HAWAIIAN LANGUAGE IMMERSION PUBLIC SCHOOLS; HISTORY AND PURPOSE; PRECURSORS OF HAWAIIAN CULTURE CHARTER SCHOOLS (including a comparison with transitional bilingual education in Spanish-speaking communities)

(c) Copyright 2002 - 2005, Kenneth R. Conklin, Ph.D. All rights reserved

An ethnic Hawaiian cultural renaissance has been underway for perhaps 25 years. Hawai'i's people of all ethnicities have a special respect for Native Hawaiians and reverence for Hawaiian culture. Native Hawaiians, and nonnatives who love Hawaiian culture, have been rediscovering long-forgotten elements of this proud heritage. Perhaps the most widely recognized elements of the renaissance have been hula, music and chanting, voyaging canoes, and Hawaiian language. The most visible symbol of the renaissance has been the voyaging canoe Hokule'a and its captains' use of the stars alone to navigate the entire Polynesian triangle including all three corners Aotearoa (New Zealand), Rapa Nui (Easter Island), and Hawai'i plus the Hawaiians' places of origin in Marquesas and Tahiti.

Although hula, music, and voyaging canoes are spectacular and capture media attention, the most important element of the Hawaiian cultural renaissance has been Hawaiian language. This language contains the culture within it. The language is the root of everything else. And for most of the 20th Century the Hawaiian language was dying. Few living people had grown up speaking the language, and even fewer were still able to speak it fluently.

Hawai'i is a special place, where the environment and its life forms are beautiful, fragile, and tenderly loved. The nene (Hawaiian goose) was chosen to be the state bird, partly in hopes of focusing attention on it to bring it back from near-extinction. In 1978 the state Constitutional Convention placed into our Constitution a clause recognizing Hawaiian (and English) as an official language of our state. Perhaps part of the reason for doing this was to affirm a commitment to bring Hawaiian back from near-extinction, like the nene.

For more than a decade there have been some very special schools created for the apparent purpose of preserving the Hawaiian language. The hidden purpose, and the actual consequence, have gone far beyond that worthy goal.

A few private preschools began using Hawaiian language to conduct all their student activities and lessons -- these schools were organized under the name "Punana Leo" (speech nest). A few public elementary school classrooms were specifically set aside to be "kula kaiapuni" (immersion schools) where all activities and lessons would be conducted in Hawaiian language. The idea was to create a group of children for whom Hawaiian would be a native language. At the same time, Hawaiian language courses became popular electives for high school students, college students, and adults attending night school. Such courses were taken by students of all ethnicities, although the private preschool and public elementary school immersion programs Punana Leo and Kula Kaiapuni were populated almost entirely by ethnic Hawaiian children (just as not many children would enroll in a French immersion classroom unless they had parents or grandparents of French ethnicity).

Using Hawaiian language in a small private preschool was hard work for a teacher, but was not difficult administratively. However, making Hawaiian the language of instruction all day, every day in all the subjects in a public school classroom was extremely difficult. Hawaiian language books had to be created by asking volunteers to cut and paste Hawaiian language sentences and paragraphs over the English language content. Long term, new books had to be created containing Hawaiian cultural content -- instead of a picture of a dog and a girl with the caption "See Spot run" there might be a picture of a drop of water on a taro leaf with the caption "nani ke kalo i ka ua."

There were also severe bureaucratic problems with the Hawaiian immersion program. First, teachers had to be found who could speak Hawaiian fluently. But since it was a public school, those teachers also had to be certified as teachers. In most cases, adults were hired primarily for their Hawaiian language ability, and then they had to be given emergency temporary teacher certification until they could take the college courses required for regular teacher certification. The teachers also had to follow the approved curriculum guide for the grade level and subject matter being taught, because students would eventually be expected to meet the normal academic standards. (The requirement that children must be taught the content of the mainstream curriculum is often at odds with the desire to teach them the special content appropriate to Hawaiian culture; thus over time there has been a growing desire to break away from the public school system but still somehow retain public funding)

The State of Hawai'i Department of Education now has a program specifically to provide teacher accreditation through courses conducted entirely in Hawaiian language. This "Kahuawaiola" program is thus a college-level Hawaiian language immersion program whose graduates will be certified to teach in Hawaiian language immersion schools. Presumably the program meets the customary standards for teacher certification, but also makes use of special "culturally appropriate" techniques of instruction to deliver the course content, and instructs the future teachers in "culturally appropriate" content and methodology for their future use as teachers in elementary and secondary language immersion or cultural immersion classrooms. (Since candidates for teacher certification all have English as their native and still-primary language, this Kahuawaiola program is not really necessary -- the certification candidates could attend the usual teacher certification programs (in English) at public and private universities. The primary purpose of the program is to bring together future teachers strongly committed to Hawaiian culture and language, give them a separate teacher-training curriculum, train them to teach in ways different from other public school teachers, and screen them to make sure they have acceptable personal styles and ideolgical commitments.)

