Young Voices, Full of Purpose

HPA capstone program blossoms during the pandemic

On some level, HPA’s capstone program has always been about the unknown. Launched in 2015-16, the first capstone courses were designed to help students prepare for a complicated future full of demands and possibilities we can’t imagine today. To reach this goal, the HPA Strategic Plan called for a comprehensive K-12 capstone program, complete with independent projects for all fifth, eighth, and twelfth graders, to be implemented by 2019-20.

Enter the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the past two years, HPA’s capstone program has proven itself to be a place of celebration and self-discovery for HPA students at a time when the larger world felt full of loss and uncertainty. Now in its third year of full-fledged operation, the program continues to empower students to find their gifts — and to use them for the greater good of neighbors, community, and the planet.

Beauty standards do not focus only on skin color. They attack size, body, shape, and so many other features. … Through my art I want to join the ongoing fight against colorism and toxic beauty standards.

Ese Ovbagbedia ’21

Seeds of discovery

At HPA, independent-minded students have found academic freedom and faculty support to pursue passion projects for several decades now. Whether studying coqui frog DNA with Stephanie McDowell, set design with Jared Terpak, or independent science research with Bill Wiecking, students throughout the early 2000s found ample opportunities to propose independent projects and deepen their personal interests.

In 2014, under the aegis of HPA’s emerging strategic plan, the school began to formulate a more cohesive vision to ensure innovative academic preparation for all HPA students. Martin Ferrell, then dean of academics, and other faculty leaders established a project-based learning approach alongside HPA’s classic college-preparatory program. Nearly 10 years later, this hybrid model remains central to HPA’s mission.

Interim Head of School Fred Wawner, who was part of the strategic plan leadership team, describes it this way: “We wanted to combine the best of traditional study with a student-driven, inquiry-based approach that asks students to put their knowledge into action. Squarely in the driver’s seat, students learn to define a problem, frame questions, adapt to challenges, and eventually present their own unique solutions or creative projects. It’s absolutely amazing to watch our students grow as they move through the process.”

Ultimately, the capstone program helps meet HPA’s highest aim: to prepare young people to deal wisely with the challenges facing our world. Skills mastered during these capstone journeys travel outward with Ka Makani across Hawai‘i and into communities around the globe.

I saw an opportunity to awaken my ancestral and spiritual connection to surfing and hopefully help other surfers do the same.

Nai‘a Ayau ’21

Confidence and skill for each new challenge

At its core, the HPA capstone experience is designed to foster real-world problem solving before students are out of high school. Along the way, students demonstrate key skills they’ve learned in each division. Some skills are academic, such as critical thinking or quantitative analysis; others are practical, such as public speaking or recruiting project partners. Ultimately, each student’s final project is an expression of their learning at the Lower, Middle, or Upper School. They move to the next division—or on to college—with proficiency, self-knowledge, and, in many instances, a strong sense of purpose.

At Dartmouth College, for example, Parker Rabinowitz ’21 continues to focus on Arctic policy, building on her capstone from last spring. “I’m part of the Great Issues Scholars program here, which evaluates global policy issues,” she reports. “I am also working with a professor on Arctic issues through the Arctic Council. This summer, I was an Arctic policy and communications intern; I got to visit mines across the Arctic. Overall, I learned how to work independently and plan my time in capstone, which is helpful in college. Of course, I miss the warmth of Hawai‘i right now!”

I wanted to create a space for LGBTQIA students and allies that was light, happy, and safe.

Sophia Jordan ’25

For Sophia Jordan ’25, the skills of persistence and communication are already proving useful at the Upper School. For their eighth-grade capstone last year, Jordan launched the Rainbow Squad, an affinity group for LGBTQIA students and allies at the Middle School. “I learned last year that I’m a person who likes to take action and move people forward,” Jordan says. “But the process did require trial and error, and the first group meeting flopped. I learned a lot about publicity and defining my goals.” Jordan wrote a management guide for their successor, Olivia Friedman ’26, who will pilot the Rainbow Squad in its second year. Meanwhile, Jordan jumped in with both feet at the Upper School and is involved with speech and debate and the national Student Diversity Leadership Conference, among other activities. “Perhaps the biggest skill I gained through capstone was communication,” they reflect, “which certainly helped me reach out to students I’d never met and adjust to new faces in high school.”

