periods centered on one subject for a more holistic approach. They’re adopting a new normal that increases the importance of passion, morals, service to others and 21st-century skills such as creativity.


But wait—creativity isn’t on the SAT.


With college degrees still important, is this shift adequately preparing students for the admissions process? Or is it sabotaging their chances of getting into a good school?


At Sacred Hearts Academy, a few fourth-grade girls sit on the floor, tablets in hand, racing small blue robots across the room. Two gadgets smack into each other, setting off sirens, and the girls giggle. Others use plastic pieces to make headbands. For now they’re just playing, but soon, they’ll start working on a simple robot that can pick up, transport and stack objects for this year’s VEX IQ Challenge. It’s a game called Crossover and, to beat it, the girls will have to think critically and creatively, communicate their ideas and know how to collaborate—what educators call The Four C’s, some of the most important 21st-century skills.


But “21st century” is misleading. After all, humans have had to utilize these skills for thousands of years just to survive. Until recently, though, schools haven’t focused on leadership, adaptability, initiative or social skills as heavily as they have math, English, history and science. Education is going through what the MacArthur Foundation refers to as “The Big Shifts,” which include going from knowing to doing, from teacher-centered to student-centered, from the individual to the team.



“In the beginning there was a lot of hype about 21st-century learning, and parents did raise questions about it,” says Mary Girard, dean of faculty for grades 7–12 at Sacred Hearts. “Teachers were concerned about it because they had all this content they wanted to make sure students got, and so it’s been a process of learning to teach that, but usually what students are doing [now] is much more authentic learning, and it stays with them more.”


Sacred Hearts started shifting its teaching style, along with 17 other schools, in 2009, under Hawai‘i Community Foundation’s Schools of the Future grant, which focused on bringing 21st-century skills into the classroom over a five-year period.


“Anytime you make changes, it’s something that is very difficult to accept,” says Winston Sakurai, upper-school principal at Hanalani Schools, which also received money from the grant. “There was a lot of success at the school before, so it wasn’t like things were really broken, per se. Students were getting into college, students were doing well in different professions, so, when the changes came about, it was very important to try to educate the faculty about how things were different in the world.”


Parents’ trepidation is an issue Ted Dintersmith encountered when producing the film Most Likely to Succeed, which uses examples from High Tech High in California to show what the future of education looks like. But some parents weren’t sure how the projects kids were doing were preparing them for the real world. “Parents desperately want good things for their kids,” Dintersmith says, but, “What do you mean, great things for your kid?” Many parents say that, ultimately, they just want their children to be happy. But there’s a “massive disconnect,” he says, between that sentiment and what is really happening in schools, including extracurricular activities that may look good on college applications but are overly tough for kids. By the time they get to college, the statistics are staggering: In the fall of 2015 American College Health Association’s National College Health Assessment II, 85.1 percent of students “felt overwhelmed” by all they had to do at some point in the past 12 months; 47.8 percent “felt things were hopeless”; and 35.3 percent “felt so depressed that it was difficult to function.” On top of that, nonmedical usage of Adderall (a prescription drug that stimulates the central nervous system, commonly used to treat ADHD) rose 67 percent from 2006 to 2011, presumably as a study aid, with 60 percent of users (above age 12) being 18 to 25, according to The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. “Is that consistent with the goal for your child to be happy? No.


“College has actually very little to do with life,” Dintersmith says. “Getting that college degree can be prohibitively expensive and really isn’t advancing [kids’] ability to make a difference in the world.” If getting into college means having to take rigorous AP courses, SAT prep beginning in elementary school, after-school tutoring, clubs and athletics, just for a degree that doesn’t guarantee a job—7.2 percent of recent college grads are unemployed, and 44 percent have low-wage, dead-end jobs—is all of that really worth it?


Well, those with a bachelor’s degree earned 62 percent more than high-school graduates in 2015, despite only 11 percent of business leaders strongly believing that college grads have the skills and competencies required for their businesses. “So there’s this gaping disconnect,” Dintersmith says. “The more we find ourselves in a world where you can evaluate people with authentic examples of their work instead of indirect proxies, the more we’re going to start aligning what we can do in school with what skills kids need … then people will get good at things that are actually useful in life.”




