Kalani High School Principal Mitchell Otani says the caliber of students in the East Oahu school’s graduating class this year surfaces once every 30 years, citing their high marks in the classroom as well as on the athletic field and in the community. He’s hopeful the class, with a record number of valedictorians, has set a tone for success for future graduates.
“This class has really set the table for the success of classes to come,” said Otani, a Kalani High alumnus who returned to his alma mater as principal six years ago. “It came with a lot of sacrifices. They worked hard and excelled because of a commitment to excellence.”
Longtime teachers say they’ve never seen a more standout group of students in their time at the school.
“They’re an exceptional class — a really nice bunch of kids, and really sharp,” said math teacher Michael Ida, who has taught at Kalani High the past 20 years. “They’ve got the combination of, their character is really solid as well as the academic part. I haven’t really seen that in a class.”
There’s no doubting the schools’ 310 seniors have excelled in academics. There are 42 valedictorians this year — the most in school history — all of whom have maintained a GPA of 4.0 or higher. In total, 113 seniors will graduate Tuesday night with at least a 3.5 GPA.
Effective this school year, in addition to a 4.0 GPA, public school seniors are declared valedictorians if they also earn and meet the requirements of one of the state Department of Education’s three honors recognition certificates. The academic honors certificate, for example, involves taking advanced and college-level math and science courses.
The class has amassed $10 million in college scholarships and students will soon be headed off to study at universities including Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Cornell, MIT, Carnegie Mellon and Purdue. One senior secured a spot in the early acceptance program at the University of Hawaii John A. Burns School of Medicine.
The valedictorians are eyeing degrees in everything from music education and political science to biomedical engineering and aerospace engineering.
Otani credits the students for being well-rounded teens who also are active in the community and with extracurricular activities.
“They’re involved with athletics, they’re involved with service clubs, they’re involved with band or orchestra or some kind of music. They’re really well-rounded kids,” he said. “Sometimes I really don’t know how they do it. Their plates are full yet they manage to prioritize and get everything done.”
The Oahu Interscholastic Association and the Hawaii High School Athletic Association recognized student athletes in the class for excelling in sports including judo, tennis, softball and boys volleyball this year.
AP English teacher Alexander Kendrick says the students’ “innate drive” adds to efforts by the school to “get them in the mindset of ‘college-bound.’”
“We’ve been deliberate of driving that home. It was a very deliberate effort from the beginning, so it’s not like it just happened senior year,” Kendrick said. “Everybody’s been working at it all four years, and the kids are super receptive. If you set the bar high, they’re going to rise up.”
The students, in turn, credit their principal, teachers and counselors for fostering an environment in which students feel supported while being encouraged to push their limits. Otani, for example, has implemented study halls and mandatory advising, where every teacher is available to students for a half-hour after school every day. The school also has been increasing the number of clubs, electives and AP courses offered.
During a recent interview at the campus, several of the valedictorians singled out three teachers: Ida, who taught them AP calculus, AP chemistry teacher Tyson Matsueda and Kendrick.
“They’re super passionate about what they teach, and that excitement that they had in the classroom kind of, like, transferred over to me,” said Shane Xu, one of the valedictorians, who will be attending Boston University to study aerospace engineering. “They know that we can do it, and they also know what they’re talking about, and that just motivated me and all these guys, too.”
Darrell Huang, who has the highest GPA in his class and took nine AP courses over his high school career, said friendly competition among classmates over the years helped keep him focused.
“I’ve known these guys since the seventh or eighth grade, and since then we’ve been driven students and kind of grew up a little bit competitive,” said Huang, who plans to study electrical engineering at Northwestern University. “Like, you see someone who’s getting better grades than you and you want to try harder; someone has this cool internship, and you want to find your own thing. We’ve kind of pushed each other.”
Some of the students are quick to point out that their Asian ancestry often gets them stereotyped as nerdy, but many have embraced the designation. Japanese (36 percent) and Chinese (17 percent) students together make up more than half the student body at Kalani, according to DOE data.
“A lot of us are immigrants and I think a lot of us moved here to get an education. So that’s, I think, from Day One, our motivation,” said Yiju Huang, another valedictorian, who plans to study political science at the University of Michigan.
Some of the valedictorians say they were accepted to private high schools, but chose to stay at Kalani and have developed a sense of pride for their school.
Even with the campus showing its age — the first class graduated in 1961 — with tattered facilities and a field in need of repairs, “it’s something that we all take pride in anyway,” said valedictorian Samantha Churchill, who will be attending Wellesley College and studying political science and economics.
Otani emphasized that the school caters to the needs of all students. “We not only want to take care of the top; we want to take care of the middle, we want to take care of the bottom. And we want to provide them with opportunities for success,” he said. “I’m especially proud that only 16 seniors have a GPA less than a 2.0. That’s remarkable.”