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.

What sets Waialae Elementary Public Charter School apart from schools focused on grades and test scores is its focus on emotional learning.

There’s a bulletin board outside a third grade classroom at Waialae Elementary Public Charter School in Kaimuki covered in colorful Post-it notes with phrases like “Kindness makes a better place,” “Be brave” and “Just keep going.” At the top it reads, “If you need one, take one.”

Immediately I knew this school was a special place.

After Hawaii passed its first public charter school law in 1994, Waialae was the first to open, focused on student-centered learning and whole-child development. (It first opened as a public elementary school in 1928.)

Today, Hawaii has 37 charter schools serving more than 12,000 students on five islands.

Waialae prides itself on guiding its nearly 500 students to work collaboratively, to share openly and to cultivate a love of learning. So when a few third graders were struggling with kindness, the teacher shifted the focus in the classroom. The kids came up with the bulletin board idea. And when I walked in to meet the teacher, a recent hire from New York, nearly every kid hugged me — unprompted.

“It’s not just about learning in a classroom, it’s about getting out and applying it,” says Mary Wenstrom, CEO and head of the school, who while walking the halls often stopped to hug a student or pick up trash.

She describes the projects that go on at the school, from tending to classroom gardens to thoughtful field trips that tie together what the kids are learning across various subjects. For example, the first graders are studying coral reefs, exploring tide pools and learning about how microplastics threathen the health of these ecosystems. The theme is echoed in art, music, STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics), language arts, math and even PE.

But one of the most impressive projects — and one that has been going at Waialae for more than 10 years — is Market Day.

Waialae Elementary Public Charter School market day Catherine toth fox column
Fifth grade students at Waialae Elementary Public Charter School are tasked with creating a business and coming up with a product that they can sell at Market Day. The money raised is donated to a charity. (Courtesy: Waialae Elementary Public Charter School)

As part of the curriculum, fifth grade students are tasked with creating a business and coming up with a product they can sell at Market Day, a community event usually held in May. The money raised is donated to a charity chosen democratically by the grade level.

It’s a rigorous process. The students decide on whether they want to work alone or in groups of no more than four. Then, after doing some research, they come up with ideas for products that they would be able to make and sell with a budget of just $25.

The students pitch a “Shark Tank”-like panel, then take the feedback and refine their ideas. They get investors to buy into their business, then start creating their products for Market Day. Whatever they make in sales, they have to use to pay back their investors and minus out supplies. The remainder — the profit — is donated.

“It’s an opportunity for students to really shine,” says Leah Cornog, the grade-level chair for fifth grade who still has many of the items she’s bought at previous events. “They have so much fun. They all remember Market Day.”

In the past these budding entreprenuers have made and sold beach glass jewelry, Christmas ornaments, dreamcatchers, stress balls, candles, magic wands, rocks painted with inspirational sayings, glittery lip gloss, bamboo pencil holders and slime. (That was a big hit with the kids.)

One student made paperweights out of clear resin that had dead insects like centipedes and cockroaches suspended in them. Prices average between $3 and $5, and students have to create storefronts using two standard desks and chairs.

Think about everything these students are learning in nine months: market research, business strategy, marketing techniques, collaboration, profit margin, design, negotiation, public speaking. The list goes on.

One of the most impressive projects at Waialae Elementary Public Charter School is Market Day. Fifth grade students are tasked with creating a business and coming up with a product they can sell at a community event usually held in May. The money raised is donated to a charity. (Courtesy: Waialae Elementary Public Charter School market day Catherine Toth fox column
One of the most impressive projects at Waialae Elementary Public Charter School is Market Day. Fifth grade students are tasked with creating a business and coming up with a product they can sell at a community event usually held in May. The money raised is donated to a charity. (Courtesy: Waialae Elementary Public Charter School)

“It’s really about giving these kids as many opportunities to practice and refine the skills that will actually help them in their lifetime,” Wenstrom says.

But what I think sets Waialae apart is its focus on emotional learning. The kids don’t keep the money they earn. They donate it. And they’re motivated by this, that the money they raise will benefit their community.

On average the class raises about $3,000 at Market Day. In the past they’ve given micro loans to businesses in other countries, helped a nonprofit supporting Hawaii island residents impacted by the Kilauea eruption, and donated to the Hawaiian Humane Society.

So many schools — and parents — are focused on test results and grades, it’s nice to see a public school remember the importance of community, compassion and kindness.

“It’s not just school work that gets done here,” Cornog says. “They’re here to learn about life.”

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


Read this next:

Jonathan Okamura: UH Can Learn From University Presidents' Responses At Congressional Hearing


Local reporting when you need it most

Support timely, accurate, independent journalism.

Honolulu Civil Beat is a nonprofit organization, and your donation helps us produce local reporting that serves all of Hawaii.

Contribute

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)

It's so heartwarming to read about educators who are teaching life skills, beyond the basics! Many of us kupuna, learned these skills from our families, friends and smaller communities of church and neighborhoods. Obviously, some families still do pass on this knowledge, but many folks have not acquired these capabilities, and can't then teach their own offspring. So sad to see so much free-floating anger these days, manifesting as disregard for others, petty & major crimes and not being responsible for ones' own actions/decisions. Unfortunately, our media glorifies "getting away with it," as do many so-called "leaders" and "politicians."

katisha · 2 months ago

I need to teach my child to bless others and being kind to others is the same as blessing them - with kindness. I want to teach my child to form a habit of blessing his friends with kindness at least once each day. Wow, what a great habit for him to pick up in his life. That's my job as a parent.

wymotosue · 2 months ago

Teaching kindness in school becomes the best learning tool for daily living. It's hands on.

kealoha1938 · 2 months ago

Join the conversation

About IDEAS

IDEAS is the place you'll find essays, analysis and opinion on every aspect of life and public affairs in Hawaii. We want to showcase smart ideas about the future of Hawaii, from the state's sharpest thinkers, to stretch our collective thinking about a problem or an issue. Email news@civilbeat.org to submit an idea.

Mahalo!

You're officially signed up for our daily newsletter, the Morning Beat. A confirmation email will arrive shortly.

In the meantime, we have other newsletters that you might enjoy. Check the boxes for emails you'd like to receive.

  • What's this? Be the first to hear about important news stories with these occasional emails.
  • What's this? You'll hear from us whenever Civil Beat publishes a major project or investigation.
  • What's this? Get our latest environmental news on a monthly basis, including updates on Nathan Eagle's 'Hawaii 2040' series.
  • What's this? Get occasional emails highlighting essays, analysis and opinion from IDEAS, Civil Beat's commentary section.

Inbox overcrowded? Don't worry, you can unsubscribe
or update your preferences at any time.