UH Hilo’s Ke Kula ʻO Nāwahīokalaniʻōpuʻu Iki, a Laboratory Public Charter School located in Keaʻau on Hawaiʻi Island, is the most developed school taught through Indigenous language in the United States and Canada.
by William H. “Pila” Wilson, Professor of Hawaiian Language, Hawaiian Studies, and Linguistics.
This essay is written as part of the second annual Hawaiian History Month, created last year in honor of the birth of Queen Liliʻuokalani, the last sovereign monarch of the Hawaiian Kingdom. The Queen was born on Sept. 2, 1838, 183 years ago.
The fall 2021 school year marks the 20th anniversary of the enrollment of the first kindergarten class of Ke Kula ʻO Nāwahīokalaniʻōpuʻu (Nāwahī). Nāwahī is the demonstration laboratory school of Ka Haka ʻUla O Keʻelikōlani, University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo’s college of Hawaiian language. Extending back almost 40 years, Nāwahī’s history is a uniquely Hawaiian story that illustrates the tenacity of a core segment of Hawaiʻi’s population to the distinctive linguistic identity of these islands. Before examining the history of Nāwahī School, it is important to understand what distinguishes the school within the context of education in the United States.
Use of a non-English official language
Both Hawaiian and English are official languages in Hawaiʻi. Our state is the only one of the fifty states that provides for the use of a non-English language as the full administrative and operational language of education from preschool to the doctorate. The legislation that provides for these features is closely tied to the history of Nāwahī, which was established with a goal of demonstrating that it is possible for an Indigenous language to be successfully used for contemporary education in the 21st century. At present the full preschool to doctorated Hawaiian language medium pathway is only available in the Hilo area.
Nāwahī’s administration is carried out through Hawaiian, as are all its assemblies, secretarial and health work, janitorial and grounds keeping, and also its graduation ceremonies and all other events. ʻĀina based education and all classes from preschool through to grade 12 are taught through Hawaiian. Hawaiian is even used as the medium of instruction for learning the Japanese language and also for all English language courses, the opposite of how Hawaiian is taught in English medium schools. Within the context of contemporary US federal law, Nāwahī is a Native American language medium school designed to serve the unique educational needs of Hawaiian-speaking linguistic minority children.
Changes in federal law regarding the Indigenous languages of the United States is also related to the history of Nāwahī. In 1990, Congress reversed past federal policy of eradicating Indigenous languages when it passed the Native American Languages Act (NALA) recognizing the right of Native Americans, including Native Hawaiians, to education through the medium of their Indigenous languages. NALA was an initiative carried forward by Senator Daniel Inouye, head of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. As the basis for NALA he used wording developed in a resolution of the Hawaiʻi State Legislature requested by the ʻAha Pūnana Leo and Pūnana Leo families.
Beginnings with Pūnana Leo
When the basis of Nāwahī began with the Pūnana Leo O Hilo language nest in 1985, the federal government was not supportive of Indigenous languages. Then it was U.S. policy and practice to assimilate Indigenous children from their ancestral languages using English only boarding schools and day schools. Here in Hawaiʻi it was illegal to conduct public education through the medium of Hawaiian and had been since 1896, when those who overthrew the Hawaiian Monarchy closed down all Hawaiian medium public education.
Students of the first class to graduate from Nāwahī were enrolled in that Pūnana Leo. It was located on Kinoʻole Street in Hilo underneath a house owned by Mrs. Irene Haraguchi, a teacher who wanted her old family home to be used for educational purposes. Mrs. Haraguchi rented the home to the ʻAha Pūnana Leo with the option to eventually buy the property.
The non-profit ʻAha Pūnana Leo and associated parents were at that time in the process of going to the state legislature seeking to remove the 1896 ban on providing public education through Hawaiian and also to remove restrictions on private Hawaiian language schools like the Pūnana Leo not then placed, on private foreign language schools such as the Japanese language schools common in Hawaiʻi at the time. In May of 1986, with leadership from Clayton Hee, Peter Apo, and Charles Toguchi, the legislature passed two laws. One allowed the Pūnana Leo rights similar to those of foreign language schools. The other provided for Hawaiian language medium education in the public schools.
State DOE initially fails to implement a new law
The next school year, beginning in the fall of 1986, the Hawaiʻi Department of Education failed to open a kindergarten taught through the medium of Hawaiian. The non-profit ʻAha Pūnana Leo therefore decided to take a proactive stance regarding implementation of the new law with a boycott kindergarten. It declared one of the rooms at its private Pūnana Leo O Hilo a public Hawaiian medium kindergarten, which it named Ka Papa Kaiapuni Hawaiʻi (the Hawaiian environment class).
