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Public and Private Schools in Hawaii

University of Hawaii - Manoa Campus, Honolulu, Oahu, Hawaii

Public and Private Schools in Hawaii

Hawaii has a single state-wide public school system. It has one centralized school board, located on Oahu, and governing the entire State of Hawaii – all 284 public schools.  Funding for each school is fair and balanced.

Bringing Your Kids to Hawaii

Bringing your school-aged kids (keiki) to Hawaii to live might seem like a great idea… ‘let them breathe the clean air and soak up the sunshine… swim with the dolphins!’ Sure. They can do all that. But, they’ll still have to endure the school system. For mainland kids arriving in Hawaii for public or private school it’s usually traumatic.

I’ll catch flak for this – but, speaking from the heart – I wouldn’t recommend that anyone bring their kids to Hawaii to live. I just wouldn’t. That’s me. I’ve considered at length whether I would want my daughter to grow up in Hawaii and attend Hawaii’s schools. I’ve decided – no, definitely not. We have chosen to live in Thailand and send her to a private school here.

In Hawaii, homeschooling might seem like the best option. I do think Hawaii would be a great place for a child to grow up, I am just unsure about the school system.

Does that mean that all kids going to public schools in Hawaii grow up with problems? No. Personally I know a dozen kids or more that grew up fine, and are respectful of their parents, are hardworking and just all-around good kids. I know kids that went to Punahou and that went on to Yale, and UCLA Berkeley. They are great kids, as far as I can see.

I also know some kids that grew up like local hoodlums and are breaking into cars for a living.

It’s a tough call – and I’d say that who your child befriends is probably the biggest predictor of whether or not he or she will have a childhood experience that is in-line with your expectations for your child. Problem is – we rarely choose our kids’ friends – right?

The Best Primary Schools in the Islands?

Some residents with kids personally recommend:

  • Koko Head School
  • Aina Haina Elementary
  • Mililani Mauka Elementary.

Honolulu Magazine does an annual review of Oahu’s public schools. The article is called, “Grading the Public Schools”. Click that link for more information. They also have a downloadable PDF file which lists the top 44 public schools in Hawaii each year – according to their own criteria. Worth a look – download here. If that link doesn’t work, try this one: Hawaii Top Public Schools – 44 Schools Ranked (PDF)

Though the reviews don’t cover the “dirt” like they should, you’ll have some idea which schools are at least trying to provide the best experience for kids.

The Top 10 Primary Schools on Oahu

(in order, best are first):

  • Momilani Elementary
  • Mililani Mauka Elem
  • Liholiho Elementary
  • Manoa Elementary
  • Noelani Elementary
  • Wilson Elementary
  • Aina Haina Elementary
  • Maemae Elementary
  • Hokulani Elementary
  • Koko Head Elementary

Where your child goes to school is dictated by where you live.

I don’t think there are real problems with the teachers in Hawaii. I know they are trying very hard to raise the standards. I do know that there is a serious lack of facilities and funding for some schools.

I think a big part of the problem with Hawaii’s schools, isn’t the schools at all. It’s the social situation that kids find themselves in. There are plenty of kids – that are coasting through life and not interested in school at all. Their parents aren’t that interested either – they have a view of life that doesn’t’ coincide with my own – of working hard and gaining something for yourself.

The Hawaii lifestyle is one of ease and no stress. Many kids are copying their parents in this regard. This sets up examples for your kids to see in school. I don’t know where they get it from, but there are some really hilarious kids. Pidgin’ – the local dialect – is really quite funny, and most kids want to speak it well and make everyone laugh too.

The kids that speak pidgin’ constantly, instead of proper English for the most part, are probably not the ones that are knocking themselves out to learn at school though.

The social situation for kids in Hawaii is opposite to what you as a parent probably want for your child. Though you might love the laid back atmosphere of Hawaii – you’ll probably be fighting the influence it has over your children.

Hawaii Universities

The University of Hawaii (UH) with main campus at Manoa, is a public university that offers bachelor, master, doctoral, and post-doc degrees.  It is of course, accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges.

