Hawaiian Immersion May Get More State Support After Years of Community Activism

Dec 16, 2019

Hawaiian language immersion preschool students, parents, and teachers wave signs demanding greater government support of 'olelo Hawai'i.
Credit Trisha Kehaulani Watson

The Hawaiʻi Supreme Court recently ruled in a landmark case that the state is constitutionally required to provide reasonable access to Hawaiian immersion education. The ruling may be a game changer for advocates of ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi, the Hawaiian language.

Hawaiian immersion education – where classes are taught entirely in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi – is currently offered at more than two dozen public and charter schools statewide.

Students at Ke Kula 'O Nawahiokalani'opu'u, a Hawaiian language immersion charter school in Kea'au, Hawai'i Island.
Credit Ke Kula O Nawahiokalaniopu'u

Much of this growth has been the result of grassroots, community advocates who have fought to perpetuate the language through the public education system for more than three decades.

But a shift that could increase state support may be underway. 

Preschoolers gather for a lesson at Punana Leo O Manoa.
Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi

At Pūnana Leo O Mānoa, parents filed into the Hawaiian immersion preschool on a recent day as school comes to a close. They weren’t there just to pick up their keiki.

“We have to clean!” says Brandy Ahlo, a longtime Pūnana Leo parent and mother of three.

Once a month, parents volunteer their time vacuuming carpets, cleaning bathrooms and washing dishes.

Parents of preschoolers at Punana Leo O Manoa take a break from cleaning to pose for a picture.
Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi

Noelle Kauanoe Campbell is on dish duty. “ʻAno pūʻiwa wau no ka mea nui ka hana o ka ʻohana me nā keiki he nui, akā nō naʻe hana kākou ʻeā?”

She says she’s somewhat surprised that families with many children find time to help clean. But as any Pūnana Leo parent will tell you, this is what’s expected.

“If it's for our keiki, you know weʻre gonna do a good job,” said Ahlo.

Preschoolers enjoy snack time at the Punana Leo O Manoa.
Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi

The movement to perpetuate ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi through immersion education began in a preschool on Kauaʻi nearly 36 years ago. 

The movement’s success doesn’t surprise Kauanoe Kamanā. She’s a former Pūnana Leo parent and one of the movement’s founders: "‘O ka mea ʻano pūʻiwa mai ka hoʻomaka ʻo ia ke kākoʻo ʻole ʻia o ia pahuhopu nui o ka ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi e kekahi mau poʻe ma ke aupuni. Ma ke au o ka manawa, ua ʻike maka ka poʻe i ka waiwai a hoʻomaka e kākoʻo."

She says what was somewhat surprising from the start was the lack of support for ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi by some in government. That support grew over time as more began to see the value of learning the language.

Ke Kula O Nawahiokalani'opu'u Principal Kauanoe Kamana addresses student on the first day of school at the Kea'au campus. Kamana is a former Hawaiian immersion parent and one of the movement's founders.
Credit Ke Kula O Nawahiokalaniopu'u

Kamanā is now the principal of Ke Kula ʻO Nāwahīokalaniʻōpuʻu (Nāwahī), a flagship Hawaiian immersion charter school in Keaʻau. When families in Waimea on Hawaiʻi Island and Waiʻanae on Oʻahu couldn’t secure support for Hawaiian immersion from their principals, they turned to Kamanā’s school.

"Aia nō i kēlā poʻokumu ka mana piha a pēlā i pani ai ka papahana ma Waimea. A ʻimi nā ʻohana i kekahi papahana ʻē aʻe. No Waiʻanae ua lele mokulele mai lākou i Keaʻau.  A pēlā i kaʻa ai ia mau kula he mau ʻāpana lele kēlā."

She says principals have the final say on whether immersion is a go or not. That led to Waimea temporarily losing its program and families, seeking alternatives, developed a satellite school of the one in Keaʻau. Waiʻanae also sought out Kamanā for help. Now both programs have become satelite schools of Nāwahī.

Students at Ke Kula O Nawahiokalani'opu'u gather for the first day of school.
Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi

“The communities are saying, the parents are saying, ʻWe want more schools, we want more seats, we want more classrooms,'” said Kalehua Krug, a former Hawaiian immersion specialist for the state Department of Education.

He said even the best community efforts may not meet the growing demand for Hawaiian immersion education.

The demand for Hawaiian language immersion education is growing faster than the supply of teachers, classrooms, and funding to provide this sort of education.
Credit Ke Kula O Nawahiokalaniopu'u

“The community is showing up, sending their children faster than we can produce quality speakers and teachers to address this,” said Krug.

The movement may soon be getting the help it needs from the state. The Hawaiʻi Supreme Court’s ruling in August that Hawaiian immersion is a right may broaden the state’s role in providing language education.

ON WEDNESDAY: More on the Supreme Court case and what it could mean for Hawaiian immersion.