The organization refused to register the program as a private school. Since the organization saw itself as helping the state provide a public education responsibility, the five-year-old former Pūnana Leo students enrolled in the kindergarten were exempted from the tuition charged preschool students at the same site. Kahi Wight, a UH Hilo Hawaiian language student, was the primary volunteer teacher along with parents and other volunteers.
In early 1987, Charles Toguchi was appointed superintendent of the Department of Education. In order to come to agreement on how to continue the ʻAha Pūnana Leo’s total Hawaiian language medium kindergarten into higher grades in the DOE structure, Senator Clayton Hee, Superintendent Charles Toguchi and the ʻAha Pūnana Leo held a meeting at the beginning of 1986. The agreement reached was that Superintendent Toguchi would find two schools—one on Oʻahu and one in Hilo—to house two kindergarten-grade 1 combined classes; Senator Hee would move forward a legislative resolution urging the Board of Education to approve the classes brought before them by Superintendent Toguchi, and the ʻAha Pūnana Leo would find two Hawaiian speaking certified teachers and students for two K-1 classrooms to be taught through Hawaiian, as well as to provide teaching materials and other support.
Pūnana Leo students move into Keaukaha School
The many fascinating details of how the Board of Education approved the classes and how two hosting schools, two teachers, and other students to join those from the Pūnana Leo were assembled will not be recounted here. The result, however, was that the students who were to be the first graduates of Nāwahī enrolled at Keaukaha Elementary School in a class taught by high school certified teacher Puanani Wilhelm, in a parent repurposed storage room under the principal’s office.
Many in the community, including extended family members of some of the enrolled students, were extremely worried that these children’s education would suffer by being instructed solely through Hawaiian. Lower-level officials in the DOE were also worried. Ms. Wilhelm and the parents were explicitly told by one such official that instruction was to be solely oral with no reading and writing of Hawaiian “because Hawaiian was only an oral language.” The official also told parents that the total Hawaiian program would be judged on how well the children spoke English. This was in spite of English not being taught in the program. Parent volunteers in the class refused the no Hawaiian literacy directive as the Pūnana Leo children had already begun reading Hawaiian the previous year. Some families also refused to have their children tested for oral English by the researcher hired by the DOE.
For a few years the Board of Education determined on an annual basis as to whether the program could continue on to the next grade with a new cohort entering at kindergarten. The DOE researcher recommended that the program be conducted partially in English, but parents refused to support that proposal. Parents called the program “Ke Kula Kaiapuni Hawaiʻi” using the term from the boycott kindergarten at the Pūnana Leo O Hilo. The DOE called it the Hawaiian Language Immersion Program, using “immersion,” a term from Canada applied to teaching French as a “second” language taught to Anglophone (English Canadians) children in a program taught partially through English. The movement in Hilo was focused on Hawaiian as the “primary” language for educating children from Hawaiian speaking homes as in the Hawaiian language medium schools of the 1800s.
What to do after elementary school?
Keaukaha Elementary School only goes to grade 6. As the students of the Kula Kaiapuni Hawaiʻi O Keaukaha moved through the grades, the question arose as to what would happen to them after grade 6. Most parents and the ʻAha Pūnana Leo supported continuation of total Hawaiian medium education on through high school. The Board of Education supported that goal as a choice and also decided that there would be established two separate total Hawaiian sites with one in the Hilo area and on Oʻahu.
In preparation for the possible choice of some parents to send their children to English medium education after grade 6, a European model of teaching English as a course beginning in grade 5 was adapted. At Keaukaha School, the parents decided that English would be taught through Hawaiian parallel to the teaching of English through European languages in Europe.
The next year, the English course taught through Hawaiian was continued in grade 6 and parents agreed to allow their children to be tested using English medium standardized tests for the sixth-grade level. This was seen as a help to parents in deciding where to send their children after elementary school. To the surprise of the school, the average standardized test scores of the children in the Kula Kaiapuni Hawaiʻi was higher than that of the students in the total English medium sixth grade class at the same school. Rather than encouraging parents to send their children to English-medium schooling, those English assessments resulted in an increased determination among parents to continue their children’s total Hawaiian medium education through to high school.
Finding the Nāwahī site for middle and high school
The next year the DOE did not provide a total Hawaiian medium site for seventh grade as approved by the Board of Education. However, the parents were able to reach an agreement with Keaukaha Elementary School to hold back the seventh graders for one more year as they were still part of a mixed 6-7 class.
