Catherine Toth Fox: Why Iolani School Revived Its Boarding Program - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Catherine Toth Fox

Born and raised on Oahu, Catherine Toth Fox is an editor, writer, children’s book author, blogger and former journalism instructor. She is currently the editor at large for Hawaii Magazine and lives in Honolulu with her husband, son and two dogs. You can follow her on Instagram @catherinetothfox. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

The school built a new $30 million, five-story residential dorm to accommodate students from around the world.

Two summers ago we toured the 25-acre campus of Iolani School, marveling at the then-new eco-conscious classrooms and play area for kindergarteners and first graders and a state-of-the-art shop where students were building actual canoes.

But what struck me most was a building toward the mauka end of campus that housed more than 100 boarding students from around the world.

When it first opened in 1863 — first as St. Alban’s College — Iolani was a boarding school with international students.

The school’s most famous alumnus who boarded there is Dr. Sun Yat-sen, a revolutionary and China’s first president. Then known as Tai Cheong (or Tai Chu), he was just 13 and unable to speak English when he arrived on the Honolulu campus. When he graduated in 1882, he won an award in grammar, which was presented to him by King David Kalakaua.

The boarding program closed in 1959.

But in 2019, the school revived the program and welcomed its first group of boarding students in 60 years. They were housed in a new $30 million, five-story residential dorm that can accommodate up to 112 students in grades 9 to 12.

Boarding students pay more than double what day students pay at $61,200 for the 2022-23 academic year. But consider what they’re getting: semi-private rooms with shared social spaces, access to a health and wellness team, staff that oversees day-to-day logistics, scheduled activities every weekend, and off-campus field trips like hiking and shopping — not to mention a high-quality education at a top-ranked school.

Iolani Dormitory room Exterior private school schools Catherine Toth Fox column
Boarding students at Iolani School live in semi-private rooms with shared social spaces. (Courtesy: Iolani School)

Yana Lahoda enrolled at Iolani last year as a junior. She’s from Ukraine and grew up watching surf videos of Hawaii’s John John Florence and Rob Machado. “I could only dream of even getting into the ocean to try something like this,” she says. Lahoda had to apply — like anyone else — and pass an English proficiency test. Now she’s pursuing screenwriting and filmmaking. She even picked up surfing.

“Being far away from home makes me miss my family,” says the 18-year-old. “But because there is such huge support at Iolani, most of the time there is not a moment when I overthink it.”

“Coming back to Ukraine, I’ll have at least 300 stories to tell about my family No. 2, Iolani School,” she says.

Boarding programs have long been part of Hawaii’s education history. Lahainaluna High School on Maui — the oldest school in Hawaii and west of the Rocky Mountains — started its boarding program in 1836. It’s the only public boarding school in Hawaii — there’s no extra cost for the boarding program — and students who apply are chosen through a lottery.

Kamehameha Schools has more than 300 middle and high schoolers residing on its Kapalama campus, most from neighbor islands and a few from the mainland. The school, then on the site where Bishop Museum now stands, opened as an all-boys’ school in 1887 with two dormitories.

Hawaii Preparatory Academy on the Big Island was founded in 1949 with five boarding students in a World War II-era building and has grown to about 600 students on two campuses sprawling across 220 acres. About 190 students currently are enrolled in its residential program, in grades 9 to 12, with about 40% hailing from more than 20 countries outside the U.S. Boarding tuition for 2023-24 ranges from $59,100 for in-state boarding to $76,100 for international students.

And in 2015 the Asia Pacific International School opened on 97 acres in Hauula, with a second campus in Seoul. About 30% of students at this faith-based school are international boarders, according to the Hawaii Association of Independent Schools.

(Mid-Pacific Institute on Oahu opened in 1908 with a boarding program, but that ended in 2003.)

