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Trailblazer of Native Hawaiian education, David Kekaulike Sing honored with Lifetime Achievement Award

Nā Pua Noʻeau  Summer Institute Ho'okele Wa'a.jpg
Nā Pua Noʻeau
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Students at the Nā Pua Noʻeau Summer Institute learn about hoʻokele waʻa (navigation, voyaging)

David Kekaulike Sing has been praised as a “pioneer” and “innovator” in Native Hawaiian education, but he never set out to revolutionize the way Hawaiian students were learning. He was determined to transform the westernized education system responsible for teaching them.

Younger generations of Native Hawaiians may have difficulty imagining a world without culture-based education — where integrating Hawaiian history, language, and values into the curriculum was seen as unnecessary and frivolous. But that’s the education system Sing grew up in.

"The only programs for Hawaiians were problem-based, remedial programs for kids that were getting in trouble," he said.

poi making students native hawaiian
Nā Pua Noʻeau
Students learn how to make poi

It was the mid-'70s, nearly a decade before the unique educational needs of Hawaiians were officially recognized with the passage of the Native Hawaiian Education Act. But by then Sing had already developed an alternative learning model for Hawaiian students in higher education.

"The Hawaiian Leadership Development Program is the first program built around being Hawaiian, the strength of being Hawaiian. That was the first sort of support service program in the whole University of Hawaiʻi system," Sing said.

Other campuses used Sing’s model to enhance recruitment, retention, and graduation of Native Hawaiians. The idea of a strength-based approach to educating Native Hawaiians took hold. The University of Hawaiʻi recruited Sing to develop a similar program — but this time for Hawaiian students in grades K-12.

"And so that was how Nā Pua Noʻeau started. We started in Hilo. And kids used to come over from the other islands. And by the 10th year, it just went ballistic. We had so many programs we had, we were serving 2,000 kids a year and we had over 150 teachers working."

Uncle David Nā Pua Noʻeau
Nā Pua Noʻeau
Nā Pua Noʻeau with "Uncle David" -- center, second row from the bottom

Nā Pua Noʻeau was designed as an enrichment program hosting Hawaiian students outside the classroom setting with events like Super Saturdays and Summer Institutes. For most students, it was the only place to immerse themselves in the culture and meet other Hawaiian students.

"The real success of it wasnʻt so much just culture-based education. It was about having every child believe in who they are, built around the sense that they’re Hawaiian. No matter how poorly they were doing in school, we wanted to bring out the strengths of who they are to believe that anything is possible," he told Hawaiʻi Public Radio.

Sing, known affectionately by former students as "Uncle David," retired from UH four years ago. He was honored this year by the National Indian Education Association with a Lifetime Achievement Award for his contribution to Native Hawaiian education.

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Office of Hawaiian Affairs
Dr. David Kekaulike Sing was honored by the National Indian Education Association with a Lifetime Achievement Award.

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