When Paul Singer was chosen to head Assets School in 2008, a board member told him it was “the best-kept secret” in Honolulu and that his job was to change that.
As Singer hands over leadership Aug. 1 to Ryan Masa, Assets is well known for helping students who “learn differently,” due to challenges such as dyslexia.
The school is on firmer footing. It has managed to expand even while several other small private schools in Honolulu have had to shut down due to financial shortfalls and dwindling enrollment. Recent casualties include Saint Francis School, St. Anthony School in Kalihi and Lutheran High School.
By contrast, Assets went from owning no campuses to owning two during Singer’s tenure — without taking on long-term debt. It extended its reach through
after-school and summer programs, and shares its techniques with teachers at other institutions. A partnership with Kamehameha Schools has drawn Native Hawaiian students who need its specialized approach.
“Assets has carved out a niche for itself in Hawaii,” Singer said in an interview. “It is the only school that exclusively serves kids who, in general, have not fared well in traditional school settings because of something unique about the way in which they learn. That could be language-based learning differences, attentional issues or abilities that are off the charts.”
Masa, who has been the lower-school principal at Assets since 2014, was chosen as head of school after a nationwide search. He earned a master’s in mind, brain education from Harvard after getting bachelor’s degrees in education and history from Miami University of Ohio.
“I knew about Assets before I moved here,” Masa said. “That’s why it’s such a dream job, such an honor. The school’s reputation nationally is wonderful.”
In traditional school settings, students who struggle to read or have attention problems often get singled out for what they don’t do well, Masa noted.
“That becomes the first dominant thing that they get recognized for,” he said. “At Assets it’s all about paying more time and attention to what they’re really good at. It’s about helping students find their talents and strengthen those talents.”
The land acquisitions during Singer’s tenure were game-changers for the school. Hawaii’s congressional delegation helped the school obtain in 2014 the five acres of land it had been leasing from the Navy near the airport, a purchase that took many years.
When another private school, Academy of the
Pacific, announced it was closing in June 2013 because it was losing money, Singer seized that opportunity as well. He worked out a merger agreement that allowed Assets to acquire AOP’s Alewa Heights property at no cost the next year.
Assets turned that hilltop site and its wooden cottages into a high school campus in 2015, allowing enrollment in its upper grades to grow. As of June, high school enrollment was 149, up from 119 in 2014.
Overall enrollment has been relatively stable, with 346 students in kindergarten through 12th grade, including 197 in Assets’ lower school at its original campus near the airport. That site has been undergoing renovations, and Assets opened its new Harry and Jeanette Weinberg K-4 Village in August, with more redevelopment planned to replace old portables.
“Now that we own the land, we are actually able to build permanent structures,” said Masa. “The
really exciting thing is redesigning this whole space for kids, which we were never able to do before.”
Founded in 1955 to serve military families with special needs, Assets is known for its personalized, positive approach. The school serves students with learning difficulties and intellectual gifts, traits that often coincide.
“None of us here learn in a normal fashion — we all have different strengths,” said Mitchell Kee Chong, 14, as he designed a magnetic bowl in a summer school class. “The environment here makes it a lot more easier to learn.”
Melani Afualo, who has five children and lives in Kahaluu, sent her older ones to neighborhood public schools. But her youngest needed something special. He was already reading books before kindergarten but struggled with reading social cues and making friends.
With a scholarship from Kamehameha Schools, Zion entered Assets three years ago as a kindergartner. Even the long commute from Kahaluu doesn’t faze him.
“Zion loves school,” Afualo said. “He can’t wait to go back to school. … Assets really has figured out how to make school enjoyable for kids.”
“Kids who are gifted like he is are often lacking in some area,” she added. “At Assets everyone is very understanding. Faculty and staff, even the kids themselves, kind of rally around each other.”
Classes are small at Assets, with a student-teacher ratio of about 8-to-1 in the lower school and 10-to-1 in high school.
“Every class is multi-age,” Masa said. “We meet kids where they are. You can group kids together in ways you think make the most sense, and you don’t get caught up in arbitrary ways, like, ‘You’re all fourth graders, so good luck together,’ without any appreciation of where they are academically or socially.”
Assets incorporates tools such as “speech to text” technology as well as simple fixes to help kids focus. A popular solution for “getting the wiggles out” is to stretch two short bungee cords in a crisscross below the desk so students can bounce their feet without bothering anyone.
“We know a lot of kids are going to have ADHD, they’re going to have lots of energy, so we have lots of alternative seating,” Masa said: “yoga balls, stools that rock, balance boards.”
Art, music and movement are integrated into the curriculum. An enrichment program offers a wide menu of options to sample, from cooking to rocketry, woodworking to yoga. Students in 10th to 12th grade sample real-world careers by working regularly with mentors in their fields of interest.
Tuition is steep at $24,000 for the lower school and $25,700 for high school. But Assets offers more financial aid than most schools: 34% of students receive need-based aid.
Singer will remain as emeritus head of school through June 2020, continuing the next phase of its capital campaign.
“I think the way we do things at Assets is good for all kids,” he said. “The challenge is financial.”