Hawaii Private Universities

Nearly 20% of school children in Hawaii attend one of the 130 private schools. These schools have, on average, better reputations than the public schools, but can be very costly.

The percentage of kids in private school taken in comparison with other states in the USA – is the highest in the nation.

Some private schools focus on college-prep, so your child can get into a good university upon graduation from secondary school. Others focus on creativity and the artistic side of development – while not neglecting traditional curricula.

Here is some information about select private schools:

Punahou School

Barack Obama graduated from this private school and became president. This is considered the ultimate private school in Hawaii. There are over 3,800 students running the entire age range from kindergarten to 12th grade. The focus of Punahou is on college preparation, and it is considered one of the best in the entire nation.

Punahou has an excellent athletic program. Facilities include a heated Olympic-size swimming pool and an 8-lane Mondo running track surface. Students can choose from 22 sports!

In addition to a stellar athletics program, students can study dance, drama, and music – all nationally recognized programs. Other programs include jewelry, photographic darkroom facilities, and glass-blowing studio!

Cost per year for tuition: $13,775

Iolani School


Iolani School is a private school with over 1,800 students from pre-school age to grade 12. Iolani School is affiliated with the Episcopal Church in the United States.

Iolani school is in Honolulu on the island of Oahu. The school focuses on college prep as well as athletics. More than 2/3 of all attending students are part of an Iolani athletic team – covering 32 competitive sports.

Cost per year for tuition: $13,100

Hawaii Schools with Religious Affiliation

Maryknoll School is a private Roman Catholic school with 1,400 students in pre-school to 12th grade. Located in Honolulu. About $11,000 / year.

Sacred Heart’s Academy is a private Roman Catholic school for girls only. Students served are from kindergarten to 12th grade.  About $9,000 / year.

Damien Memorial School is a private, Catholic school for boys located in Honolulu. This school teaches students from 7th to 12th grades. About $9,000 / year.

Other Private Hawaii Schools

Honolulu Waldorf School is a private school serving about 300 students from pre-school to 12th grade.  Between $4,000 and $10,500 per year.

Montessori Community School is a private school providing a Montessori education for children ages 2 through 12 yrs of age. Between $5,000 – 10,000 per year.

Hawaii Preparatory Academy is located on the Big Island of Hawaii and is a private school, teaching students from kindergarten through 12th grade. On campus boarding is available for grades 6 – 12. Students are international including those from Hawaii, 15 other states, and 15 foreign countries. Between $15,000 and $30,000 per year.

Island School is a private in Lihue on the island of Kauai. This is a college prep which has students from pre-school through 12th grade. Between $6,000 and $10,000 per year.

List of Hawaii Universities

University of Hawaii at Manoa, Hilo, or West Oahu. I attended this campus part time while serving in the U.S. Air Force years ago. It’s a lovely campus with a lot of trees for shade. Sometimes classes are held outside on the grass.

Hawaii Community Colleges

  • Hawaii Community College
  • Honolulu Community College
  • Kapiolani Community College
  • Kauai Community College
  • Maui Community College
  • Windward Community College

Hawaii Graduate Schools

  • John A. Burns School of Medicine
  • William S. Richardson School of Law

Private Hawaii Universities

  • Hawaii Pacific University (HPU)
  • Brigham Young University Hawaii (BYU Hawaii)
  • Chaminade University of Honolulu. Roman Catholic affiliation.
  • Argosy University
  • Hawaii Tokai International College (HTIC)
  • Honolulu University
  • The International College and Graduate School. Christian affiliation.
  • Remington College
  • Heald College Honolulu
  • TransPacific Hawaii College

It bears repeating… I don’t think you should come to Hawaii with kids – unless you can afford to put them in a good private school where there is at least a modicum of control over them. If kids act up too much in a private school – they are terminated. In a public school – what are they going to do? Right, they live with it. That’s why the public schools are such a bad experience.

If you raised your kids in Hawaii’s schools and they were not born there – could you tell your story? We’d love to have it… write us at the email at the top of the column to your right. Mahalos!