An additional bureaucratic problem with Hawaiian language immersion schools was that most of the parents of the children in the immersion program were not themselves fluent in Hawaiian. Indeed, many of the parents had a strong commitment to raising their children to be fluent in Hawaiian, but they themselves knew hardly any Hawaiian language beyond the routine words and expressions used as part of everyday life in Hawai'i like aloha (hello,goodbye,love), hele (go), auwe (oh shucks), ua (rain), mahalo (thanks). So a rule was adopted. Parents of children in kula kaiapuni were required to enroll in a Hawaiian language course in night school. Even so, the children easily surpassed their parents because children are quick learners and were spending all day immersed in the language.

Culturally appropriate Hawaiian language books were gradually produced. Teachers were eventually certified. Whole wings of schools became kula kaiapuni, and even an entire school might become kula kaiapuni (such as Anuenue in Palolo). Along the way there were other bureaucratic hurdles. Since there were so few kula kaiapuni, there had to be a fair system for selecting which children could attend. Children then had to be granted geographic waivers to attend schools far outside their neighborhoods. And then there were quarrels with central administration regarding bus transportation and whether its costs should be borne by the parents (as is normal for a voluntary geographic exception requested by a parent) or by the school system. In one political protest, Hawaiian parents demanded free bus transportation because "our aboriginal children are the indigenous people of this land and are entitled to a free and culturally appropriate education in our homeland"

How should Hawaiian language immersion programs be regarded -- are they ordinary and necessary public programs to be paid for with tax dollars, or are they a luxury serving special interests and therefore to be paid for with private money? A lengthy digression is needed to explore this topic by comparison with transitional bilingual education programs in Spanish language in California and elsewhere.


Children with handicaps are entitled to a free public education which meets their individual needs. That's because all children are regarded as having social and legal rights apart from their parents. Children with handicaps may have parents whose income is too low to afford the special education they need to become productive citizens or to achieve whatever limited potential they may have. But parents who demand special kinds of education for their children are expected to pay for private schooling when the services they demand are regarded as voluntary, unusual, or above and beyond what society can be expected to provide. Education beyond a certain level, or for special private purposes such as to satisfy religious or stylistic preferences, is regarded as a luxury which parents should pay for. Thus education operates somewhat like medical insurance, providing basic coverage for ordinary and necessary procedures but regarding experimental or cosmetic procedures as private luxuries.

In America, education in English has always been regarded as ordinary and necessary. If upper-class parents want their children to be taught art history in French language so they will appear to be sophisticated, that is a luxury to be paid for with private funds. Children might be offered occasional elective courses to study foreign languages, but parents who wanted their children to be completely educated in a particular language were expected to choose a private school paid for from their own funds.

But as the Spanish speaking population has increased dramatically through immigration (legal and illegal) from Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Latin America, it became more frequent to demand the use of Spanish as a language of instruction for regular education in the public schools. At first the concept was TRANSITIONAL bilingual education. If children spoke only Spanish, they should be given schooling that used Spanish as the primary language of instruction for core subjects like arithmetic and science, so they would not fall behind in their educational development. The use of Spanish as a primary language of instruction was considered ordinary and necessary, to be paid for with public funds, like providing special physical facilities for children with temporary injuries. But program guidelines made clear that such children were to be taught in a manner that would ensure they would also learn English along the way, so that their temporary "impairment" (not knowing the standard, universal language of America) would not become a permanent handicap.

However, in recent years it became increasingly clear that many Spanish speaking immigrant families had no intention of ever demanding that their children learn English. The Spanish speaking social and economic enclaves became so large and well established that there was no need to learn English to be successful in business or politics. Efforts to require schoolchildren to learn English were met with open hostility by politically powerful groups of Spanish speaking parents who regarded it as a basic right to raise their children in their own culture and language. It became apparent that the "melting pot" had broken down. Society was at risk of being balkanized into separate social, cultural, and linguistic enclaves that threatened eventual political instability and separateness. Thus, states like California began the painful process of stepping away from so-called "transitional" bilingual education which had turned out not to be transitional at all.


