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Last year, Kalani High School, one of Oahu’s best-regarded public schools, got more than 400 new students through a Department of Education program that allows them to transfer into schools outside their home district. Many came from nearby Kaimuki High School, accelerating a steep, decades-long enrollment decline at that campus.
Kalani drew the largest number of students statewide through what DOE calls geographic exceptions. The next largest draws were Moanalua High, Wilson Elementary and Roosevelt High on Oahu.
By contrast, Kaimuki High, Central Middle, Pahoa High & Intermediate on the Big Island and Kalihi Elementary lost the most prospective students through the geographic exception program.
But the question of who’s benefitting and who’s struggling in this annual school shuffle goes beyond the numbers.
The popularity of these transfers has surged — 20,015 of Hawaii’s 179,000 public school students, around 11% of the total enrollment in 2018-19 — have received geographic exceptions at some point. Parents may request a geographic exception for any number of reasons: a change in the child’s physical residence, a different school placement for a sibling, or parental employment at another school.
Many of the schools losing students have high poverty rates, large numbers of English language learners and lagging academic performance. The transfers out put additional financial strain on the schools, since state funding is based on enrollment.
“When we don’t make the projected enrollment, that’s when things begin to fall apart,” said Waimanalo Elementary and Intermediate School Principal Noel Richardson, one of the Oahu schools seeing declining enrollment over the years due to GE requests, at a recent DOE Committee on Weights meeting to discuss Hawaii’s student funding formula.
Also central to this broader discussion of school choice is how consistent the process of approving, or rejecting, school transfer requests is within the Hawaii DOE.
One education policy group has pushed for an audit into the geographic exception policy, including an analysis of the historical use of these transfers for the last 10 years and the reasons for GE approval or denial.
For instance, of the 286 students who would have attended Central Middle last year, 112 decamped to Kawananakoa Middle. Of the 234 students who would have attended Campbell High, 92 chose to go to nearby Kapolei High — the newest high school in Hawaii that opened in 2000 — through a GE.
Richardson, of Waimanalo Elementary & Intermediate, said he’s grappling with a “mass exodus” of students leaving for neighboring schools.
The most commonly cited reasons from parents, he said at a recent meeting, were the test scores at his Windward school, a preference for a different program at another school and the availability of child care in a different area of the island. Most of the 261 students Waimanalo lost last year headed to Kailua Intermediate.
He expressed concern that without more attention and serious discussion on the GE policy, already struggling schools like Waimanalo that are hemorrhaging students could be facing dire financial straits.
“To be almost 30-plus students off, that’s a lot of money,” he said.
He added that creates a situation in which new mainland teacher hires move all the way to Hawaii only to find there may not be enough money to fund their position.
On the flip side, many of the schools where parents are requesting their kids enroll are at capacity or above.
“We don’t know if we can physically handle all the kids who moved into our district,” said Kalani High Principal Mitchell Otani, at the same meeting at DOE headquarters.
Otani said Kalani has surged to an enrollment pushing 1,400 when it once only served about 900 kids.
As one of the state’s top-performing high schools, with higher than average scores on standardized tests and a strong high school graduation and college-going rate, Kalani gained 431 students who transferred in with a GE in 2018-19. Each student means an additional $4,657 for the Honolulu school. That means its geographic exception gain funneled an additional $2 million to the school last year.
At the other end, Kaimuki High, which is the top feeder of transfers into Kalani High, is seeing a consistent decline in enrollment. Once one of the largest public high schools on the island, it lost 612 prospective students who transferred out with geographic exceptions last year. With each student worth $5,324 at the Title I school, that’s a value of nearly $3.3 million.
After Kalani, McKinley High was a close second as far as a preferred spot.
“I worry about schools like Kaimuki,” said Chad Farias, a complex area superintendent on the Big Island.
When Hawaii’s geographic exception policy was enacted in 1996, language specified that parents could apply “with the welfare of the child as a major consideration.”
In 2005, when the public school system was about the same enrollment as it is today, around 8,000 students were going to a different school under a geographic exception, according to a Star-Bulletin article. Today, that figure has more than doubled to roughly 20,000 students.
But the way this school choice option is being exercised raises concerns for education advocates, who question the consistency behind the decision-making process.
Although there is an application process and a lottery system when demand outstrips supply at any given school, even some school leaders acknowledge parents could be “gaming the system” to ensure a coveted placement for their kid.
Otani, the Kalani High principal, told the committee that as of April 7, he’s added an additional 60 kids for the upcoming school year after hearing from families that they had moved into his district.
“I wouldn’t know if they actually did (move),” he acknowledged.
The standard application form for the GE allows parents to specify why they’re seeking such a transfer, including a desired program of study at a different school. But even with those rules there is a perception among some families that the decision-making at each school is arbitrary and favors some kids over others.
“Our interest in this topic came up when a person with knowledge of GE processes noted that she felt privileged families were getting an unfair advantage in the system, particularly when getting their kids into high performing public schools known for being feeders to private schools,” said David Miyashiro, the group’s executive director.
The GE process can also contribute to an imbalance between projected student enrollment and official enrollment. Any fluctuation between those numbers could mean a school gets more money than anticipated — or less.
This was the subject of protracted discussion at the last Committee on Weights meeting, with members debating whether to turn to something called a “5% hold harmless,” which maintains the same level of planned funding if a school, in its official enrollment count, stays within 5% of projected enrollment. The measure wasn’t adopted.
Farias, the complex area superintendent on Big Island, said the patterns of school migration are evident on the Big Island.
“There are winners and losers,” he said. “With Keaau (High), because of a lesser reputation, families are going to Waiakea (High). A lot of the non-free and reduced lunch kids are GE’ing to Waiakea. And then it’s overcrowded.
“I support that kind of choice,” he said of the GE system. “But I’m also an advocate that society shouldn’t be willing to bash these marginalized communities (where the shrinking schools are located) and we need to find some policies that balance that out.”
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