Cultivating Balance

HPA helps students find (and keep) perspective in a complex world

Cultivating Balance-Ma Ke Kula

There are certain things that come somewhat naturally at HPA, situated, as it is, amid a landscape unparalleled for its beauty and diversity, and within a culture known for its aloha and wisdom. Students, alumni, teachers, and others who come within the school’s orbit often describe experiences at HPA as “magical” or “transformative.” HPA is a place where authentic connections to the land, to self, and to others tend to happen organically—but the school also fosters these connections intentionally, and designs curriculum and support systems that help equip students for full, satisfying lives.

Ultimately, HPA seeks to graduate young people who are as balanced and self-sufficient as the traditional land divisions known as ahupua‘a—each ahupua‘a—a complete slice of what a community requires to thrive, from forested uplands to arable lowlands and teeming ocean. Just as this system was designed to equitably provide for many needs, so, too, does HPA strive to send each student into the world with ingenuity, character, and aloha—each graduate’s resources stretching from firmly rooted feet to a deeply engaged mind.

Ready for life beyond the classroom
Researchers and educators are largely unified in their call to develop competencies in children and teens that go beyond traditional academic skills. “Teaching resilience, empathy, and wellness are all part of nurturing healthy students and a healthy school culture,” says Sarah Schorn ’98, director of student affairs. “At HPA, we try to balance being a school that’s competitive with also truly preparing our graduates for a world beyond standardized tests and classroom assignments.”

In HPA’s residential program, where students from across Hawai‘i and around the globe live together in community 24/7, educating the whole person goes well beyond the academic day. “Kids can be good at school—but that’s really a narrow band of life. Being ‘good at life’ requires skills and experiences that extend past what may be learned in a more traditional academic setting,” Schorn says.

At HPA, we try to balance being a school that’s competitive with also truly preparing our graduates for a world beyond standardized tests and classroom assignments.”

—Sarah Schorn ’98, director of student affairs

There are myriad tools, collaborations, and initiatives happening at HPA to support this kind of development. In regular gatherings throughout the year, for example, residential faculty and boarding students work through five strands of the residential life curriculum, covering topics from study skills to gratitude. There are also guest visits and ongoing partnerships with experts in their fields, as well as teams of adults on campus dedicated to supporting student growth, including counselors, learning specialists, and nurses. A digital citizenship curriculum for Middle and Upper School from The Social Institute is also in process at HPA. The gamefied modules are a positive approach to empowering students with the information they need to make decisions about technology use.

“At the end of the day,” says Fred Wawner, assistant head of school for student life, “we give our students the time and space to have conversations, to know themselves. The immediate benefit is that both adults and students stretch and grow, but it’s also a long game. We want students to be able to rely on these skills in their 20s and 30s and beyond.

“And there is plenty of room for fun here as well,” Wawner adds. “Fun is a big part of connectivity and happiness. Dorm Wars, HPA Olympics, OurWorld study abroad trips, the outdoor program, service learning, and spontaneous moments … there are so many opportunities to make true friends.”

New foundations at the Upper School
In schools across the country, there is a thrumming drive for what is often described as “excellence,” motivated at least in part by the idea that good grades from a good school lead to a good job and a good life. But this mindset often works against health and wellness. In a 2018 PEW Research Center survey of U.S. teens aged 13 to 17, 96% reported seeing anxiety and depression as a problem for themselves and/or their peers. When asked to identify the source of the pressures teens face, school was by far the largest source, with 61% of teens saying they “feel a lot of pressure” to excel academically.

At HPA, teachers and staff work to help students understand that they don’t have to choose between academic achievement and a balanced, happy life. “We want our students to understand that success is a natural by-product of happiness and peace of mind, and not the other way around. We also want to challenge traditional narrow constructs of success to ensure a more holistic focus on what teens have coined ‘living my best life’ or thriving in work, school, and play,” says Crystal Sebastian, health and wellness coordinator for the Upper School.

This year, HPA introduced a new semester-long health and wellness course required for all ninth graders. This, combined with a semester of Hawaiian studies, prepares new students to forge a rewarding relationship with Hawai‘i—and also with themselves.

From the annual keiki triathlon to dozens of varsity and junior varsity teams, physical fitness and athleticism have long been defining strengths of HPA. The health and wellness course adds a new dimension to physical wellbeing. “We explore mental health, sleep, nutrition, the adolescent brain, intimacy, and healthy body image, among other topics,” Sebastian says. The response from students has been resoundingly positive. “Teens are eager to learn how their minds work!” Sebastian continues. “When you show them the research, they make their own adjustments. And they have especially enjoyed meditation and mindfulness.” A recent class challenge to incorporate daily meditation for ten consecutive days showed impressive results: HPA students reported sleeping better, feeling less anxious upon waking, and feeling better able to complete school and homework.

As one freshman enrolled in Sebastian’s class, Parker Smith ’23, noted: “I wasn’t sure what to expect, but some lessons I will take with me for the rest of my life.”

Extending aloha to all
A June 2019 essay in The New York Times titled “Want to Be Less Racist? Move to Hawaii,” (as well as a follow-up piece called “Is Hawaii’s Racial Harmony a Myth?”) shined a national spotlight on “why race might be perceived differently in Hawaii” than on the mainland. Hawai‘i is the only U.S. state that has never had a white majority, and even today, it is one of only five states with a minority majority. The author of the New York Times essay posits that “Hawaii is unique historically, demographically and perhaps most crucially, geographically,” making it more difficult for racial stereotypes to flourish.

Teens are eager to learn how their minds work! When you show them the research, they make their own adjustments.”

