The Learning Curve

Each private school has its own traditions, philosophies, teaching styles and more. How do you find the right match for your child?

There’s no doubt about it: Choosing a private school for your child can be challenging. Adding to the difficulty of the decision is that no two private schools are exactly alike. Each school has not only its own way of providing students with an education, but also its own distinct culture. Every campus looks and feels different, and the day-to-day experiences—from teacher and student interactions to how classes are taught—are unique to each school.

Here, we look at the cultures of a handful of Island schools, and the philosophies that shape them.

Montessori School of Maui headmaster Cynthia Winans-Burns and several students feeding the worms that help compost food waste and paper

photo: Matt Thayer

There are more than 128 Hawaii Association of Independent Schools (HAIS)-accredited primary and secondary schools. In fact, Hawaii has one of the largest private-school populations in the country; in the Honolulu district alone (the general area between Koko Head and Pearl Harbor), approximately four out of every 10 children attend private school. As new schools open and established ones grow and change, parents face numerous considerations when trying to find the right fit for their child. Perhaps key among these, second only to cost, is what it’s actually like to attend that school. Sounds rather obvious, but once you begin sorting through everything from class structure to curriculum, it becomes clear that a lot goes into the making of a school.

“The culture is the living mission statement, how we daily live who we are as an institution,” says Joyce Gregory Evans, an educational consultant who has recently worked with a number of schools to help them redefine their missions. “Much of it is in the woodwork, or the essence of the school.”

Gregory Evans points to a number of defining terms that help shape a school’s culture. For instance, one school may place a heavy emphasis on academic statistics—SAT scores or the number of students who earned scholarships and went on to four-year colleges—while another may view the child as a work in progress, tracking his or her development through written progress reports, rather then a standard report card. Other factors to consider include the school’s history, traditions, educational philosophies, whether it’s religious or secular, coed or single gender, how the school views its role in the community, even extracurricular activities and uniforms.

“Education is a process, not an end product,” says Dr. Robert Peters, the head of Hanahauoli School, an 88-year-old institution with 200 students in kindergarten through sixth grade. “The purpose of learning is to improve the social community. We’re looking at the individual as a significant part.” Peters and his faculty, who number 22, get their message across by focusing on direct, experiential learning. “We’re a school without walls,” says Peters. “We try to show the kids that school and life are connected. We don’t go on field trips; we go on learning trips.”

Second graders at Iolani School performing in a school program.

Photo courtesy of Iolani School

These excursions can include groups visiting Waikiki-to study tourism, or touring a harbor while learning about waste management. Social studies and science form the base of the curriculum, again linking what the children learn in the classroom to the world around them. The arts are also emphasized, with classes in music, French and literature.

The notion of students applying what they learn in the classroom to the world around them is nothing new, but it’s taken to a whole new level at Montessori School of Maui (MOMI), a 26-year-old school of 207 students that has operated on its current 9 acres in Makawao for the past 11 years. The campus itself occupies about 4.5 acres, including the space used for its garden. “One of our fundamental teachings is that nature is the best teacher,” says Cynthia Winans-Burns, the head of the school.


There’s a central garden, which the students consider the heart of the school and the defining element of MOMI’s culture. A full-time naturalist and gardener lead weekly formal lessons in the garden, and classroom instruction is tied back into the environment. “You have to, of course, teach individual disciplines—reading, writing and math,” says Winans-Burns. “What we do is wrap those learning tools back into contextual learning.” Students may go outside to study ants, then write a report, which could include the historical aspect of how ants got there. “The garden helps them understand that human beings aren’t the only beings in town,” says Winans-Burns. “If you become a lawyer, or doctor, you’ll look at life with a sense of we’re all interconnected and interdependent. It’s education for peace.”

Iolani School, which offers kindergarten through 12th grade and has approximately 1,800 students, is an emphasis-on-academics kind of school. Virtually 100 percent of the seniors go on to four-year schools, and, last year, about 350 students took one or more of the 18 Advanced Placement (AP) exams offered, with more than 50 percent scoring fives (the top score). “Our students, the high achievers that they are, aren’t embarrassed to be high achievers,” says headmaster Val Iwashita. “There’s a cultural value placed on academics. We think it’s important.” Iwashita, however, admits that it’s sometimes hard for his over achievers to strike a balance between being kids and being straight-A students. “The kids are competitive academically,” he says. “Stress is something we deal with.”

With approximately 235 students in grades six through 12, La Pietra Hawaii School for Girls also takes a fairly structured approach to education. Girls in grades six through eight build their class schedules around core subjects, such as English, history, science, math, art, music, theater and computer skills. Once they reach ninth grade, they can enroll in a variety of electives while continuing with their required subjects; and as juniors and seniors, they have the option of taking AP courses, including AP literature, U.S. history, biology and calculus.