Unlike urban Oʻahu, there were no empty public school campuses in the Hilo area for a total Hawaiian medium site. It was increasingly obvious that the DOE was not going to be able to provide a separate Hawaiian medium site for the Hilo area the next year. The ʻAha Pūnana Leo therefore sought out a temporary site to rent as a means to support the program. Such a site was found in the empty third floor of the old state unemployment building in downtown Hilo.
The ʻAha Pūnana Leo rented the space and in 1994 the combined 7-8 grade class along with the sixth grade students moved in. Kauanoe Kamanā, a parent of children in those classes, took leave from her UH Hilo assistant professor position and was hired by the DOE as the teacher for the students. UH Hilo counselor, Māhealani Jones, and a number of UH Hilo students and staff volunteered to help teach the students. The program was officially an off-campus site of Hilo Intermediate School.
Prior to establishing the school and the new found site the families felt that their total Hawaiian language medium school needed a name. An obvious choice was that of Iosepa Kahoʻoluhi Nāwahīokalaniʻōpuʻu. Iosepa Nāwahī was from Puna and had been a teacher and principal at Hawaiian language medium Hilo Boarding School, which was also the original site of Hilo High School. Nāwahī was a prominent name in a number of areas of Hawaiian history.
Furthermore, there were family connections to Nāwahī in the school community and in the ʻAha Pūnana Leo. Larry Kimura, Kauanoe Kamanā and Nāmaka Rawlins approached Mrs. Emma Ahuna, Nāwahī’s grandaughter, and her sons to request the name and the request was granted.
To learn more about the life of Iosepa Kahoʻoluhi Nāwahīokalaniʻōpuʻu, see video from the Biographical Research Center (English version below, click here for Hawaiian version).
Obtaining a permanent site in Keaʻau, Puna
Nāmaka Rawlins, CEO of the ʻAha Pūnana Leo, had discovered a potential permanent location for Ke Kula ʻO Nāwahīokalaniʻōpuʻu in an abandoned private school campus in Puna. Named Henry ʻŌpūkahaʻia School, the site had classrooms and a gym as well as a small dormitory, all in terrible shape. The asking price was $2,000,000. The non-profit ʻAha Pūnana Leo did not have that kind of money. The DOE had no funds to purchase a school and had even been unable to help the ʻAha Pūnana Leo with the rent for the downtown Hilo site. Nāmaka Rawlins decided to approach the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, where Hawaiian language supporter Clayton Hee had recently been elected chair.
Ms. Rawlins approached OHA for a loan, but OHA’s internal evaluation of the ʻAha Pūnana Leo’s fiscal position found it not strong enough for OHA to risk a loan to the non-profit. Chair Hee came up with the idea of granting the ʻAha Pūnana Leo the funds provided that the ʻAha Pūnana Leo would enter into an agreement with OHA that the site be used for Hawaiian language education.
Now with OHA backing, the ʻAha Pūnana Leo put in a very quick offer for the site and got it accepted right before another much stronger bidder was able to submit an offer. The other potential bidder was the Kamehameha Schools. The Kamehameha Board of Trustees were at the time seeking a temporary Puna location for their planned East Hawaiʻi K-12 school. Already renting a classroom at the Henry ʻŌpūkahaʻia site was a Kamehameha preschool.
At that time, there was much controversy at Kamehameha Schools and the controversy included issues relating to the Hawaiian language. Lead education trustee Lokelani Lindsay had pulled out all former Kamehameha support for teaching of the Hawaiian language in the community and DOE schools. She banned use at the Kamehameha Schools of any of the Hawaiian terms for modern life developed by the Hawaiian lexicon committee and used by the ʻAha Pūnana Leo and Kula Kaiapuni Hawaiʻi. Several years later, after Lindsey’s termination as a trustee, Kamehameha Schools returned to an earlier policy of supporting education through Hawaiian.
Moving into the Keaʻau, Puna campus
Once the OHA agreement was official and the site purchased, Nāwahī and Pūnana Leo parents moved quickly to renovate the site. Family members with skills in roof repairs, laying flooring tile, painters, carpenters and others with skills joined in to fix the site. The Kūlani Correctional Facility community integration and outreach program also brought in a crew of trusted prisoners to assist. The school site was ready by the fall of 1995 and grades 7, 8 and 9 moved in as an off-campus site program of both Hilo Intermediate School and Hilo High School.
The following year, Senator Clayton Hee introduced legislation to establish a Hawaiian language college at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo with Nāwahī as its laboratory school. That legislation passed codifying Nāwahī as the primary teacher training site for the new Hawaiian language college. Kauanoe Kamanā was assigned by the college to direct the laboratory school program. John Masuhara, principal of Hilo High School, welcomed the new laboratory school status and addressed the parents on the value of the program. He also assigned Carole Ishimaru to serve as the Hilo High School vice principal on-site at Nāwahī.