[Photo credit – flickr.com member, Anna’s Photos]

About the author: Moving to Hawaii was one of the most amazing moves ever. I strongly encourage you to consider it if you’re in the financial position to make it work. Living in Hawaii has a fair bit of both positive and negative experiences awaiting each of us who give it a try. Read some of the articles here and try to get a feel for whether you might thrive in the islands. I wrote an entire book on the subject and it’s usually less than $5. It’s up there on the right side column. Best of luck and life to you! Aloha! – Vern L.

4 comments… add one

  • Hi Vern,

    I came across your website while researching living in Hawaii. I have spent the past 10 years living in Thailand (Bang Saen, Chonburi) and am considering moving to Hawaii to raise my young family. Compared to International Schools in Thailand, do you really think Hawaii public schools are that poor? I had a brief stint working at an IB-accredited international school in Thailand and would NOT consider it a good environment to raise my son in. Kids come and go often, so there is very little consistency. The students consisted mostly of wealthy Thais. I also attended a post-graduate MBA program at Chulalongkorn University and was not too impressed with the level of critical thinking that existed in the classroom. Cheating was rampant and I don’t believe Thai education nurtures the correct values. Right now I’m mostly interested in good primary schools in Hawaii (that will last me at least the next few years). Do you believe the difference in primary school education in Hawaii requires private school education (and tuition)?


    • Hi Matthew,

      I also live in Thailand, and I’ve also considered many times about the education system here vs. mainland USA and Hawaii. Personally, I would never take my kids to Hawaii to live if they had to go to public school. In public school you have kids of parents of all income brackets, except the higher ones. What that means is, prejudice rages throughout the public schools. Hawaii is a real melting point of culture – there are people from Japan, Philippines, Thailand (a few), Korea, China, locals born in Hawaii with or without Hawaiian blood, Fiji, Samoa, Tahiti, Micronesia, mainland USA, Brazil, etc. It’s supposed to be a melting pot, but in the schools I think it’s more like a boiling pot. Public schools have some great teachers and administration that are trying to straighten out the problems between kids of different races and backgrounds, cultures, and it’s impossible. I think if you can’t put your kids in a good private school, don’t consider moving to Hawaii.

      I think it’s just not fair to them.

      With Thailand schools, I’m up in the air. Sure there is not any sort of standard that could be compared to the USA, UK, or probably another 30 top countries in the world. My daughter is young so at the moment we’re OK with her learning here. School is just fun at this point. I don’t have this notion that kids need to work their asses off in primary school. It’s just for getting some of the basics. Mostly I think it is for social reasons. Learning to get along with others. Sharing. Helping. Competition.

      To make sure our daughter learns what she needs to, we teach her at home. We’ll send her to private classes later – in high school if we happen to still be in Thailand. I think we’ll probably move by that time. Whether we move to Hawaii or not will depend if we have the $800 or so per month to send her to a decent school.

      Please strongly consider the same!

      Cheers man,


      • Thanks Vern for the response. So you home school your daughter? I, like you, aren’t tied to a specific location for a wage, so I have flexibility in moving to different areas, or even countries depending on my liking and what I think is best for my family. Does your daughter speak Thai? I found an English language nursery school (Filipino teachers, run by North American missionaries) nearby, but it only works for the next 2 years.

        I googled a bit and greatschools.org does rank a few of the public schools in Oaha as 10 out of 10, but I’m unsure if it’s nationwide rankings or just within HI. Do you have any idea of the the cost comparison for accredited international schools in Thailand vs Hawaii. Punahou I think charges like $19k/year vs $14k/year for the nearby international school. Do you think a school like Momilani Elementary would be OK to send a child up until 5th or 6th grade?… and then move to a private school like Punahou? Do the problems you know about in public school in Hawaii exist at the primary school level? or more at the High school level. Thanks for the great blog.

  • Thoroughly enjoyed your lighthearted overview and insights. I became confused however when I followed the enclosed link for a list of ‘best schools’ as the link confines the analysis to high schools only…no primary. I would like to review any information regarding the public primary schools.
    Thank you,

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