La Pietra’s Lady Panthers won the state Division II basketball title last season.

photo: Matt Thayer

Nearly 100 percent of the graduating seniors go on to four-year universities, a statistic that reflects the school’s college-preparatory emphasis. “Culture is often defined through expectations,” says Gregory Evans. “[For example], homework is always completed. If there are difficulties, if a student is ill, if unusual circumstances arise, exceptions for timing may be made, but [the homework] is done. This is a cultural expectation that is known and accepted by all.” Likewise, a student enrolled in college preparatory has the expectation (as do the parents) that their education will prepare them for a four-year university.

“We are definitely not a school for certain types of families,” says Pieper Toyama, the headmaster of the Pacific Buddhist Academy, a relatively new high school that will have its first graduating class in 2007. “We believe our students will be very competitive, but we don’t measure ourselves by the number of students in top 10 schools. We’re concerned with, are we making the right match between the school and the individual?” The school’s Buddhisminfused curriculum stresses the importance of experiential learning. Ninth-graders, for example, are required to take judo and Japanese drumming (taiko), because of the opportunities they present for hands-on learning.

Lest you think a Buddhist school is a low-tech school, think again: The entire campus is wireless, and math classes are conducted on laptop computers, which the students are required to purchase. The computer-based lessons allow the students to move at their own pace. “It’s a Buddhist approach,” says Toyama. “They’re all learning math, but they’re learning at their own rates.” Math is, in fact, the only class in which students receive letter grades to track their progress, though the school does not issue F’s. If a child takes more than a year to pass algebra, he or she must attend summer school to complete the course.

Interestingly, a number of schools have chosen to forego the standard grading system. Hanahauoli implements a continuous progress approach, which rates what children are capable of at a particular time in relationship to proficiency levels. Every year, parents, their children and their teachers meet to come up with learning goals, which are later reevaluated, later with the child presenting data about how he or she thought they performed. Teachers also send home anecdotal write-ups detailing how a child is progressing.



Pacific Buddhist Academy teacher Jay Toyofuku (top) and students Austin Yamaguchi (center) and Chelsea Toyama (bottom) after their taiko (Japanese drumming) lesson.

photo: Olivier Koning

Like Hanahauoli, MOMI opts to use a progress-report-and-conferences approach. The children participate in formal conferences twice a year and receive assessments to give parents an idea of how the child is performing. “We don’t put a big emphasis on [grades],” says Winans-Burns. “My daughter goes to Seabury, and was astounded by how devastated the [other students] were by the grades they got.”

For some schools, the structure of a report card is important, as it both conveys an expectation of quantifiable achievement and gives students a clear idea of where they stand academically. Iolani, for example, has stuck with the report card, issuing letter grades A through F in most classes for fifth grade and up, while younger students receive outstanding, satisfactory or unsatisfactory marks. La Pietra and St. Francis School, a Catholic institution, also issue letter grades.

Multiage classrooms are another cultural consideration, as they directly challenge the notion of a hierarchical system based on age. In a multiage classroom, children are grouped with either younger or older children according to age-appropriate readiness levels. For instance, first-graders are paired with second and perhaps even third-grade children. “There’s a recognition that kids develop along the same lines, though not at the same rate,” says Peters, who cites a variety of multiage benefits: Children can learn at their own readiness levels. Because students are with the same teacher for two years, they become comfortable with the routine. In their second year, they take on leadership roles, mentoring the younger kids.

For Kirk Caldwell, an attorney for Ashford & Wriston, and father of recent Hanahauoli graduate Maya, the mixed-age classes were beneficial for his shy daughter. “Maya was [previously] at a school where they had combined classes,” says Caldwell, “and, being an only child, she would have the experience of being with older and younger children. We were absolutely sold on that.”

And, as Winans-Burns points out, there are benefits that go beyond pedagogy: “When I watch [older children] in a context with the younger children, the [older children] are so giving, helpful and patient,” she says. “Our children tend to retain their innocence more.” Other schools, such as St. Francis, maintain the standard grade-level structure, but allow students who test high in certain subject matters to enroll in the more challenging classes. “They are put with their ability,” says headmaster Sister Joan of Arc Souza. “We try not to hold them back because they’re of a certain age.”

Ingrained in many schools’ cultures is the pedagogical belief that creating functioning members of the community begins with the schools. At Pacific Buddhist Academy, one of the top priorities is teaching students to not only become effective members of society, but to also nourish peace. “We tell the teachers to look at the curriculum and infuse it with Buddhist teachings,” says headmaster Pieper Toyama, “to structure the lesson so they can see in history and literature what are the values and obstacles to peace.” In history class, students may study the long-standing conflict between Pakistan and India, and the underlying causes. Or, they may examine interconnectedness in science class. “If you don’t understand that we’re all connected, you create obstacles for peace,” says Toyama.

