On a sunny Friday morning — the last day of November — several dozen parents clustered inside the media center at Jarrett Middle School deep in the Palolo Valley.

Their kids are in the fifth grade at various elementary schools in and around the area. This time next year, they’ll be in the sixth grade, possibly even at Jarrett, a sixth- to eighth-grade school serving 269 students.

The “Jarrett Middle School Tour” was not just an orientation for prospective parents. It was also an opportunity to convince the adults, who may not have decided yet about which middle school to send their child to, that Jarrett offers a safe, caring and nurturing environment.

“Our school is so small that if an issue comes up, we deal with it right away,” principal Reid Kuba said to the parents during a slideshow.

Jarrett Middle School Principal Reid Kuba, left, talks about his school during a tour for parents of prospective students.

Suevon Lee/Civil Beat

A colorful “Welcome Parents!” banner hung from the ceiling. Coffee, fruit and pastries were placed on a side table inside the air-conditioned library. Students in bright blue school shirts stood by to guide the parents on a follow-up campus tour.

Kuba kept the mood light as he detailed the school’s pluses: a small student body, a serene, peaceful campus in the foothills of Palolo Valley and signature quarterly events like “Ketchup Week,” in which school administrators lend teachers a helping hand in getting students caught up with schoolwork.

“That was a planned word, so don’t complain that Jarrett Middle School doesn’t know how to spell,” Kuba said, prompting some chuckles.

The jump from fifth to sixth grade is often a fraught time for families. Middle school is when peer pressure intensifies, fears of bullying or cyberbullying increase and things like smaller class sizes, individualized attention and after-school programs become more important as kids begin to develop interests, friendships and strive to meet rising academic demands.

The transition from elementary to middle school also marks one of the biggest drop-offs in public school enrollment in Hawaii, where the percent of private school enrollment is nearly double that of the national rate.

In the current school year, Hawaii’s private school enrollment is about 16 percent of the total school-age population; nationally, that rate is about 8 percent to 10 percent (one national data source, as reflected in the graphic below, showed an even higher private school enrollment in Hawaii for 2015 at 20 percent). Hawaii’s percentage of private school enrollment hasn’t fluctuated much in the last decade, according to data from the Hawaii Association of Independent Schools.

“Most of our private schools that have K-12 — they set their entry points where they accept more students in kindergarten, sixth grade and ninth grade,” said HAIS Hawaii Executive Director Phil Bossert. “In many cases, they just know those are the points where people choose to send their kid to private school.”

That’s why community groups like Parents for Public Schools of Hawaii are working with at least a dozen middle schools in Hawaii — including Jarrett — to coax families into keeping their kids in public middle school with tours, classroom visits and in-person conversations with school staff.

The efforts began shortly after Hawaii’s “Furlough Friday” crisis in 2009, when the state’s 256 public schools moved to a truncated four-day-a-week schedule as a cost-cutting measure, for a loss of 17 instructional days. It spurred discussion about the value of public education here.

“We’d ask our friends, did you go and visit your local (public middle) school? And they hadn’t,” said PPS Hawaii President Lois Yamauchi. “People who send their kids to private schools convince themselves and others that the public schools are not safe, or a good place for their kids.”

“It’s Honolulu-specific,” she said, of the decampment to private schools by families in town versus on the outskirts or neighbor islands. “There’s just a very strong narrative that exists around public and private schools in Honolulu.”

Jarrett Middle School Principal Reid Kuba.

Jarrett Middle School Principal Reid Kuba extolled the benefits of his school’s small size.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Nowhere is that narrative more ingrained in the public consciousness than at Jarrett, whose feeder schools include Palolo Elementary and Aliiolani Elementary. The middle-schoolers usually go on to attend Kaimuki High — or Kalani High through a geographic exemption — or private schools like Punahou and Iolani.

Located in close proximity to the Palolo Homes housing project, the middle school has long had to contend with a perception it was a breeding ground for student bullying.