The situation in Hawai'i regarding Hawaiian language is completely different from the situation in California regarding Spanish language. In Hawai'i, there is probably nobody who speaks Hawaiian who does not also speak English more fluently. For nearly everyone who speaks Hawaiian, English was their native language. English was the language they spoke while growing up -- their parents or grandparents might have spoken Hawaiian among themselves, but generally insisted on speaking only English with the children. A century ago English was recognized by everyone in Hawai'i as the language needed for social and economic advancement. That's why Hawaiian fell by the wayside, and Hawaiian parents raised their children to be English speakers.

Hawaiian sovereignty activists like to say that "Hawaiian language was made illegal." They like to say that "Here in our own homeland we were forbidden from speaking Hawaiian, and our grandmothers have told us how they were punished for speaking it."

There was never a law prohibiting the speaking or writing of Hawaiian language. Indeed, there were numerous Hawaiian-language newspapers which continued publishing throughout the Republic and Territory periods, including many that were politically active in opposing the annexation and promoting the kanaka maoli dominated Home Rule Party. Following the overthrow, the Republic of Hawai'i passed a law in 1896 making English the required language of instruction in schools, and forbidding other languages as the primary medium of instruction. Here is the exact wording of that law: School Laws of 1896 Section 30: "The English Language shall be the medium and basis of instruction in all public and private schools, provided that where it is desired that another language shall be taught in addition to the English language, such instruction may be authorized by the Department, either by its rules, the curriculum of the school, or by direct order in any particular instance. Any schools that shall not conform to the provisions of this section shall not be recognized by the Department." June 8 A.D., 1896 Sanford B. Dole, President of the Republic of Hawaii.

The law clearly concerns only schools, not society at large. It does not prohibit establishing private schools where the medium of instruction could be Hawaiian (or any other language) -- it merely states that such schools will not be recognized by the government as satisfying the requirement that all children must attend school. Indeed, some ethnic groups such as the Japanese did establish their own private schools for "after school" or weekend instruction in Japanese language and culture. And even within the official government-recognized schools, the law clearly does not prohibit Hawaiian language from being taught, it merely says the language used for teaching all courses other than language courses must be English.

The purpose was both political and social, not so much to repress Hawaiian language (or Japanese, Chinese, Tagalog, Ilocano, Visayan languages), but to promote the use of English as a universal language because of anticipated annexation to the U.S. and because of the already dominant role of English in cultural and economic activity in Hawai'i. Many kanaka maoli parents spoke Hawaiian between themselves but insisted that their children speak only English at home as well as at school, because they recognized that the path to social and economic success would be through English.

The practical result was that use of Hawaiian language declined to the point where it was nearly extinct as a daily-use language by the time of statehood (except for its use in hula and other special cultural activities). Even many hula dancers memorized the Hawaiian language lyrics without understanding their meanings, just as some American-born opera singers memorize their Italian or German lines without understanding them. But now, thanks to a growing group of dedicated kanaka maoli and non-kanaka maoli, the language has been saved and is now no longer endangered.

The use of the language carries political overtones, however, unlike the use of most other langauges in other cultures. Some speakers use the language as a political weapon to assert cultural hegemony; and some kanaka maoli who have not yet learned the language but are active in the sovereignty movement are extremely resentful or even angry toward non-kanaka maoli who do use the language, especially in political situations.

The claim that the Hawaiian language was illegal is used by sovereignty activists to grab attention, to demagogue the idea that Hawaiian culture was stolen or suppressed, and to seek sympathy for an "oppressed" people. The claim is part of the Hawaiian grievance industry, used for making people without Hawaiian blood feel guilty and feel eager to help ethnic Hawaiians restore what is "rightfully theirs." The language nearly died out because people voluntarily stopped speaking it in favor of speaking English; but that fact is uncomfortable for sovereignty activists who like to portray ethnic Hawaiians as victims.

To show that Hawaiian language was alive, and received government funding throughout the territorial period, here is some information taken from a sheet distributed by kumu hula John Lake in his Hawaiian culture classes: 1901 (note: 5 years after Hawaiian language was supposedly made "illegal"): All laws become legally binding only when published in both an English daily newspaper and a Hawaiian weekly; 1913: Law requiring announcements relative to the sale of government land must appear in Hawaiian; 1913: $10,000 appropriated for publication of a Hawaiian dictionary; 1919: Law that Hawaiian shall be taught as a subject in all high schools and teachers' colleges; 1923: $2000 appropriated for writing and publishing textbooks in Hawaiian; 1935: Daily instruction of at least 10 minutes in Hawaiian conversation or writing required in elementary schools serving Hawaiian Homes children. Please re-read the 1896 law quoted above in its entirety, and compare its provisions with these laws just cited in this paragraph; it is clear there is no conflict.