Other schools teach children the value of community by encouraging, sometimes requiring, them to volunteer for charitable causes. At Hanahauoli, fourth through sixth graders can participate in an after-school program for students interested in issues such as cleaning up the Ala Wai Canal. At St. Francis School, the students are required to serve 100 hours of community service in order to graduate. The girls at La Pietra can choose from approximately 60 service projects a year, from collecting canned food to throwing a Christmas party for children from abusive homes. The goal is to foster selflessness and interconnectedness, and, says Souza, a lifelong desire to help others. “The idea is that they’ll get so involved with [volunteering], they’ll stay with it.”



Whether a parent wants his or her child in a religious or secular environment is an important consideration, as religion undoubtedly shapes the school’s overall environment and curriculum. “I think [religion] is a big influence,” says Souza. “We make no apologies for being Catholic. We teach accepted Roman Catholic doctrine.” St. Francis’ students take a religious class each year, which can include world religions, church history or a class on the sacraments. They also attend religious assemblies once a month and an annual retreat led by the campus minister. Iolani School, one of the state’s largest private schools, was started by the Episcopal Church, and requires weekly chapel services, as well as more than two semesters of religious classes, including survey of world religions and Bible study, for kids in eighth through 12th grades.

At Pacific Buddhist Academy, the tenents of Buddhism permeate everything from the curriculum to discipline, even though only a small percentage of the students are practicing Buddhists. The Buddhist Living class, which all students must take every year, “isn’t so much on doctrine or facts about Buddhism,” says Toyama. “The main emphasis is on the student. For example, the first Noble Truth is life is suffering, which comes out of ignorance and attachment. We ask them to look at their lives—are there delusions or false attachments that you have? Are there Buddhist principles that can make your life one of less suffering?” Even disciplinary action takes a decidedly Buddhist approach. Instead of scraping gum from beneath desks, students go to lunch meditation, where they sit and reflect on the events and conditions that brought them there. “Meditation helps the transformation,” says Toyama. “And for a teen to sit still for 15 to 20 minutes without talking or sleeping is torture.”

The single-gender issue remains a hot topic in education. Whether you’re for or against it, there’s no doubt that a single-sex campus feels decidedly different from a coed one. La Pietra has an I-am-girl, hear-me-roar approach, providing its all-female population with an education based on empowerment. “I’m so blown away by how physically free they can be,” says school head Nancy White. “They’re free from worrying about their appearance, which gives them the freedom to express their thoughts.”

St. Francis School students Maxyne Salvador, Samantha Lau and Chardonnay Pao.

photo: Olivier Koning

The effects of the school’s all-female enrollment trickles into the curriculum, resulting in such classes as Thinking Women, which looks at the lives of influential women throughout history and teaches logic. Other original class offerings include Math for Independent Women, a math class in which students learn how to manage a stock portfolio and invest in real estate, and Writing for Fanatics and forensic science. “Our teachers have the freedom to develop courses that interest them,” says White. “The forensic science class resulted from a teacher saying, Can I teach a class in this?’”

St. Francis School is about to figure out what a coed campus is like, after having been an all-girls establishment for 80-plus years. The change was motivated, says Souza, by a desire to serve more students, particularly the school’s preschool boys. The move will be gradual, with the first coed kindergarten class starting this year. A new grade will be added every year as that class moves up.

Souza acknowledges that the switch will change the campus atmosphere, though, she says, the girls were all for it. “The girls cheered when I told them last year,” she says. “But then I told them that we were starting with kindergarten.” Souza also says that the school is “not averse,” to having all-boys and all-girls classes in certain subject areas, such as math, science and English, but that the decision will depend on the particular student population. St. Francis’ change to coed will definitely influence the school culture, says Joyce Gregory Evans, as it requires teachers and the administration to take into consideration how they teach classes, what they teach (sex education, for example, would need to be changed to address boys’ needs), the actual physical needs of boys and girls (buildings may need to be altered), how to handle sports, scheduling and the arts, among other things.

Here in Hawaii, parents are blessed with a variety of private schools from which to choose. At your fingertips (and pocketbooks) are more options than you can probably fathom, and each school is remarkably different. The environment in which your child will spend his or her days is shaped by a large number of influences, among which are the curriculum, class structure, religion (or lack thereof), student population, teachers and traditions. All of these elements help to shape a school’s culture, and knowing what you want from each of these will go a long way in helping you choose the right school for your child.