The early support of the late John Masuhara and late Carole Ishimaru was very important to the stabilization of Nāwahī. Dr. Masuhara took responsibility for both the Hilo High School and Hilo Intermediate School aspects of the program. The teachers hired included parent of students, Caroline Pōhai Montague-Mullens, and students of the new Hawaiian language college including Hiapo Perreira and Jason Cabral, who are now professors at Ka Haka ʻUla O Keʻelikōlani, the UH Hilo Hawaiian language college. Creating a total Hawaiian curriculum for high school was certainly a challenge, but the teachers succeeded.
First graduation leads to plans for a P-12 school
In 1999, the ʻAha Pūnana Leo, which was providing the site free to Hilo high school, invited the many supporters of the Hawaiian language journey to a special ceremony to honor the first five graduating seniors. Special guests flown in included Canadian Indigenous activist Dorothy Lazore the founding teacher of the Canadian Mohawk program who had testified before the Board of Education in support of opening the first Kula Kaiapuni Hawaiʻi for Charles Toguchi. Also attending were Māori language movement leader Tīmoti Kāretu, who had provided much support for education through Hawaiian for many years.
With the graduation of the first seniors the middle school and high school components were solidified. Hilo High assigned vice principal Ms. Ishimaru, then began work with Kauanoe Kamanā to begin an elementary component at Nāwahī using the new charter law. Ishimaru wrote up the Ke Kula ‘o Nāwahīokalaniʻōpuʻu Iki Laboratory Public Charter school proposal. That same proposal was shared with ʻAha Pūnana Leo supported groups working to establish K-12 Hawaiian medium education in Windward Oʻahu—now Ke Kula ʻo Samuel M. Kamakau Laboratory Public Charter School—and for the Niʻihau community on Kauaʻi—now Ke Kula Niʻihau O Kekaha Laboratory Public Charter School. The remaining Kaiapuni Hawaiʻi program back at Keaukaha Elementary School also became an independent charter with the name Ka ʻUmeke Kāʻeo.
With acceptance of the Nāwahī charter school proposal in 2001, a grade-by-grade addition of an elementary program began in the fall. The first students to be educated from kindergarten to grade 12 graduated from Nāwahī in 2014.
In 1995, the Kamehameha Schools English medium preschool moved out of the Nāwahī campus and there was an opportunity to add a total Hawaiian medium preschool component to the campus. The Pūnana Leo O Hilo then still operating underneath Mrs. Haraguchi’s house in Hilo needed to move as that old building had been condemned due to tilting and termite damage. The Pūnana Leo O Hilo was moved to the Nāwahī campus. With more room on that campus, the language nest preschool could take in twice as many students and also add an infant-toddler component. Later through the work of the charter school commission, the legislature and federal government integration of the Pūnana Leo and the charter school was further strengthened.
Adding campuses in Waimea, Waiʻanae and at the college
The next area of growth for Nāwahī resulted from the decision of the principal of Waimea Elementary School in South Kohala to close down the Kula Kaiapuni Hawaiʻi stream at her school. This was a major disaster for parents in Waimea who had worked to establish a Pūnana Leo preschool and then a DOE follow-up program. The Waimea parents then approached the Nāwahī charter school board and ʻAha Pūnana Leo for help.
The ʻAha Pūnana Leo agreed to have part of its preschool building on Hawaiian Home Lands used for a follow-up program and the Nāwahī charter board agreed to seek approval to open a satellite site in Waimea, as well as to provide support to hire teachers. The Waimea satellite site opened in 2011 with the campus name of ʻAlo Kēhau O Ka ʻĀina Mauna. Today it has a small elementary to high school multigrade enrollment of 50 students. Its high school component is a partnership with Honokaʻa High School sharing ʻAha Pūnana Leo and Nāwahī charter resources on the same model as used at the main Puna site with Hilo High School. Those partnerships are a testament to the support of Hawaiʻi Island principals to assuring access to total Hawaiian language medium education in cooperation with the laboratory school program of Ka Haka ʻUla O Keʻelikōlani College.
Pūnana Leo O Waiʻanae parents fearing lack of access to total Hawaiian medium education then followed the precedent of the Waimea families and requested assistance from the ʻAha Pūnana Leo and Nāwahī Board. Their satellite site, named Māʻilikūkahi, has an elementary and middle school enrollment of 82.
Technology has made it possible for the teachers and parents of these distant campuses to participate more closely with the main campus of Nāwahī. Such support has extended to providing distance education from Keaʻau, Puna to the satellite sites when teacher resources were inadequate.