For further information about the false claim that Hawaiian language was ever illegal in Hawai'i, or in the schools, see

Thus Hawaiian language is chosen voluntarily as a second language by people who did not grow up speaking it as their primary native language. Speaking Hawaiian today is more like a hobby than a matter of routine upbringing. Even the children who have spent many years in the Hawaiian language immersion programs at both the preschool Punana Leo and the public school Kula Kaiapuni speak fluent English with no accent other than a typical "local" one.

One final issue should be addressed, regarding the right of indigenous people to be educated in their indigenous language (both to learn the language and to have it used as the medium of instruction in all subjects). One of the things that makes indigenous people indigenous is that they grow up separate and apart from the surrounding non-indigenous society. Thus they grow up speaking their native language as their primary language, and often their only language. Clearly the protection of the indigeneity of indigenous people in remote places, living separate and apart from the surrounding society, requires that they be left alone and allowed to use their own language to educate their children in whatever way they consider appropriate. Equally clearly, that is not the situation in Hawai'i. It is debatable whether Native Hawaiians were ever indigenous to Hawai'i -- they came to Hawai'i in several waves of different cultures, starting about 2000 years ago, with the last wave arriving perhaps 700 years ago. And since then there have been additional waves of newcomers from Europe, America, and Asia. The new immigrants after 1778 were welcomed by the old immigrants, who invited them to stay and to contribute capital investment, expertise, new cultural elements (written language, Christianity, the rule of law) and to build the society and to take high government positions and to recruit additional newcomers. People of European and American ancestry were the first to join Hawaiians as full partners, and establish multigeneration tenure in Hawai'i before the overthrow of 1893. But many Asian immigrants also became full partners, setting up businesses or becoming independent tradesmen after finishing their periods as contract laborers, and raising multigeneration families. 3/4 of so-called "Native Hawaiians" today have less than 1/4 of their geneology from those who lived in Hawai'i prior to 1778. All our activities are thoroughly integrated including where we live, how and what we eat, where we work, where are how we pray, and how and where we are buried. And almost everyone who speaks Hawaiian also speaks English (or some other European or Asian language) as their primary language of upbringing and fluency (except for a handful of people born and raised on the privately owned "forbidden island" Ni'ihau). Thus, it is bogus to claim that instruction in Hawaiian is an indigenous right. That claim is merely another in a long string of Hawaiian sovereignty myths that are easy to assert and complicated to understand properly.

Hawaiian language immersion schools are not ordinary or necessary parts of an educational system in Hawai'i. They are created voluntarily. Spending tax dollars on them as a form of public education can be justified on the grounds that Hawaiian language is a great treasure for all the people of Hawai'i, and we need such schools to bring back the language from the brink of extinction. However, it is ludicrous to try to justify them on the grounds that Native Hawaiians need to be taught in Hawaiian language in order to obtain a good basic education. That raises the question: what is a good basic education? The real issue is whether learning Hawaiian language is part of a strategy for creating or re-establishing a voluntarily chosen culture or nation. If the goal is ethnic nationalism or racial separatism, then these schools would be contrary to the public interest of the people of Hawai'i and of the United States. These schools would be anti-democratic, anti-American vehicles for brainwashing children in a fascist ethnocentrist world view.



Honolulu Advertiser, Monday, November 7, 2005

Renaissance waiting to bloom

By Treena Shapiro
Advertiser Education Writer

After a surge of growth in the 1990s, enrollment in Hawaiian language immersion programs at the public schools has leveled off over the past few years, but the Department of Education hopes for more money from the Legislature to boost offerings and attract more students.

It is clear 18 years after they were created that interest in schools that seek to revitalize Hawaiian language and culture hasn't waned. If enrollment is holding steady at 1,400 across 19 DOE immersion sites, it is due in part to competition from five public charter schools offering immersion programs and nine other charter schools teaching with a Hawaiian focus in English. There are about 2,000 students enrolled in Hawaiian-focused charter schools, with 350 of those students in immersion programs.

In addition, many students who start out in immersion programs later transfer to Kamehameha Schools, leaving spots open in the upper grades where it is difficult to enroll students who lack the Hawaiian language background necessary to succeed in the program.

But while the immersion program has taken root, it's not going to truly blossom until such problems as the lack of teaching materials and fluent teachers are addressed, educators say.

