Some private schools seek to bolster their student populations

As many of Maui’s public schools cope with burgeoning student populations for the upcoming school year, two private schools are looking to boost enrollment with fresh faces and a “21st-century curriculum.”

Jonathan Silver has taken over as head of school for Maui Preparatory Academy following the retirement of George Baker – a founding member of the school that opened in the fall of 2005. The West Maui school educates children in preschool through 12th grade and has fewer than 200 students enrolled for the 2013-14 school year. But school officials hope to gradually increase enrollment as the campus grows larger, Silver said.

“I think there’s some opportunity to grow within the local community,” he said in a phone interview last week. “One of the things happening right now is the economy rebounding and we’re starting to see interest from families relocating to the island. Hopefully, we can persuade some of those to make their homes on the west side of the island.”

St. Anthony Junior-Senior High School also hired a new head of school. However, the position did not exist until this school year.

Betsy Hughes Gunderson, who spent the past decade as principal and director of curriculum for Maryknoll School on Oahu, was selected for the job last month and is tasked with bringing the 160-year-old Wailuku school back to its former glory.

“First and foremost, we need to really streamline everything and be prudent with our finances,” she said. “There’s no room to waste anything.”

Gunderson’s hiring comes off the heels of the school’s steady decline in enrollment, which recently drove the school to dispel rumors of its closure in June. Although previous reports from the school with grades 7 to 12 estimated the need for 240 students in order to break even, Gunderson said the school balanced its budget with only about 150 enrolled last year.

“In general, Catholic schools across the nation have experienced drops in enrollment, and with the whole downshift in the economy there’s always that free option out there,” she said. “We need to really demonstrate why this is important and a great alternative (to public schools).

“I think a good healthy number would be around 250 (students), that way a lot of the kids still get a very personal education,” she said.

Gunderson was unanimously appointed by the school’s board members and approved by Hawaii Bishop Larry Silva. She will oversee campus management and fiscal operations. Pat Rickard, principal for the last three years, will focus on the curriculum, ministry and student activity functions.

The school, which opened its school year Thursday, does not foresee any major changes to the campus and its facilities, but it would like to “modernize” the curriculum and school, Gunderson said.

“Coming from Maryknoll, this is so expansive already,” she said of the Wailuku campus. “You can retrofit a lot of these classrooms because they’re very airy and expansive. We just got brought up to speed with Wi-Fi, and we’re looking to implement other good systems so kids can tap into these 21st-century tools.”

Last month, Gunderson said, school board members and teachers embarked on a retreat to review their mission and discuss how to keep students engaged. Growing up on Oahu, she said, she remembers the school having “far more students” when she would make yearly summertime visits to her grandmother living on Maui.

“I’m not sure what’s changed, but they still offer that very special spirit with top-notch education,” she said. “When I heard they were having some trouble, I thought, well, maybe this is someplace I’d like to be.

“I’d like to bring them back to what they can be.”

Silver, who has 25 years of experience in private and independent institutions around the world, has specialized in upgrading schools, including his stint with The Village School in Houston.

The private Texas school had preschool through 8th-grade students before Silver arrived in 2007, and in each of his subsequent years it added a grade level until it reached 12th grade in the fall of 2011.

“I’m at a point in my career where it is not as important as to where I am but what school and community I’m teaching at,” he said. Maui Preparatory Academy “is the kind of place I thrive at, where people are not afraid to look at the mirror and say what we do well and what we don’t.”

Arriving on the island in early May, Silver attended the last board meeting and commencement ceremony to ease his transition. In those brief gatherings, he said the young school is looking to “distinguish itself” from other Maui schools with possible online education tools and a golf and tennis academy.

“I think these are all areas we want to be engaged in and thinking about,” he said. “A lot of this is all what George started . . . so this is just a transition in leadership to give it a little bit of a jolt.”

Plans also include expansion of school facilities, which take up only about a quarter of its 20 acres.

The current campus sustains about 220 students, Silver said, but it is looking to expand its population and land usage in the next five to seven years.

“We had 17 to 18 graduates last year, but I’d love to see us get 25 to 30,” he said. “We want to grow the high school because with a larger student body you get to do more, but we want to leverage that with having a small-school atmosphere.

“That personal touch is something we don’t want to lose.”

Another island private school is the Doris Todd Christian Academy, formerly called the Doris Todd Memorial Christian Day School, in Paia. The school offers classes for preschool through 8th-grade students. It opens Aug. 12.

Addressing the name change, school Principal Carolyn Moore said “the main reason is just to shorten it.” But the school itself remains the same.

“We haven’t changed. It’s just our name,” she said.

Maui Preparatory Academy begins Aug. 19, with Seabury Hall starting the following day. Kamehameha Schools Maui begins Monday, along with all public schools.

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at