The History of Hanahau‘oli School

Founded in 1918, Hanahau‘oli is regarded as a preeminent independent elementary school in Hawai‘i because of its adherence to its mission that validates childhood as the time of learning, the years when the foundation is laid for life-long commitment to the values that sustain our families, our neighborhoods and the global community.

Hanahau‘oli was a dream realized for Sophie and George Cooke, a school of joyous work, which its name signifies, for their six children and those of many of their friends. It was a small school, permitting the sharing of experiences from Kindergarten through 6th Grade where all the children cooperated as in a large family.

Thus begins Memories of Hanahau‘oli, the First Fifty Years, a book, as its author Louisa Palmer says, of "bits of this and that" documenting many aspects of the school's journey from its founding in 1918 to its 50th anniversary in 1968. The book tells the story of the school's unique progressive mission, its many traditions and its firm adherence to the belief that children learn best through play and hands on "happy work." Miss Palmer, who was principal for 33 years, paints a picture of children learning in two small buildings surrounded by a lawn dotted with kiawe trees, a jungle gym, and working gardens. Shop, Art, French and Music were a part of each day's activities in addition to the more "traditional" subjects. An old bronze hand bell, purchased in Florence, Italy, was rung to start and end the day.

From these simple beginnings, Hanahau‘oli has grown, evolved and yet, in many ways, remained the same. Still a small school for 209 children from Junior Kindergarten through 6th Grade, children are now in multiage classes that acknowledge individual growth and developmental readiness. Small wood frame buildings that opened out to play areas are now state of the art classrooms with 21st century technology built in, yet they still open to outdoor work and play areas that honor our Hawai‘i climate and complement our project based programs.

Similar to those early days, the faculty student ratio remains low and teachers serve as facilitators who nurture curiosity and challenge children to problem solve as they face a time of new technologies and rapid change. The curriculum remains true to the belief that disciplines are not separate and that learning integrates school life with the home and world.

And throughout, Hanahau‘oli embraces its long-held traditions. These events and "rituals," most from the earliest days of the school, help to build a strong social foundation for children who learn what it means to plan and look forward to experiences that have held meaning for generations. Makahiki, a celebration of thanksgiving; the Holiday Program and tree cutting; the 6th Grade odyssey that includes stepping stone making, oratories, and Olympics; morning flag; the Head of School handshaking at the end of the day and the slipper toss at the end of the school year are all traditions that are looked forward to and woven into the life of the school each year. And, children research, plan, learn and are the focus of each one.

[Hanahau‘oli]…what a happy way for every child to start their school experience. I can feel it still!

Alumnus, c/o 1935

hanahau'oli's heads of school

Miss Cecil Palmer, 1918 - 1919

Miss Nellie Young, 1919 - 1921

Miss Della Copp, 1921 - 1924

Miss Louisa F. Palmer, 1924 - 1957

Mrs. Lenore O'Brien, 1957 - 1961

Mrs. Newell P. Price, 1961 - 1963

Miss Katherine A. Mills, 1963 - 1969

Mrs. Beatrice Hurley, 1969 - 1970

Mrs. Mary Ray Pohl, 1970 - 1982

Dr. Robert G. Peters, 1982 - 2013

Mrs. Cynthia Gibbs-Wilborn, 2013 - 2018

Ms. Lia Woo ’88, Present

school Timeline

  • 1918  Sophie and George Cooke establish Hanahau‘oli School on the corner of Nowewehi (now Nehoa) and Makiki Street with 16 children from ages 6 to 11 years old. Its name means "Joyous Work" in Hawaiian.

  • 1920s Children's Fairs begin. All the items to be sold are made by the children.

  • 1924  The Assembly Hall (now the Pavilion) is built so lunch could be cooked and served and assemblies could take place.

  • 1924  Miss Louisa F. Palmer becomes Hanahau‘oli's principal and serves 33 years until her retirement in 1957. In 1968, she wrote Memories of Hanahauoli, The First 50 Years.

  • 1926  The first stepping stones are made by all the children who carve their designs, representing their personal "enthusiasms," in shop.

  • 1930  Makahiki begins as a Thanksgiving celebration.

  • 1942  “The War Years” commence during which Hanahau‘oli is downsized due to so many children being sent to the mainland for safety. Bomb shelters are erected on campus.

  • 1947  The 3rd grade class of 1950 composes the school song “O Hanahau‘oli.”

  • 1968  The Louisa F. Palmer Library is built incorporating design requests from the children.

  • 1974  A construction project commences to enlarge classrooms and complete a master plan that would include a science and music complex and multi-purpose gym. The Rene Halbedl Arts Complex is completed in 1983.

  • 1986  Hanahau‘oli is chosen as one of 60 exemplary private schools in the nation in the first "Excellence in Elementary Schools" search held by the Council for American Private Education and the National Department of Education.

  • 1991  Hanahau‘oli is first accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges.

  • 1997  Hanahau‘oli becomes a multiage school with JK and 6th Grade as single classes; SK and Grade 1, Grades 2 and 3, and Grades 4 and 5 combined.

  • 1999-2010  Mālama Ia Hanahau‘oli, a three phase capital campaign spanning 11 years, allows the school to build three new buildings and complete numerous campus renovations to support multiage learning.

  • 2011  Made possible through an endowment from the Clarence T.C. Ching Foundation and building upon established relationships with teachers, schools and universities in the community, Hanahau‘oli's Professional Development Center begins. Providing educational workshops and seminars to support the growth of teachers from across the state, the program builds upon the expertise and experience of the Hanahau‘oli community and other outstanding educational resources, in support of the school's commitment to create partnerships and serve a broader public purpose

  • 2013  After 30 years at the helm, Robert G. Peters, retires as Head of School. Following a thoughtful, inclusive and competitive national search and a seamless transition, Hanahau‘oli welcomed Cynthia Gibbs-Wilborn as its 11th Head of School, effective July 1 of that year.

  • 2016 The Hanahau‘oli community came together to fund the new playground including Kompan Play structures for our students' year-round play.

  • 2018-2019 Hanahau‘oli School celebrated its 100th year of joyous work with three goals in mind: educate, reconnect, and celebrate! Mahalo to everyone near and far for helping us commemorate our first century of lifelong learning.