For hundreds of years, teachers were expected to be experts, interpreting knowledge, vetting opinions and translating information that students wouldn’t have access to without them. That didn’t really change much until Generation Z, starting with those born in the mid-’90s, who grew up connected to a stream of accessible information with Google and iPhones in their pockets. For the first time in history, everything that once lived only in libraries and textbooks was available to teachers and students with the touch of a button. Because of that, teachers have gone from the “sage on the stage” to the “guide on the side.”


“Digital technology has changed the landscape because it means there’s less emphasis on content knowledge, because it’s ubiquitous,” says D.J. Condon, head of school for Le Jardin Academy. “If you can Google it, why memorize it? That’s made the shift over from answers to questions. What we’re valuing are people who can ask really good questions and collaborate with others.”


The best way to accomplish that for many has been with project-based learning, and that’s where some parents have trouble. “It seems to be a really hard paradigm shift for us culturally,” says Melissa Handy, education technology director and robotics team coach at Le Jardin. “There are still parents [who think] homework equals learning, or time on task equals learning.” So, while the teachers wait for the students to come up with projects and figure out what questions they need to be asking, and the students wait for the teachers to tell them what to do, there’s a period of inaction that can be stressful for parents who think their kids aren’t learning. “At some point, there is a buck-stops-here point, where the kid really does have to take over,” Handy says. “As a school, you have to be confident in your program and know that your program works.” (It does. All of Le Jardin’s students who apply get into college, and their scores are going up, she says.)




Maddie Matthews, who graduated this past spring, attended eight other schools around the country–public and private, religious and secular–before settling at Le Jardin for high school. “I could just tell—the teachers I had met, the current students already enrolled, something was different about them,” she says. “It was a different environment.” She joined the drama program her sophomore year, mostly acting and studying classic plays, and was bitten by the theater bug. As she got older, the program became more intense: She and a partner had to create a play from scratch, including writing the script, designing costumes, figuring out lighting and sound, and performing it. Then she had to create a director’s notebook for an unfamiliar play, diagramming how she would produce a few scenes. “By thinking critically and attempting to see how people have done it in the past and using that for your own aspirations can really help you and develop your knowledge,” she says. “You think that theater is a creative outlet, it’s thinking outside the box, but this happens in every class. We’ll merge different subjects and have projects that go beyond anything you’d see in a regular classroom.”


For example, she had to deliver a report in Spanish about how she would live independently, which involved researching how to find jobs and housing and pay for utilities. She wrote a paper on how gender affected people’s favorite movie genres for math class. In biology, she researched how music affected heart rate.


“In 21st-century learning, there’s been a movement away from the supremacy of content knowledge and more toward those skills and those habits of mind,” Condon says. “It’s not so easy to measure whether a student’s intellectually curious or whether they’re resilient or even intrinsically motivated,” but those are the skills that predict future success.


According to a recent LinkedIn study, the number of companies people worked for in the five years after graduating college has nearly doubled in the past 20 years. On average, graduates will work for four different companies in their first 10 years out of school. “They’re going to have to be very flexible and adapt to a new situation, and that includes continuing to be lifelong learners and develop and grow professionally in their respective jobs,” says Hanalani’s Sakurai, especially when many of tomorrow’s jobs don’t exist yet.


“Essentially the idea of preparing them for the real world sends this really awful message that their lives right now are not real,” says Condon. But, at Le Jardin, their work is real: Two 10th grade boys who did a personal project related to facilities on campus came to the school’s Buildings and Grounds Committee meeting and were asked by a prominent local architect to apply for a summer internship. A student at Island Pacific Academy in Kapolei was offered $5,000 to do research at a university based on his desire to create scholarship opportunities for students to go to IPA. Students at Hanalani redesigned their entire library: “That process of working together was probably the hardest process for them because they had conflicting ideas, they had different personalities and they will say they struggled through that process, but that doesn’t happen in a traditional classroom,” Sakurai says. “One student was offered a job because of the redesign, because of the effort he put in.”