Rabinowitz and Jordan represent just two out of hundreds of Ka Makani with similar experiences. Paloma Field ’20 is pursuing photography in New York City; George Donev ’17 and Morgan Dean ’20 continue to grow Student Corner, their edtech startup; Ry Bleckel ’20 remains devoted to music at Amherst College; Nissi Ragland ’21 is now building on her neuroscience research at Cornell; Lily Hodges ’25 recently shared her eighth-grade project at the Schools of the Futures conference; Ese Ovabagbedia ’21 is honing her craft as a painter at Loyola Marymount University; and the list goes on and on.

I’ve always been a huge advocate for equality and inclusion in schools as well as out in the community. I knew I wanted to channel that into our first DEI Day at the Middle School.

Lily Hodges ’25

Meanwhile, the class of 2022 hits another milestone: they are the first to complete all three capstone levels in fifth, eighth, and twelfth grades. Through each grade level, they matured as self-driven learners and creative thinkers. Now their senior capstones display a wide range of personal interests, including waste management on Hawai‘i Island; ranked-choice voting in county elections; naturopathic first aid; sustainable farming; youth basketball camps; and much more.

“Capstone has taught me a lot about time management, responsibility, and creativity,” reflects Jordan Perry ’22. “Having a long period to complete a project can be daunting, but after doing it three times, I’ve learned how to break up the workload. In eighth grade, I chose coral reef advocacy and got to conduct my own experiment with the help of Mrs. Jim. This year, I’m excited to be doing research that combines my two passions: biology and athletics. I’m focusing on how stem cell therapy can be used to heal ACL tears. For me, the eighth-grade capstone was instrumental in expanding my curiosity beyond the topics taught in my required classes.”

I really wanted to push music into the forefront of the community because I think music is something that really brings people together in so many different ways.

Khaled Atalla ’21

A curriculum on the move

The capstone program has triggered a wave of creativity among HPA faculty as well. At the Upper School, teachers propose capstone classes each year based on junior class interest surveys. Courses created recently include Novel Writing, Biotechnology, Data-driven Entrepreneurship, Activism Through Music, Global Politics and Policy Implementation, and Migrations of Moananuiākea (Oceania): Traditional Navigation and Modern-Day Voyaging. In each class, roughly 10 students collaborate with classmates and their capstone teacher (who serves as coach and mentor) between August and mid-April, moving their projects through five well-defined learning targets: ideation, research, project management, product development, and presentation.

To manage and support all this activity, HPA has appointed veteran teachers Dagan Bernstein ’97 and Greg McKenna to serve as Village Campus and Upper School capstone coordinators, respectively. Bernstein and McKenna are taking the reins this year from Aaron Schorn, HPA’s inaugural K-12 capstone coordinator, who with great energy guided HPA’s growing program over the past two years.

Bernstein, who is also a leadership team member with the National Capstone Consortium, and McKenna, who is also HPA’s sustainability resource director, fulfill leadership and support roles within the capstone system. Overall, they guide the program from a K-12 perspective, bringing in outside speakers and resources; planning with the division principals and Dr. Amy Cole, assistant head of school for academics; and helping all 17 capstone teachers stay on track throughout the year. At the same time, they’re visiting classrooms on an almost daily basis, immersed in the excitement and challenges of the capstone journey.

I was interviewing capstone teachers, and they couldn’t stop talking about how much they love capstones … because of how they’re able to inspire students. That’s when  I knew I’d found my video subject.

