Big Island student one of just 161 named 2024 US Presidential Scholars

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A Big Island public school can again brag that one of its students is among the best in the United States.

Kealakehe High School senior Maile-Lei Ji is a 2024 U.S. Presidential Scholar. She is part of an elite group of students to receive one of the highest honors for high school seniors.

Kealakehe High School senior Maile-Lei Ji (Courtesy photo)

Fewer than 200 of the more than 5,700 students who qualified were picked this year.

“Maile-Lei represents our Kealakehe community very well, and our continued success demonstrates that superstar students like Maile-Lei are the standard of excellence that we hold all our students to,” said Kealakehe High School Principal James Denight.

The U.S. Presidential Scholars Program salutes the nation’s top high school seniors for their accomplishments in academics, the arts and career and technical education fields.

Ji’s selection marks the second time in 2 years a senior at Kealakehe High School was named a Presidential Scholar. Kea E. Kahoilua-Clebsch received the honor in 2022.


Kealakehe math teacher Nicolas Strope, who nominated Ji for the award this year, was also selected as one of the U.S. Presidential Scholars Program’s 2024 Distinguished Teachers.

Ji isn’t the only Hawai‘i public high school senior this year to become one of the newest members of the U.S. Presidential Scholars club. Ahryanna McGuirk from Kalaheo High School in Kailua, O‘ahu, also received the distinction.

It’s the first time two students from the state’s public school system graduating in the same year have received the distinction.

“I’m so proud of Ahryanna and Maile-Lei for making Hawai‘i public school history. They both demonstrate academic excellence, proven leadership skills, a commitment to their communities and the ability to compete on a national level,” said Keith Hayashi, superintendent of Hawai‘i public schools. “They are proven examples of the [Hawai‘i Department of Education’s] mission to prepare students to be globally competitive and locally committed.”

Richard Lau, who teaches at Kalaheo High and nominated McGuirk, also joins Strope as a 2024 Distinguished Teacher.


Ji and McGuirk are two of this year’s three Hawai‘i students to be named Presidential Scholars.

Michael Kostecki, a senior at private ‘Iolani School in Honolulu, rounds out the list.

More than 8,200 students have been named Presidential Scholars throughout the past six decades since the program began in 1964.

The White House Commission on Presidential Scholars chooses a group of students from every state each year to be honored based on academic success, excellence in the arts and technical education, through essays, school evaluations and transcripts, as well as a demonstrated commitment to community service and leadership.

A student can qualify for the program with an outstanding performance on the College Board SAT or ACT exams. They also can be nominated by chief state school officers, other partner recognition organizations and YoungArts, the National Foundation for the Advancement of Artists.


The Presidential Scholars Class of 2024 will be celebrated this summer during an online recognition program.

“The 161 high school seniors selected for the 60th anniversary of the U.S. Presidential Scholars represent the best of our nation’s schools and inspire hope in the bright future of this country,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona. “On behalf of President [Joe] Biden, I am delighted to celebrate their accomplishments and encourage these scholars to continue to aim high, lift up others and embrace opportunities to lead.”

A list of all the 2024 U.S. Presidential Scholars can be found online.

Ji is also one of 10 Hawai‘i students to win a $2,500 National Merit Scholarship this year.

Beatrice Kim-Lee from Waiakea High School in Hilo was the only other Big Island student to be awarded. The other eight Hawai‘i recipients are from O‘ahu.

They are among 2,500 winners from throughout the nation chosen from a pool of more than 15,000 finalists in the 2024 National Merit Scholarship Program.

The number of winners from each state is proportional to the state’s percentage of the nation’s graduating high school seniors.

Winners were selected by a committee of college admissions officers and high school counselors.

The committee reviewed each finalist’s academic record, scores from the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, contributions and leadership in school and community activities and recommendation from a high school official.

Finalists also had to write an essay.

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