Another sort of satellite campus for Nāwahī has been Ka Haka ʻUla O Keʻelikōlani Hawaiian language college. From the earliest period when Nāwahī began at the rented building in downtown Hilo, Nāwahī students had been enrolled in Hawaiian language and Hawaiian studies courses of UH Hilo and UH Hilo students had gained credits teaching at Nāwahī. Keiki Kawaiʻaeʻa, a Nāwahī parent, led the effort to develop that practice into a full-fledged graduate level Hawaiian medium teacher certification program. Today that program is headed by Kanani Mākaʻimoku, a Nāwahī graduate.
As Nāwahī grew and stabilized it applied for federal grants to further develop the bridge between its high school program and the college. The relationship between UH Hilo and Nāwahī has been a mutually beneficial arrangement. Lack of university funds to develop the Hawaiian language college has made it difficult for the college to advance its assigned mission of providing tertiary level liberal education through Hawaiian. Through the partnership with Nāwahī it is now possible to take a number of general education courses through Hawaiian with those courses available both for college students and for dual high school credits. An example is a two-semester world history sequence through Hawaiian. Those world history credits are equivalent to world history courses offered at other universities in the United States and in other countries of the world such as France and Germany.
Multiple partnerships build Nāwahī
Nāwahī is an outstanding example of cooperation in education. Combined under a single entity and coordinated through a single university professor position are five entities on three campuses: ʻAha Pūnana Leo with its three preschool sites; Nāwahīokalaniʻōpuʻu Iki Charter School with its three campuses shared with those preschools; Hilo High School with its off-campus program at the Nāwahī Puna campus; Honokaʻa High School with its off-campus Nāwahī Waimea campus; and Ka Haka ʻUla O Keʻelikōlani with its on-campus and distance early enrollment courses for Nāwahī high school students.
Nāwahī is the most developed school taught through Indigenous language in the United States and Canada, and also, with its 652 students, the one with the largest enrollment. Nāwahī is regularly visited by tribal education leaders and invited to testify nationally regarding Indigenous education. On a biannual basis, Nāwahī partners with the International Conference on Language Documentation to host linguists involved with Indigenous languages to see language revitalization in action from the preschool level through to the doctorate. It also hosts other special international conferences in partnership with Ka Haka ʻUla O Keʻelikōlani and the ʻAha Pūnana Leo on a less regular basis.
The academic success of Nāwahī
Nāwahī is not only a model for successful language revitalization. It also has an enviable academic record. Since its first graduation in 1999, it has had a 100% high school graduation record without a single dropout. This is percentage some twenty points higher than the overall state public school average. Furthermore, some 85% of Nāwahī students enter college immediately after graduation, again a rate much higher than the DOE average.
These accomplishments controvert the highly negative predictions of those who opposed total Hawaiian medium education, saying that such students would be held back by the Hawaiian language, be unable to master basic academics, and be unable to go on to college. The actual reality is that standard English medium education has produced lower academic results, on average, for the peers of Nāwahī students than has Nāwahī for its students. Over 95% of Nāwahī students are of Native Hawaiian ancestry, the lowest performing of the major ethnic groups in Hawaiʻi English medium public schools. Nāwahī is also a Title I school, with over 60% of its students from lower socio-economic backgrounds, another demographic with low academic outcomes in mainstream English medium schools.
Not only have Nāwahī students been attending college locally, Nāwahī students have gone on to such universities as Stanford, Loyolla Marymount, Dartmouth, Seattle University and other out-of-state universities. At such universities the only other students on campus who were educated through high school in a non-English language come from foreign countries. Yet like those foreign students, Nāwahī graduates are able to master English equivalents for academic material that they learned through their own traditional language and go on to graduate and participate as successful individuals in the larger globalized world.
What truly sets such young adult products of Nāwahī apart is their unique contribution to the continuation of Hawaiʻi’s own distinctive language and associated culture. This is what brings so many of them to return to the school either as part of its work force or as parents or both. They proudly wear the school attire that states the school’s motto: “No ʻAneʻi Ko Kākou Ola” (We are of this place). They do so, joining the many others throughout Hawaiʻi striving to retain what is unique about our island home.
William H. “Pila” Wilson is a professor of Hawaiian language, Hawaiian studies, and linguistics at Ka Haka ‘Ula O Keʻelikōlani College of Hawaiian Language at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo. He teaches undergraduate and graduate courses and also sometimes courses at Ke Kula ʻO Nāwahīokalaniʻōpuʻu. He is principal writer of the extensive programs of what is now the most developed program in an Indigenous language in the United States. Learn more about Prof. Wilson’s scholarly work.