Ready, Set, Go: Your Back to School Guide

kids in a classroom raising their hands

There are more than 100 private schools across Hawaii, and like our unique children, each school offers different opportunities and experiences for our keiki. Though it is not always an easy process, the decision is definitely an important one. Your child could be spending five days a week for the next six, nine or even twelve years at this school – receiving an education that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.

Choosing the right school for your child can be both overwhelming and time consuming – tours and application fees take both time and money, with neither commodity being in infinite supply. But if you start your search early at home, you can often narrow down your choices into a smaller, more manageable list.

For personal insight, talk to other parents, friends, neighbors, and co-workers about their children’s schools. Read through this guide, full of descriptions for a handful of schools, and start making a list of potential options. Finally, take into consideration the school’s location, education philosophy, religious affiliation, accreditation, cost, and teachers.

Research and Tour

When considering a private school, you must look beyond the brochures. While advertisements and glossy packets are a great way to learn the basics and reach a quick judgment, parents should continue their research in order to make the right decision; a visit to the school’s website can often help eliminate schools that are obviously inconsistent with your family’s values and needs, but the best way to research a school is to schedule a tour.

Take the tour as an opportunity to ask questions and observe what you may not be able to find in a brochure. Pay close attention to the students and faculty – are they happy and engaged? Would you feel comfortable spending the entire school day there, five days a week? Would your children?


A long commute during rush hour can easily steal hours from your family every week that could be used more wisely. Being habitually late or stuck in traffic will only add more stress to your daily life.

Though your heart may be set on a certain school because you, your spouse, or other family members attended, pause and think about what works best for your family. Even if you are accepted, do you really want your children to get comfortable in a school so far away that after a year you are going to want them to transfer somewhere closer?

A school close to home is an obvious convenience for everyone, though a school close to the parent’s place of employment may also be a viable option. Consider the availability of before and after school care. If a school’s location or hours simply will not work with your family’s schedule, think of it as one less application fee and move on.

Educational Philosophy and Religious Affiliation

With so many options available to Hawaii parents, there is sure to be a school to fit everyone’s educational preferences and ideals. Consider the following: Would your child work better in a co-ed or same gender education environment? Do you value a traditional academic program above all else, or are you open to progressive, less-rigid programs? Would your child thrive in a large school with many grade levels and resources, or would they learn better in a smaller, more intimate setting?

Are you set on the idea of a Montessori, Waldorf, Emilia Reggio, or International Baccalaureate program? If these terms are completely unfamiliar to you, it might be wise to set aside some time to conduct research. A quick Internet search can provide a basic outline of a variety of educational philosophies available and how your child’s individual personality and temperament would fare in each program.

Some families might place an emphasis on their religious belief system, and would prefer that their children attend a private school with religious affiliations that align with and reinforce their beliefs. There are some programs that will gladly accept students of different religions, while others will not. For parents considering religious schools, ask yourself if you are comfortable with the amount of instruction – or lack thereof – spent on religious studies.

Though you may be more interested in college acceptance and test scores, it is important to consider your child’s interests as well – is there an art program that would satisfy your budding painter? Does the school provide the opportunity for your little league star to play competitive team sports? Look into extracurricular activities and summer camp options to see if your child’s interests are represented.

Even if your family does not place priority on religion or a specific learning philosophy, it is important to look over the school’s mission statement to determine if their goals and beliefs are compatible with what you want to teach your children.


In order to be licensed or accredited in Hawaii, schools must follow a procedure that involves both self-evaluation, as well as evaluation from an outside party. Because accreditation involves both copious amounts of time and money, newer schools might still be in the process of gaining accreditation.

The Hawaii Council of Private Schools (HCPS) was formed in 1995 to develop and regulate specific standards and procedures for operating a private or independent school in Hawaii. HCPS operates under the Hawaii Association of Independent Schools (HAIS).

Parochial and religious schools are regulated by the religious bodies that govern the schools; for example, the Hawaii Catholic Diocese governs all Catholic schools in the state. Many parochial and church schools also work closely with the HAIS.

Some common acronyms you may come across in the following editorials include, but are not limited to: National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA), National Lutheran School Accreditation (NLSA), Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), and Western Catholic Educational Association (WCEA). Many colleges are looking for students with diplomas from accredited high schools – so be sure that your private school choice will allow your child to pursue higher education if they so desire.


Hawaii’s private schools range from $2,000 a year to over $20,000 a year. But do not necessarily rule out a school that may appear out of your budget. Though you may wince at the sticker price, financial aid could be readily available. You never know what assistance you might be eligible for if you don’t apply. That said, do not put all your eggs in one basket; apply to more than one school, including those within your price range. While you should not bank on the notion that you will receive financial aid, you do not want to discredit the idea either and miss an opportunity.

Teachers and Faculty

Each private school is sure to have different standards and educational requirements for their teachers. These requirements also differ from the standards and requirements at many public schools. The Department of Education may require head teachers to have a specific degree and amount of experience, but a smaller school may use volunteer members as classroom aides. While a degree is not always indicative of a passion for teaching, you should feel free to ask about the qualifications that are important to you. Some private schools may have even stricter requirements for their staff members, as they may be able to offer higher salaries.

In order to make the best decision for your child and family, sit down and make a list of what you are looking for in a private school – and then prioritize that list. It is not always possible to find a school that meets every single preference, and you might find that nine out of ten is not bad. Keep an open mind, and once you have narrowed down your list to three to five schools, closely follow and adhere to admission deadlines and start the application process.

Private School Guide FAQ

1. So many schools, so many choices. How do I choose?

Make a checklist of what you and your child are looking for in a private school. This will help you determine which schools to keep on your application list and which ones to remove. Some things to add on your checklist are school size and type, student to teacher ratio, teaching strategies, financial aid, after school or summer programs, types of extracurricular activities, school special events like fairs and award dinners, sports offered, and their college admission process. Once you find a school that checks everything off your list, then you’ll know you found the right school.

2. When should I start the application process?

Application dates vary for each school, but here’s a timeline of what to expect.

Fall (a year before you want to enroll): Research schools, arrange visits, register for SSAT or other required tests, and tour schools.

Winter: Submit applications, request financial aid forms if applying, make sure your current school submits transcripts, teacher evaluations, recommendation letters, and call admission offices to make sure they have your application.

Spring: This is when you’ll find out if you’re child got accepted or put on a waitlist, what your financial package is, and make sure you let the school know if you’re accepting their offer.

3. How many private schools should I apply for?

There is no minimum or maximum amount. You should apply for schools that best fit your child’s needs and is affordable for your family.

4. What is SSAT and is it required to get into a private school?

SSAT is known as the Secondary School Admission Test administered by The Enrollment Management Association. This standardized admission test is for students in grades 3-11 and helps admissions counselors to make decisions regarding admission. The test measures verbal, quantitative and reading skills. Application requirements vary for each school, so it’s best to speak to an admission counselor if this test is required or not.

5. What if I miss their application deadline?

There are many factors as to why you might have missed the application deadline. Maybe you only applied to one school and didn’t get accepted, or the financial aid package wasn’t enough, or your family just moved to a new place. Don’t fret, there’s still a way for you to get in. Use the School Search tool from SSAT, type in your zip code or town, select the semester you’re applying for in the “Open Seat Listing” on the left side of the page, and hit search. It will pull up a list of schools in your area that are still accepting applications, along with contact information.

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