State of the School: A Look at the Future of Punahou

Related: Alumni Week Recap

During this year’s Alumni Week, President Mike Latham ‘86 offered an overview of key initiatives for the School, including inquiry-led learning; the application of knowledge to authentic, real-world problems; social emotional learning; and a commitment to access, diversity and inclusion.

After his virtual presentation, he along with Academy Principal Emily McCarren, Junior School Principal Todd Chow-Hoy and Vice President for Finance and Operations Sunny Donenfeld answered both pre-sent and live questions from alumni, parents and others in the School community.

Here are excerpts from that Q&A.

During the pandemic, faculty, staff and administrators were forced to make drastic changes to accommodate social distancing and learning from home. What are some lessons the School learned from this, and how do you foresee this affecting the way Punahou teaches its students in the future?

Latham: In some ways, the pandemic became a forced experiment. We had to, in a very short window of time, figure out how to adapt and try things that we were probably less familiar with than we wanted to be. But I think we did that really well, and our faculty did a spectacular job of diving in, engaging in the kind of professional development that enabled them to figure out how to maintain a sense of close connection with their students and to do so in a way that also sustained the wellness that we know is essential for good learning to happen. We were able to deliver that academic experience with a very high degree of safety. We didn’t have a single case of on-campus transmission of the virus, which for a school as large as we are with nearly 4,000 students, was a remarkable accomplishment.

McCarren: What the faculty committed themselves to is figuring out what was going to stay the same, whether we were on campus or at home, and we recognized that deep relationships and connection with kids were super important, along with the commitment to high-quality learning. Of course, our technological skills got really slick quickly. Before, we had folks who had maybe never even really used learning management systems, and now, everybody’s really savvy at that. When we returned to campus, we realized how precious it was to have our kids with us, so we adapted a lot of things to make sure that when we have that, we’re focusing on that and the kids’ well-being.

Chow-Hoy: When we came back to campus, we identified three core principles we wanted to try to adhere to and those were flexibility, relationships and grace. We needed faculty to be agile and nimble, and to be able to pivot along the way. It was okay to make mistakes and it was okay for us to figure this out together. That’s where the grace came in, and I think figuring things out together helped us get through the year and make it a tremendous success.

Are there plans to improve or renovate Academy buildings?

Latham: The project we’re especially excited about is the full renovation of Cooke Library, which since the 1960s has been the intellectual hub of the Academy. It’s a wonderful facility, but it’s time to look at the way student needs have changed, the different kinds of technologies that are now being used, and even the opportunities for students to be working in small groups and in collaboration with faculty outside the classroom.

Libraries have increasingly become not merely a place where books are stored, but where students collaborate, where they work on projects together and where they use technology to connect with people far outside the campus. If anything, the pandemic has shown us the value of spaces like that. The other thing is that architecturally, it’s a chance for us to further deepen the connection between the Academy and the Junior School.

In addition to the entrance we all know of today, which faces Alexander Hall and the Academy, we’ll also have an entry into Rice Field, which is great because we’re seeing Academy students more involved in Junior School spaces and projects and working with students there. This will further knit together what we see as a single campus, which is also exciting.

As Punahou has navigated hybrid learning over the past year, does this provide opportunities for new programs or satellite campuses?

McCarren: Some of our alumni children are taking part in our virtual options this summer with our Academy Summer School. The Academy Summer School previously had been just for current Punahou students because of limitations of classroom sizes on campus. But now, we know we just need to find fabulous teachers and then we can have as many classes as we want. I think the possibilities are endless in this space. Our faculty have gotten really good at delivering high-quality instruction online. That’s something that we’ve been chipping away at for over a decade through our partnerships in the Global Online Academy, and now it’s ubiquitous in our programs. I think there will be lots of exciting possibilities and partnerships in the future in this space for Punahou.

Donenfeld: Big ideas do take money and we have a lot of big ideas. We’re going through a whole strategic planning process, and there are some fantastic ideas coming out of that. I think there are two pieces when you think about how to fund something new. The first is always, what can we cut? Are there things we do that we don’t need to do that aren’t relevant today? I think we should take a hard look at those. But we are looking as well at possible new revenue opportunities. I think the pandemic and hybrid learning point to some possibilities. Can we do more with non-Punahou students in terms of giving them access to non-credit courses? Are there ways to expand even our for-credit offerings? Those are some things we’re looking at, among many others.

Some colleges stopped using the SAT as a measure of assessment during the pandemic. Do you see this as a permanent shift in college admissions? And if so, does Punahou need to prepare students differently?

Latham: It’s amazing to see how much the landscape shifted in such a short amount of time. There are some schools that have now become what they call “test-optional,” meaning you can submit SAT scores if you’d like to, and the number of schools that have done that, including some of the most prestigious institutions in the U.S., is actually quite large. Then there is a smaller subset of institutions which have gone beyond that to say, “We’re not just test-optional; we are test blind.” Meaning: Do not send us your scores. We will not look at them. That group is smaller, but still significant and growing. I think that this landscape is going to continue to change, and that there will be greater attention on the part of colleges and universities to look more holistically at the total student. I think the importance of the quality of the transcript, teacher recommendations, the student’s ability to write well and what they’re doing outside the classroom will continue to grow. More and more college admissions officers whom I’ve talked to have said, “We really want to see kids who are not only going to be academically really talented, but have broader interests and pattern of engagement.” My own view is that it’s really crucial that students develop greater self-understanding to help them make the best choices for themselves. The bottom line in terms of college admission comes down to fit. “Where am I going to be happy and successful? How do I learn best, and in what kind of environments? What am I most excited about? What am I going to find fulfilling?” That requires some real space for reflection and for self-discovery.

McCarren: At Punahou, we operate under the belief that it’s necessary to prepare kids for high performance on assessments, but it’s not sufficient. We’re always going to have a curriculum that brings kids to really high levels of literacy and numeracy so they’re able to excel in most standardized tests, but that’s just a teeny part of what we do here. The more that higher ed admissions offices have to work to sort kids by different metrics, the better it’s going to be for kids who go to Punahou, who have access to so many different kinds of learning opportunities.

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