One Mom’s Experience With the Education System in West Hawaii

I have two teens and we started in the school system in Kailua Kona in kindergarten.

My daughter’s background comes from being a highly sensitive person where loud noises and distractions have played a role in our decisions on where to send her to school. She also has a pretty severe math learning disability AND both of my kids have a touch of dyslexia.

They both went to Kona Pacific Public Charter school in South Kona after a rough start at Kahakai Elementary. I WILL say Kahakai would have been a better fit for Caylin’s math issues, as they have state funding for special needs and I didn’t know at that time how severe Caylin’s issues were. However, going to a charter school on a 40 acre bio dynamic farm played to both of my children’s strengths in the arts and nature. Did they get an exceptional academically challenging However, they were in a small school environment where I volunteered excessively and they have never been in trouble with drugs and partying.

I was worried about sending my daughter to the local high schools, so we moved off the island and went to South Lake Tahoe in 2016 to give both kids a “challenging education”. They were so challenged that they hated school. In Tahoe, we found out about the learning disabilities, as they had been able to get around the system at the charter school in Kona. Also, at the Tahoe schools there were issues with entitlement, socio-economic issues that led my daughter to depression and we left a year later and came back to Hawaii.

My son went to Waikoloa Middle School and  had an exceptional experience with the teachers and how they worked with his dyslexia. My daughter went to Kealekehe High and struggled with some bullying as a “haole girl”. (She has long red hair and sticks out like a leprechaun) The teachers are stretched there and I was not a fan of how many kids were in the bathrooms getting high, but in Lake Tahoe there was a heroin issue, so you just need to keep an eye on your kids.

We then moved to Kona from Waikoloa Village and my son went back to Kona Pacific for his 8th grade year (which he regrets because he was being pushed academically with the other middle schools and then basically went back to elementary school, in his mind)  my daughter started a pretty tough year at Konawaena at that point. By her third high school, she was having a hard time dealing with some of the class management issues that are the norm in the two high schools. Being extremely sensitive AND having a learning disability just made for a year of isolation among the other students.

The teachers were trying to be helpful, but Caylin knew that was going to be it for that school by last January. The teachers did work with her so she basically worked from home for the last two months of the year. Knowing she had the maturity to work from home, we started with Hawaii Technology Academy this fall and it has been a lifesaver.

She now spends half her time at home working at her own pace in a quiet environment and her Spanish teacher teaches from the East Coast.  Her math teacher is local and offers specialized one on one help each Friday. She comes to campus twice a week in downtown Kona to see other students, attend the “college readiness” classes and says the friends she has made there are her favorite of all the schools she has attended. My son is getting great grades at Konaweana and is a popular student since he basically grew up here and that school has mostly local kids.  Kealekehe is a mixed bag of nationalities and transplants from the mainland, so it has a different flavor among the student body.

  • Are there exhausted teachers who struggle with low pay compared to the high cost of living here, yes.
  • Are there caring teachers who do the best they can each day with a school population that sometimes does not see a high value in education, yes.
  • Are parents the cornerstone of kids succeeding in any school here, yes.

Depending upon the demeanor of your kids, there are other options, to consider, as well.

  • WHEA -West Hawaii Explorations Academy – is great for self starters, kids that love marine biology and science.
  • Innovations is a fantastic charter school with a long list to get in, with strong resources and financial strength.
  • Makua Lani- the local Christian academy.
  • And the public schools in Waikoloa Village are great, but the feeder high school is Kealekehe.

The private schools in Waimea are well regarded for their education, but also known for their entitlement issues.

One thing I have really appreciated about having my kids grow up here;

They see real life in the student body. A complete mix of nationalities and many who struggle financially, but not many AT ALL, that flaunt wealth. Kids are not bullied because they don’t have the latest shoes or backpacks like they are on the mainland. And the “teach to the test” does not seem to be the biggest education issue here, which helps kids get an education based on real world issues, not learning how to take a test. If you are looking at the test scores of each school, remember that. My son was recently given an assignment to understand fake news and how to go about filtering out credible news sources and how to dig deeper to find the truth. I would rather have him learn that than how to take a test.

My kids are learning how to get along in an environment where they are NOT the majority, which I think gives both of them a dose of what it feels like to have to use a few extra coping skills that I hope will serve them in their lives off island.

SO, there ya go. Growing up on a rural island is definitely a completely different experience than being in a fast paced city environment. I am glad we came here and left Silicon Valley where my friends teens contemplate suicide, are stressed out with the pressure of passing tests, don’t have any free time to just enjoy the natural environment, don’t  have to learn about a different culture and think if they can just get more material possessions, then they can be happy.

Here, sitting on a pier with your friends and talking story is a form of entertainment for my 15 year old. He would not be doing that if we stayed in Silicon Valley and when he goes off island to pursue college, I truly believe he will appreciate the gift we gave him to grow up slowly, in a safe space and the ability to go hang out body boarding at Magics Sands for hours.

It is a good life here, despite the test scores.

(I got a rather nasty comment from someone who chided me on this post for “creating snowflakes”. You have to lean pretty far to the left to live here, so if you want a touch of the airy fairy lifestyle you may find here on this island, I just gave you a little glimpse..Hawaii Island is NOT a culture of capitalism. It’s just not.)


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Meet the Author

Julie Ziemelis

Julie Ziemelis is an entrepreneur, business owner, author, blogger and vlogger in Kailua Kona. She created and moderates the “365 Things to Do in Kona” page and the Kona Newbies group on Facebook. She blogs at and and vlogs with her husband, Eric, at “365Hawaii” on YouTube. Julie also authored the books, “How to Move to Kona” and the “Insiders Guide to Buying Real Estate on the Big Island of Hawaii”. You will most likely find Julie in Kona hiking, running, biking, taking photos and sharing Aloha.

Leave a Question or Comment About this Topic

  • Lance Owens says:

    Excellent take on schools here on the Big Island,

    • Julie Ziemelis says:

      Thanks Lance! You know how it is here. The culture here is not “Every man for himself” and “If you’re not killing yourself, you are not trying hard enough” attitude of the mainland. We all are just doing the best for our kids. Thanks for your inspiration to write this.

  • Patty says:

    Wow, Julie. Didn’t know your kids were having a rough time but you kept trying, as a great Mom would. Sounds like now the kids are getting a good education and and enjoying it. I wish you well. Maybe i’ll see you this May when I come visit.

    • Julie Ziemelis says:

      Thanks Patty-My daughter received an IEP while in California and I have had to really push to help her get through high school. I could be a help for others who have kids who have learning disabilities trying to help their kids navigate through the school system.
      One of the readers here called my kids snowflakes..he has NO IDEA of what we have gone through with her anxiety and depression.
      Let me know when you will be on island and we can say ALOHA!