Crystal Sebastian, health and wellness coordinator

At HPA, ongoing discussions about racism, colonialism, and honoring the traditions of Hawai‘i are a vital piece of fulfilling the school’s mission and vision as well as fostering strong moral character and civil discourse. In 2018, a diversity task force composed of representatives from various departments of the school shared their findings with the administration, noting that while HPA’s demographic diversity “should be celebrated, it should not be considered the end goal.” The goal, rather, is to build a community based on mutual respect, equity, reciprocity, and inclusivity.

To that end, faculty and staff are actively engaged in professional development, working to build fluency in these areas. For the past three years, the school has sent a cohort of teachers to the NAIS’s People of Color Conference (POCC), as well as a student cohort to the companion Student Diversity Leadership Conference (SDLC), which is aimed at improving cross-cultural communication skills and effective social justice strategies through dialogue and arts. In February, students who attended the summer 2019 SDLC led a faculty development session at HPA on everything from LGBTQ awareness to neurodiversity.

HPA also has ongoing relationships with experts who visit the school to share best practices. For example, Justine Finn, founder of Relation-Shift at Harvard Innovation Lab, promotes healthy relationships to create safer schools. For the past three years she has been visiting HPA to collect data and provide recommendations. And Dr. Jackson Katz, who created the first gender violence prevention program in the U.S. military, has spoken at HPA on disrupting a passive bystander response towards gender violence.

Perhaps most fundamental to the school’s work on this front is the longstanding effort to sincerely embrace the thread of its mission dedicated to “honoring the traditions of Hawai’i.” For HPA, honoring its host culture is an essential part of training global citizens who are curious and open to ideas, while also being rooted in community and grounded in a sense of place. Honoring the traditions of Hawai‘i is both daily and generational work at HPA, and everyone is called upon to participate.

Village Campus: Understanding balance from the start
HPA’s commitment to educating the whole person begins early—from the youngest learners of the Lower School to the increasingly sophisticated reflection of students at the Middle School as they enter adolescence. At the Village Campus, students are immersed in a constellation of care that includes school assemblies reflecting on important issues and personal skills; a carefully-crafted faculty advisory program at the Middle School; a counseling program that is seamlessly integrated into school life; and responsible digital citizenship for all grades.

Social and emotional learning is taken seriously here, too, where for the past seven years, HPA has collaborated with the West Hawai‘i Mediation Center to train fourth and fifth graders in becoming “peacemakers.” This peer-to-peer conflict resolution is based on the tenets of restorative justice: the peacemakers listen to conflict without judging or shaming, the children involved share what happened, and peacemakers facilitate a conversation about how each child felt, and what can be done to move forward. This year, eighth graders are also being trained in this approach, with an eye toward expanding the program in the future.

The peacemaker program not only helps to resolve problems as they arise, it also builds student investment in the school community. One of the most beloved threads within the Village Campus community is the Hawaiian studies program, led by Kumu Kūwalu Anakalea. Anakalea teaches Hawaiian studies to every student, every week, in kindergarten through fifth grade, and in eighth grade, all students participate in Hawaiian culture and leadership. “I feel tremendous appreciation for Kumu Kūwalu,” Schorn reflects from her role not only as director of student affairs but also as a Village Campus parent. “Our children aren’t only learning chants and hula with her—she instills values: how to work together as a group, how to be disciplined, how to act in a way that is pono.”

Hawai‘i Nei: The place we carry with us
When HPA set forth its ambitious sustainability plan last year, the school intentionally included wellbeing and lōkahi (or balance, harmony) as part of the Academy’s vision to mālama kaiāulu (care for our community of spirit, land, and people). A deep-seated love of the land is essential to sustainability work and part of leading HPA students to live fuller, more joyful lives.

“We tie academic work to place in many ways,” explains Outdoor Program Director Renee Jenkinson ’98, “from nighttime tide pool field trips for marine biology to hiking expeditions in AP Composition that bring the narrative arc to life. In the end, we want to make space for a student to foster their own relationship with place. This happens when we see students stargazing at night in the field, spending weekends backpacking and unplugged from devices, or looking up at the land around us after a game or a race.”

The overt beauty of Waimea with its reliable rainbows, gentle pu‘u, and open skies is indeed something to behold. But HPA seeks to inspire a connection that can transcend this specific place, even in all its splendor. As Jenkinson explains, “Mālama kaiāulu acknowledges that spirit, land,mand people are all connected. These three things are also within each one of us, which is why caring for a place, wherever you are, is both an act of generosity and self love. As all alumni know, ‘here’ stays with you—it’s inside you. A sense of belonging is ours as long as we stay connected to our kaiāulu wherever we are. If a student can grow up knowing that a healthy and loving relationship with place can support one’s creativity, self-assurance, and mental, emotional, and spiritual health, then I think we’ve done our jobs.”



Residence Life Curriculum

This year, five strands run through a dedicated residential life curriculum. In hall meetings, dorm meetings, small groups, and “all-rez” gatherings, boarding students and dorm faculty covered:

Finals Preparation
Study skills, stress management

Health and Wellness
Nutrition, sleep, exercise, tech management, stress and anxiety, mindfulness, intimacy, substances

Living in Community
Communication styles, conflict resolution, equity/diversity/inclusion, healthy school culture, digital citizenship, being an upstander, sustainability

Dorm rules and procedures, emergency preparedness

Social and Emotional Learning
Growth mindset, resilience, gratitude, integrity, pursuit of excellence, wonder, respect

Editor’s note: This story first appeared in the spring 2020 edition of Ma Ke Kula.