Who’s getting coveted school geographic exceptions?

The state’s public school geographic exception process appears to be used in many cases for talent-based relocations. It’s something the Department of Education doesn’t have the ability to track, and schools aren’t selecting kids through any standard process.

How well can you pass, catch, run, even play music? At some Hawaii public schools, that could make or break whether you get a coveted geographic exception or whether you get denied.

“It seems a little too coincidental, I guess,” said Kaiser High School parent Aaron Sadler.

That’s how many parents reacted when Always Investigating showed them the numbers that took about six months to gather from the Department of Education.

It was a lengthy back-and-forth process, because the DOE does not keep a database of who receives geographic exceptions into which schools and why. Instead, each campus has to be asked, one-by-one.

Our public record request filed back in April got answers from a handful of big high schools known for football, band or both. Here’s what we found:

Schools like Moanalua and Kaiser had dozens of kids from outside the neighborhood who switched schools and played football. Band was even higher at more than 70 a year, 80 a year, GE-ed musicians at Moanalua High. Taken together with football, at Moanalua as an example, the majority of the kids appear to have come ready to play.

“When you hear those numbers, and how many end up in a certain band or on a certain team, what do you think?” Always Investigating asked parents.

“It seems a little skewed,” Sadler said. “I mean when you think about it, how does that happen and what is the
process for that happening?”

How does that happen when the geographic exception form doesn’t list athletics or extracurriculars as reasons to switch?

Always Investigating asked the DOE: “How is preference supposed to be determined among the applying families, or is it supposed to be random?”

“The purpose of GEs is to provide an opportunity for kids to have access to an academic program,” said Deputy Superintendent Leila Hayashida, “but every school handles it very differently. Sometimes it’s a lottery system and it’s random.”

Geographic Exceptions Chart
Data from many other schools was partially supplied, telling the DOE and KHON they didn’t track certain numbers. These two sample schools provided the most thorough information for comparison purposes.

But how random is it? We tried to ask Moanalua, but none of our many phone and even in-person requests were responded to. The same occurred with Kaiser. So we asked another school principal to explain where the potential pitfalls are in the process as it currently is.

“Well, there are guidelines, but they’re interpreted, I believe, differently at different schools,” said Washington Middle School Principal Michael Harano.

So when the DOE does see schools that spike up in a particular program, a majority coming for band, or a majority coming for band and football, are there any red flags?

“Unfortunately, we don’t have a centralized database for geographic exceptions,” Hayashida said, “so a lot of times we are unable to track the data and so the red flags aren’t brought up to us. If there is a spike in numbers for a particular program, it’s probably because they’re doing a very good job.”

Good job, no doubt. These schools are highly regarded, and that’s why so many parents, regardless of athletic or music ability, hope their kids will get drawn in the random process. Many parents say the process is fine how it is now.

“I think that’s because Moanalua offers programs like the orchestra that some schools don’t,” Moanalua High School parent Rya Gainey said. “It gives kids an opportunity to really study music that they couldn’t otherwise in their area, so I don’t think it should be random. I think this is a special school and people should want to be here.”

But what about the campuses that have more GEs out than in? Fewer students means less cash for their school. Washington Middle School is one that feels the hit.

“I do believe that the department ought to engage in some dialogue about how to make the system more equitable,” Harano said, “so that the schools are not losing massive amounts of kids.”

Always Investigating asked the DOE, are there any changes on the horizon in terms of how many GEs can come in or out of any particular school?

“Right now GEs are based on space availability. We don’t see any changes at this time,” Hayashida said. “It’s definitely something we need to consider.”

We also asked, is there anything being done in the DOE to check who is getting geographic exceptions and why?

“No, we currently do not have a database on tracking geographic exceptions, so that is not technology that is available to us at this time,” Hayashida said. “It’s definitely something that we want to consider changing.”

That lack of a database is why Always Investigating had such a hard time getting information from schools. Mililani, Pearl City and Leilehua high schools, for example, left out a lot of information in our public records request, simply because they say they don’t track it.

We’ll follow up to see if the DOE makes any changes to make the exception selection process more open.

Curbing athletic school-hopping outside the DOE

School-hopping for sports is a problem that had gotten so bad, the athletic governing bodies years ago had to implement rules to curb it. For the Hawaii High School Athletics Association, which oversees the state tournament, a GE student other than a freshman transfer has to sit out a year before playing.

“The reason why they instituted this policy is kids would be playing at their home public school for one sport then they’d GE to another school in the same school year to play for a better team in a different sport,” explained HHSAA Executive Director Chris Chun.

Always Investigating asked, are ineligible offenses caught?

“Yes they are caught,” Chun said. “So there have been cases where we had to forfeit schools because they played an ineligible player.”

Just this week, the Oahu Interscholastic Association (OIA) announced it will have transfers from even neighbor island public high schools sit out a year from any sport played at the previous school. That policy starts next school year.

Athletic organizations’ rules do allow for appeals.

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