Joshua Milandes Fernandez ’21

“On any given day, I might be giving feedback on student pitch presentations in Sally Lundburg’s art capstone, or helping Jeff Mix with a creative writing prompt,” says McKenna. “I’m tremendously excited to be working with the folks who have offered themselves as capstone teachers. They are some of the most dynamic educators you will come across. They are constant learners, modeling what it means to be a capstone student because they live it.”

Looking ahead, the next step for HPA capstones is to build an even stronger connection with lower grades leading up to the capstone year in each division. Cole is working closely with Bernstein, McKenna, fifth-grade capstone teacher Kristin Tarnas, the school principals, department chairs, and other faculty to establish cross-discipline, multi-grade coordination. “It’s a good year for this work, because HPA is also completing its 10-year accreditation self-study,” Cole says. “So much curricular design has already been written for different grades or subject areas. Now it’s time to tie it all together, with capstone as a thread. That way, every grade or subject area is helping prepare students for self-driven, inquiry-based work.”

Since Hawai‘i has a very small cubing community compared to the mainland  and the rest of the world, I wanted to change that.

Matty Inaba ’25

Gateway to community, sustainability, and place

Cole and others are also working to connect the capstone program more deeply to HPA’s sustainability vision: mālama kaiāulu (care for our community of spirit, land, and people). Scores of student projects have explored species preservation, ocean warming, water conservation, solar power, regenerative agriculture, and more. “Capstones help empower youth who want to be environmental change agents, which is a major driver for HPA,” explains Greg McKenna.

At HPA, capstones also exist to serve the larger community, and to help HPA honor the landscape and traditions of Hawai‘i Island. “Capstones are a gateway for students to care for their community,” says Dagan Bernstein. “You begin with your personal passion, but the task is to connect your passion to the larger world, to help address a need or benefit the community, which could take many forms … a dance performance, scientific research, a public mural, or an iPhone app. We want HPA alumni to be active, participatory members of whatever local or global community they join. Capstones help coach that mindset.”

I love teaching capstone because it opens my eyes to the world in a different way and gives me a lot of hope for what these incredible young people will accomplish after HPA.

Johanna Anton, capstone teacher, Business Innovations

Further enrichment often comes via experts in the local community, who have mentored HPA students on such diverse projects as filmmaking, surfboard design, black-tipped shark research, website construction, and more. In addition, capstones create avenues for HPA students to partner with, learn from, and serve Hawai‘i Island organizations. Last year, Tayson Hirayama ’21 ran a bi-weekly food program in collaboration with the Honoka‘a Hongwanji Buddhist Temple. Helene Baril ’25 worked with Ke Ala Kahawai O Waimea trail to clear out invasive species along the stream beds, and many other Ka Makani have forged similar partnerships.

HPA teaches kindness and responsibility, and that’s what my pasture project was all about.

Kekaha Chong ’25

A journey worth celebrating

Each year when April rolls around, HPA capstone students can be found polishing their presentation skills and preparing for a school-wide exhibition of epic proportions. One silver lining of the pandemic has been that families, friends, and others could participate from many locations via Zoom. This year, HPA will produce a hybrid showcase with options for both in-person and remote attendance.

On the big day, regardless of venue, students delve into their projects’ scope, share surprises and pitfalls, then host a lively Q & A with the audience. Perhaps more than any other feature of the program, these conversations testify to how influential a capstone journey can be. In class after class, HPA students shine with poise, vulnerability, intelligence, and a sincere desire to improve the world.

Before graduation last year, Sarah Newcomb ’21 was one of many voices reflecting on this theme. Newcomb’s project, which tackled food insecurity among local families, won a 2021 grant from the Hawai‘i Youth Sustainability Challenge. “The most valuable thing I learned was that I have the power to create change” she says. “I hit so many bumps in the road that it felt very unrealistic at times that I would actually achieve my goals. But now I know I have the capability to not only meet my objectives but drastically exceed them, and that is such an awesome feeling.”

Editor’s note: This story first appeared in the fall/winter 2021 edition of Ma Ke Kula. Upper School photos by Patrick O’Leary. Middle School photos by Nani Welch Keli‘iho‘omalu ’14.