Enrollment at Hawai'i's independent schools has shot up this year, capping years of slow but steady growth and sending student numbers to perhaps their highest ever.
At Damien Memorial School in Kalihi, enrollment is up 41 percent in two years with the addition of a new middle school.
At Le Jardin Academy in Kailua, enrollment rose by more than 100 students — going from 645 a year ago to 750 this year, a 16 percent increase.
Meanwhile, Mid-Pacific Institute in Manoa has joined forces with an elementary school to offer one of the most expansive programs available — preschool to 12th grade. Enrollment there is up about 22 percent in the past two years.
And Saint Louis School in Kaimuki saw its first increase since steady enrollment declines began in the mid-1990s. Enrollment inched up from 750 a year ago to 760 this year.
Even schools that aren't expanding are being flooded with additional applications. Iolani School received six applications for every student accepted this year, up from 5-to-1 in the past few years.
Educators say the stronger-than-normal demand from parents looking for the best educational match for their children — regardless of cost — has been fueled by increasing strength in the state economy and new opportunities in the private schools as more and more expand their offerings to new grade levels.
"The (enrollment) trend has been gradually creeping upward," said Robert Witt, executive director of the Hawai'i Association of Independent Schools. "Overall numbers are higher than they've ever been."
Definitive overall numbers are not yet available, but a check with schools across the state bears out Witt's assessment.
Private schools in Hawai'i have long been popular, drawing more than 16 percent of all students — or more than 30,000 per year in recent years — compared with about 11 percent nationally. The numbers peaked in the early 1970s, then dipped and stabilized.
Today the Hawai'i community is hungry for educational alternatives, even if the whole family has to chip in to pay tuition or apply for financial aid. Tuition ranges from around $8,000 to more than $12,000 annually at some of the more prestigious schools.
At Damien, single parents are struggling to pay the tuition to put their sons in a boys-only program during the impressionable and vulnerable middle school years, said school president Brother Greg O'Donnell.
"They see a real opportunity there to get this kid in a better environment so mom, dad, grandma, grandpa are all pitching in," O'Donnell said. "And, very frankly, the seventh- and eighth-grade boy, they need a lot of attention that parents feel they'll get in a private Catholic all-boys school. And there are more students from single-parent families, especially where the father's not there, and mothers are looking for male influences for the kids."
Parent Bob Cowan, whose daughter, Kelia, started seventh grade at Iolani this year after graduating from sixth grade at a Manoa public school, said he and his wife spent several years debating their choices before deciding on a private school.
"We have been very happy with her in Manoa Elementary up through sixth grade, but I want to give my daughter every opportunity to succeed," Cowan said. "I just feel the public-schools teachers are getting more and more overwhelmed, with that whole No Child Left Behind, and they're having to cater to that too much.
"It's been worth the financial sacrifice just the first week to see how much she's enjoying it."
Tara VanMols decided to send her ninth-grader to Hawai'i Preparatory Academy in Waimea on the Big Island because she "wasn't very happy" with the education her daughter was receiving in public school and the private school offered a rigorous education "focused on college preparation."
But with tuition at about $30,000 for ninth- to 12th-grade boarding students, VanMols said "we didn't think we could send her without" the financial aid options the school offered.
Much of the enrollment growth has been at schools with new grades or additional features.
This year, Kamehameha Schools has added one additional grade level at each of its new Maui and Big Island campuses, and as a result has seen 295 additional students. That brings total enrollment on its three campuses to an all-time high of 5,520.
Le Jardin will graduate its first senior class this spring, and plans to add a gymnasium and eight new classrooms this year to its 26-acre campus.
"We used to be a preschool through eighth grade," said Susi Taylor, director of admissions. In 2002 the school added ninth grade and has added another level every year since.
In six years Le Jardin has almost doubled its enrollment, going from 400 before the move to 750 this year. And the goal is a total of 1,000 students, phased in over the next five years.
"We'll be building a multilevel new high school building," said Taylor. But that plan isn't complete yet, she said.
Even if they're not looking at expansions, independent schools continue to strive to make programs more attractive to families.
At Punahou School, which completed its Case Middle School last year and expanded its sixth-grade class, enrollment in the whole school has stayed the same at 3,770, but the school has revamped its entire middle school curriculum and is offering a new team concept that it feels is more supportive and nurturing to the middle school student.
"We feel we're at our capacity," said spokeswoman Laurel Bowers-Husain. She said the school is not really looking to expand its numbers, but rather make the middle school program more attractive with learning teams. The expansion at sixth grade was an attempt to even up the numbers with the seventh and eighth grades.
"One of the things we were trying to do with the middle school was to make the transitions smoother," Bowers-Husain said. "So the middle school of sixth to eighth grade is more of a continuum for students."
For the past seven years, enrollment at Maryknoll School has held steady at around 1,400 — the school's maximum capacity, said Scott Siegfried, director of admissions.
"We don't want to be above that," Siegfried said. "We only have so many spaces."
Even so, the school has 100 students on the waiting list, and received double the number of applications this year above what it usually gets.
"They're looking at our reputation with academics and that students also get some direction for values and morals as well," Siegfried said. "I think that is the added value with our school."