“We can’t shake the stigma of the ’70s and ’80s,” said Roth Pung, Jarrett’s student social services coordinator and teacher of college readiness elective classes. “In the 20 years I’ve been here, I can count on one or two hands the number of fights (I’ve seen). It’s a serene place to learn. We have smaller class sizes.”

Shelby Ozaki, whose daughter is a sixth-grader at Jarrett, said she didn’t know anything about the school prior to enrolling her daughter there.

“All I knew was the public housing,” she said.

Her daughter attended Liholiho Elementary, which technically feeds into another middle school in town. Ozaki is one of a handful of parents who actually sought out Jarrett for her child through a geographic exemption, citing her desire to find a smaller school environment.

“It’s almost like an elementary school,” she said, pointing to the smaller student population and hands-on component of the school. “The kids are really respectful.”

Public School Vs. Public School

These days, Hawaii’s public schools aren’t just competing with private schools for students but with each other.

That’s because of the option in Hawaii known as a geographic exemption, which allows families to apply to send their kid to a school outside their home district.

Out of approximately 179,000 students in DOE schools statewide, 20,015 — or about 11 percent — were granted a geographic exemption in the 2018-19 school year, according to Hawaii DOE spokeswoman Lindsay Chambers.

It’s becoming a more popular option for parents as they shop around for public schools, whether for a school’s good reputation, convenience if a parent works near the school or particular programs.

“Ever since I’ve been teaching in the DOE, it’s been an option,” said Kailua Intermediate Principal Jill LaBoy. “In my years here, I’ve noticed that more people are using (GE) whereas people before wouldn’t have thought about it as much.”

About 100 of Kailua Intermediate’s 775 students in grades 7 and 8 are there through GEs, said LaBoy.

The GE application window begins Jan. 1 and runs until March 1. Schools must notify parents of their decision by March 15, according to the DOE website. Parents can get turned down for lack of space, but can also appeal a rejection to the complex area superintendent.

Students at Jarrett Middle School answer questions about what it’s like to attend the Palolo school.

Suevon Lee/Civil Beat

In the four years Reid Kuba has led Jarrett Middle School, geographic exemptions have multiplied. When he arrived, the school had two students who came in through GEs. This year, there are 25.

Kuba said the school attracts parents from outside the district due to its After-School All-Stars Program — it’s only one of a handful of middle schools in Honolulu to offer this — and free breakfast and lunch for all kids because it has a large percentage of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch.

Word of mouth has also helped: teachers and staff at nearby elementary schools have helped spread the word about Jarrett, he said.

After the school’s recent tour, some parents came up to him and asked for a GE application they wanted to fill out on the spot, he said. They cited the family-like, mellow atmosphere.

As much as GEs can provide a boost, the flip side is a loss for other schools, which means reduced funding under the state’s weighted student formula that allocates money to each school based on total enrollment.

“Waimanalo (Elementary and Intermediate) had money taken away from them because they lost students, because (of who) we took in,” said Kailua Intermediate’s LaBoy. “That’s a downside. They need money. We all need money. So now that starts to hurt their programs — they might have to cut a teacher.”

On the other hand, Kailua Intermediate was able to hire a new physical education and health teacher and buy new computers with the additional DOE dollars coming in, she said.

“I think a healthy part of competition is that it makes schools look at themselves and say, what are other schools doing that we can do?” said Yamauchi, of Parents for Public Schools Hawaii.

Hiroku and Aaron Luther, whose son is a fifth-grader at a nearby school, attended the Jarrett tour. They are considering Jarrett, which is their son’s regular school, or applying for a GE into Kaimuki Middle School.

At the end of the tour, which included classroom visits, a student panel, a parents’ panel, even a student musical performance of the school theme song with ukulele and guitars, the Luthers seemed pleased by what they saw and expressed what they want out of their son’s middle school education.

“We like small community, that the teacher knows who he is,” said Hiroku Luther.

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