Yana Lahoda Aulii Cravalho Iolani School student Catherine Toth Fox column
Iolani School student poses with actress and singer Aulii Cravalho at an event. (Courtesy: Yana Lahoda)

Boarding schools aren’t common in Hawaii — and I don’t know anyone who sends their kids to one of the 300-plus boarding schools nationwide. So it’s interesting that Iolani, which already has a great reputation as a college prep school and a long waitlist, would reinstate its boarding program.

But bringing it back has been part of its strategic plan for a while.

“The strategic goal is to bring students from cultures around the world to Iolani so that our local students will have more diverse perspectives and worldviews with which to interact in their classes,” says Iolani’s Head of School Timothy Cottrell. “In return, boarding students receive the benefits of an Iolani education and the experience of living in Hawaii.”

Boarding schools today are not reserved for the elite and the uber rich. Neither are they reform schools. Instead — and this is especially true for Hawaii ones — they pride themselves on being more accessible through generous financial aid and more diverse in every way. Lahoda, for example, attends Iolani on a full-ride scholarship.

“Parents send their children to boarding schools for a variety of reasons,” Cottrell says. “Most commonly, they send them to boarding school for more opportunities — academic, extracurricular — and to help their child learn to be independent. Some international families send their children to boarding school to help prepare them for college in the United States. Boarding schools offer a structured schedule and a supportive community for students to grow and thrive.”

Interest in boarding schools — and private schools in general — has been on the rise since before the coronavirus pandemic.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics 2022 Report on the Condition of Education, enrollment in U.S. public schools in prekindergarten through grade 12 dropped 3% from fall 2019 to fall 2020.

In Hawaii, enrollment in public schools declined roughly 6.8% in the last five years and is projected to drop another 5.4% by 2027-28.

At the Hawaii Preparatory Academy, enrollment dipped because of Covid but has risen back to pre-pandemic levels, when the school had more interest than beds available.

“Part of our educational philosophy is that the boarding program really enhances learning, to be able to live and learn in a community with people and perspectives from all over the world,” says Hamilton Ford, director of residential life at HPA and, himself, a former boarder. “It makes for richer discussions in classrooms and different perspectives on global events. There’s a lot of value learning from people from all over the world.”

Boarding students, Ford adds, tend to be better prepared for college life, too. Like at other boarding schools, HPA boarders have to do their own laundry, are responsible for cleaning communal areas and have to manage their own schedules. There’s no mom waking you up in the morning or reminding you to finish your homework. You’re on your own.

Lahoda is making the most of her time at Iolani, getting feedback on her scripts from teachers and alumni and going on film shoots. She even participated in her first surf contest on the North Shore as part of Iolani’s surf team.

“There is just something supernatural about being on a wave for me,” she says. “I like the feeling of being in the surf community and keep working to improve my turns and cutbacks. I love walking on the nose of my board. It just makes me really happy.”

Only in Hawaii.

Civil Beat’s education reporting is supported by a grant from Chamberlin Family Philanthropy.

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About the Author

Catherine Toth Fox

Born and raised on Oahu, Catherine Toth Fox is an editor, writer, children’s book author, blogger and former journalism instructor. She is currently the editor at large for Hawaii Magazine and lives in Honolulu with her husband, son and two dogs. You can follow her on Instagram @catherinetothfox. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Latest Comments (0)

$61K better includes everything!! Tuition, rent, food, books, pencils, etc.

MrGreen · 1 month ago

Educational tourism for rich international kids in relatively safe English-speaking US environment for secondary schooling is not too dissimilar from UH’s role for international students. Take a look at KCC, for example.But alas the impact of such programs *for* the people of Hawaii seems more tenuous than regular tourism. Can’t keep citing Sun Yat-Sen, the first president of the Republic of China (now Taiwan) as an illustration of value of international students. Find some international high school students who gave something back to Hawaii. At least UH has some examples. The value of international students to UH professors, now that would be worth looking at. UH research survives off the backs of international graduate students.

NoFreedomWithoutObligations · 1 month ago

This is a great approach. I suspect for many private schooled kids in Hawaii, their world is very small.

justsaying · 1 month ago

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