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Hawaiian language immersion students get distance learning option 2 months into the school year

hawaiian language department of education students pre pandemic
File photo from the Hawaiʻi Department of Education
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Hawaiian language is one of two official state languages. In 1987, in light of the Hawai'i State Constitution mandate to promote the study of Hawaiian culture, language and history, the Department of Education established the Hawaiian Studies Program and the Hawaiian Language Immersion Program, Ka Papahana Kaiapuni Hawai'i.

The Department of Education is recruiting Hawaiian language speakers to help stand up the state’s first-ever Hawaiian Immersion Distance Learning Program. Distance learning has become the norm for students under the COVID-19 pandemic. But for Hawaiian immersion students, distance learning has not been an option until now.

Finding qualified teachers who speak ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi or the Hawaiian language was a challenge even before the pandemic. That’s according to Kauʻi Sang, head of the DOE’s Office of Hawaiian Education, which oversees the state’s Hawaiian Language Immersion Program.

“ʻO ka maʻamau pono e hai ʻia ke kumu i laikini ʻia, ʻaʻole ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi,” says Sang, “Inā ʻo kekahi pahuhopu ka puni o ke keiki i ka ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi, a laila pehea inā ʻaʻole ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi ke kumu?”

Sang says the hiring policy usually prioritized a teaching license over the ability to speak Hawaiian. But, she says, if the mission is to immerse children in the language, then what happens when the teachers can’t speak the language?

That was a concern for Sang’s office as they scrambled to launch a distance learning program for Hawaiian immersion students two months into the school year.

At that point, the DOE had already enrolled 600 students in its distance learning program, but that was only available in the English language — which was not an option for Hawaiian immersion parent and graduate Kananinohea Mākaʻimoku.

“ʻAʻole ia kākoʻo i ka nuʻukia a ke kaiapuni ʻo ia hoʻi ka hoʻomakakoho i ka ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi,” says Mākaʻimoku, “Hāiki nā koho. Hiki ke hoʻouna i nā keiki i ke kula a i ʻole hiki ke kāinoa i ke keiki no ke keleaʻo akā aia ana ma ka ʻōlelo Pelekania.”

Mākaʻimoku says that would go against the mission of the program, which is to prioritize ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi. She says Hawaiian immersion parents were left with few options — send their kids to school amid a global pandemic or enroll in distance learning, but in English.

Parents have been a driving force behind the growth of the Hawaiian Language Immersion Program since it began 34 years ago. The program currently has more than 3,300 students enrolled in grades K-12 at 27 schools statewide.

Mākaʻimoku serves on the board of the ʻAha Kauleo, a statewide network of Hawaiian immersion parents and teachers who helped Sang’s office lobby for a distance learning program in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi.

“ʻAʻole lawa ka ʻunuhi wale ʻana. Pono e kūkulu piha ʻia ma luna o ke kahua ʻike Hawaiʻi,” says Mākaʻimoku, “Ma ka ʻaoʻao kaiapuni, he mea nui ke kahukahu ʻana i ka pīkoʻu Hawaiʻi o ke keiki.”

Mākaʻimoku says it’s not enough to simply translate the English curriculum for distance learning into Hawaiian. Hawaiian needs to be the foundation of the curriculum.

Sang’s office has been building an online repository of Hawaiian language resources. It also changed its hiring policy to prioritize Hawaiian language speakers over non-speakers. She says about 75% of the teachers needed for the distance learning program have been hired.

“Ua paʻakīkī nā mea a pau,” says Sang, “Akā ʻaʻole kēlā mau mea he malihini i ka papahana kaiapuni a no ka mea ua ʻike ʻia nō ke kaulike ʻole o nā ʻano kumuwaiwai e pono ai ka loaʻa o kēia ʻano papahana.”

The Hawaiian Immersion Distance Learning Program launched this week with 49 students, but Sang says they planned to accommodate another 200 students — if they can find the teachers.

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