Developing leadership skills is just one aspect of what schools focus on now. “The core content is still very much part of what we do,” Sakurai says. “It’s not either/or, it’s not traditional or project-based, it’s both. Content is the foundation upon which you build, so you have to know your science, you have to know your math, in order to apply those things to real-world situations.”


At Maui’s Seabury Hall, upper-school students in an elective course on sustainability had to do scientific and historical research to determine the school’s energy usage. “They came up with an 80-page proposal to help our school get a PV system on top of our gymnasium,” says Scott Winham, a teacher and head of the upper school. Now the system provides more than half of the school’s electricity.


“If schools stayed the same, we’re preparing students for the wrong world,” says Mark Hines, teacher and director of Mid-Pacific Institute’s MPx program, which is a project-based, cross-disciplinary program for ninth and 10th graders. The program teaches literature, history, art, science, technology, physics and math through a range of nontraditional tools, from designing electric bikes to a sustainability garden.


Because of this changing landscape, the top U.S. News & World Report and Ivy League schools are not necessarily the end goal for high-aiming students anymore—it’s more about fit. Many schools use Naviance, a college and career readiness platform, to help students figure out the best places for them. For Island Pacific Academy student Marc Delucchi, his pick of small liberal-arts school Kenyon College was unconventional, but the school paid to fly him up to Ohio before he had even committed. In fact, he was invited to three different schools, but he chose Kenyon because of its writing program.

  Before and after: Students at Hanalani  Schools redesigned the  library to encourage  productivity and collaboration.



The way we’ve historically evaluated a child’s education serves more as a measuring stick against other kids than accurately reflecting who they are as people and what strengths they have. The National Association for College Admission Counseling reports that test scores are still one of the top three things colleges look at. But even the SAT is adapting. Launched this past March, the new SAT includes an optional essay, does not penalize students for guessing and uses more appropriate vocabulary, rather than big words you need to memorize but rarely use. And AP exams are changing, too, by becoming more relevant. Curriculum and GPA are still important, but more and more colleges are opening their application requirements to include essays, portfolios, letters of recommendation and video submissions, rather than just transcripts and scores. Some schools are test optional, others test blind. “Even major companies are looking for more than just high GPA,” says Gerald Teramae, head of school at IPA. “They’re really looking for who you are as a person besides what academic skills you can offer.” Olin College of Engineering, for instance, holds Candidates’ Weekends for about 200 applicants, where potential students tour the campus, take part in group exercises and have an informal interview. Attendance is mandatory if you wish to be accepted.


But it’s not just small obscure schools that have nontraditional application processes. Stanford University allows an optional arts portfolio, where you can show off a talent in art, dance, music or theater without having to major in the arts, and an optional letter by someone other than a teacher or counselor. The whole point is to show other areas of interest, responsibility and skill that you wouldn’t get from a one-page application but play a big part in how you might contribute to the college community.

   Mid-Pac’s Patrick Rhee and his classmates worked with community partners to design, build and implement innovative aquaponics systems.



“We’ve had some positive feedback from parents saying, ‘Oh, I didn’t know my child could do that!’” Hanalani’s Sakurai says. He heard from others who felt their children had been disengaged until they had a project to work on, and then they ended up becoming group leaders. “It becomes more meaningful for the students.” Recent statistics support the shift: For the past six years, all of Hanalani’s students were admitted to college, with an average of $100,000 in scholarships. Last year, with only 54 graduates, three of them were Regents Scholars at UH. “Some of our students are really successful just because of the different things they’re doing. One student did a science project back in high school helping to launch cube satellites. He’s a junior [in college] now, and a company hired him. He actually has a job and they’re paying for his tuition.”


Dintersmith, who brought Most Likely to Succeed on a national screening tour ending in Hawai‘i, thinks that our state “can be highly influential around the rest of the world.” He says that Hawai‘i was by the far the most inspiring place he went. “Some of the most amazing learning experiences I saw in a year of travel were in your state. I visited half a dozen different schools. There were some incredible, incredible examples of what these kids are capable of," he says. "I’m betting big that Hawai‘i is a leader in this.”