This is the first of two parts on lessons the public education system could learn from the private school system.

Learning First is well on its way to transforming the platform of educational discussions and policies in Hawaii. Providing opportunities for meaningful policy discussions for educators, stakeholders, and community members, the founders Mike Wooten and Meg McCormick are beginning to watch their hard work blossom.

Twenty educators participated in Learning First’s second annual Punahou and Public Education Collaboration Day. Last year’s event enlightened and enlivened the public school teachers in attendance, so Mike and Meg, along with Punahou physics educator Tiffany Coke, decided an annual visit for observation and collaboration would be a beneficial professional development experience for public and Punahou educators.

Punahou Gate

Punahou is a longtime private school on Oahu.

Punahou’s Ted Demura-Devore starts off Monday’s lesson in Asian Studies with statement, “All life is suffering. Agree or disagree?”

As students munch on Wheat Thins, slip phones into backpacks, and doodle in notebooks, the wheels of their minds began to turn. One girl assertively responds, “Suffering is a mindset.”

The class continues on through the discussion gracefully, without need for redirection. Another student chimes, “I don’t think of pain as a bad thing, because it’s temporary.”

Silence falls on the room as students ponder the connection between suffering, mindsets, and timeframe. In an oversized knitted beanie, a young girl with torn jeans and inquisitive eyes adds, “Sometimes. Some pain is a sharp, high pitch kind of pain… that’s usually the temporary kind. But then there’s also the dull, low pitch kind of pain, and that’s usually chronic, on-going pain.”

Ted nods approvingly – they are clearly ready for the essential question of the day. “How can we boil suffering down to desire? And how does that tie into Buddhism, especially Nirvana?”

The Hawaii Department of Education faculty and students know their fair share of suffering. Sweltering 90-plus degree classrooms, poor wage to cost of living ratio, large class sizes, few resources.

The result of this suffering is exorbitantly high teacher turnover rates, with 55 percent of teachers leaving within their first five years, and low college admissions for Hawaii’s high school graduates, with only 51 percent pursuing college post high school and only a third going onto a four-year university.

Punahou sends 99 percent of its graduates onto college and teacher turnover is next to nonexistent.

The beginning of the Punahou and Public Education Collaboration Day began with coffee and KWLs (Know/Want to Know/Learned chart). Teachers broke into small groups to discuss their experience and preconceptions with private schools, and how it has affected their understanding of the intersection of public and private schools.

Naturally, the flow of conversation led to resources, with many teachers feeling that the state budget isn’t currently spent efficiently on resources that would positively impact student achievement. High school writing classes aren’t equipped with laptops for students to use in class daily, therefore students are in turn writing long, hand-written essays, missing out on the opportunity to engage with technology that they will no doubt need to use in the workforce; classrooms are without air conditioning and are overcrowded, with upwards of nearly forty students; many schools lack their own library and must rely on that of the public library, which comes with it’s own restrictions and limitations being a non-school entity.

Punahou’s budget is structured around providing meaningful resources for learning, a quality environment for continued engagement, and valued educators that, with the collaboration of peers and programs provided from Punahou, are masters in their fields.

The values of the modern era of education is centered around creating students that are college and career ready as well as 21st century learners. Each Punahou student has the academic freedom to choose classes for all four years. Punahou instructors expect students to perform higher-level thinking skills and discuss ideas freely, following the ebb of conversation. Lastly, unlike public schools across the state, students are provided with technology that allow 21st century learning to occur.

Furthermore, the adhesive that holds this model together and makes it as successful as it is results from a supportive administration that celebrates creativity, risks, reflection, and collaboration of its faculty. On top of that, all administrators also teach.

Teachers are given opportunities for cross-curricular collaboration as well as time to work within their departments to extensively develop and revise curriculum. There are no universal standards tied to any curriculum at Punahou; all curricula are a result of an educator’s passion and expertise.

Moreover, teacher evaluations are used as a tool of professional development rather than measurement of worth. Teachers are reminded that they are there because they are already worthy of being there. Students are also given the opportunity to review their teacher’s effectiveness at the end of the course, however, it is not tied to their pay – it is used strictly for reflection purposes.

Punahou touts itself as a private school with a public purpose. Now is the time for the Department of Education to engage and collaborate. There is a system that works here in Hawaii; there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Instead, let’s take down whatever is blocking our peripherals and widen our vision.

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About the Author

  • Kelly Owens
    Born and raised in northern New Jersey, Kelly Owens moved to Hawaii with her husband Sean in 2013. She is a high school English teacher on Oahu and an active member of the educational nonprofit "Learning First." Kelly is passionate about creating change that ensures all people have access to the pursuit of happiness.