To bolster its Ka Papahana Kaiapuni Hawai'i program, the Board of Education is asking the Legislature to increase funding to $4 million from $1.7 million.

The DOE has success stories to justify its request. At Anuenue School, the decade-old kindergarten-through-high-school campus, principal Charles Naumu points out, "by the time our students reach high school ... we're up to or even surpass the test scores of the Roosevelt High School complex and the state."

The school has so far graduated about 50 students, most of whom have gone on to college. Some graduates intend to return to the program as teachers.

Although some argue that immersion programs will hamper students' success when they move into English-only college campuses, that has not proven to be the case.

Anuenue parent and University of Hawai'i Hawaiian language instructor Laiana Wong said a Hawaiian-only education starting from preschool does not create deficiencies in English. "If anything, their English is stronger than their Hawaiian," he said, noting that children will pick up English even if it's not taught formally in the classroom until the fifth grade.

Wong, a father of three, has seen one son graduate from Anuenue and another play for the school's first junior varsity football team. And Wong plans to send his third son to Anuenue after he leaves the Punana Leo immersion preschool program.

He is pleased with the education his children have received the son that graduated is studying Hawaiian studies and language at UH and he is encouraged by the growth the small school has seen.

The JV football team and cheerleading squad have helped to boost morale at the school by offering some of the programs immersion schools have missed because of their small size.

Noting that some of the immersion program graduates are now starting to have families of their own, Wong hopes these children will be the next immersion students.

"We need to encourage the next generation to carry on the work," he said.

The immersion program was created to revitalize the Hawaiian language. While there are a few sites, like Anuenue School, that are complete immersion campuses, in most cases the immersion program is contained within a traditional school.

Currently, the $1.7 million allows for 36 teaching positions at 19 schools. The other 64 positions are funded through the regular DOE budgets, forcing principals who run both Hawaiian-only and traditional programs to choose where to allocate resources.

The increase in funding would allow the immersion program to pay for its own teachers, easing the burden on principals who must make tough choices about whether to keep traditional classes large to teach a smaller number of students in Hawaiian.

"We would probably fund additional positions and have money for curriculum development," said Puanani Wilhelm, who oversees the program for the DOE.

The program is limited in other ways, as well.

Creation of Hawaiian-language teaching materials has fallen through the cracks, since no one is creating them full-time. Even translations of English materials, generally considered inferior to those originally created in Hawaiian, are hard to come by, and don't come close to covering the breadth available to those studying in English.

Money isn't the only issue. There are only about five people fluent enough in Hawaiian to create high-quality textbooks, and they all have full-time jobs doing something else, Wilhelm said. There are no jobs dedicated to Hawaiian immersion curriculum development, she said.

"Making it a job possibility actually starts to encourage people to think about doing that job," she said.

Naumu said a big challenge is finding teachers who not only are able to teach in Hawaiian, but also specialize in intermediate and high school math, science and other core subjects.

That is the case at Kahuku High School and Intermediate, where the three-year-old immersion program is still seeking teachers, principal Lisa DeLong said.

Having teachers trained in these areas is critical under the No Child Left Behind Act, which puts the same academic demands on immersion programs that it does on traditional schools.

Immersion advocates worry that even if students are taught in Hawaiian, the focus on English-based standards is leading to a situation where the students are, in essence, speaking English in Hawaiian, instead of learning the Hawaiian world view the immersion programs seek to instill.

"What we don't want to do is just offer an English curriculum using the Hawaiian language," said UH instructor Wong. "We want the world view to be Hawaiian as well."


In the Department of Education's Hawaiian Language Immersion Program:

The grade when English is introduced as a formal subject: 5

Public school campuses offering the program: 19

Number of students enrolled in the first two Hawaiian Language Immersion Program sites at Waiau Elementary School in Pearl City and Keaukaha Elementary School in Hilo 18 years ago: 35

Teachers in the program: 100

Students currently enrolled in immersion programs at traditional public schools: 1,400. An additional 350 are enrolled in immersion programs at public charter schools.


Honolulu Advertiser, Monday, November 7, 2005

Program trains immersion teachers

By Treena Shapiro

A group of 15 graduate students at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa refuses to be dissuaded by the obstacles facing Hawaiian immersion programs.

They are preparing themselves to become the next generation of educators committed to the preservation of Hawaiian language, culture and values.

Run through the College of Education, the Kupu Na Leo master's program will prepare these students to teach in immersion schools, charter schools and traditional public schools that serve large Native Hawaiian populations. With a strong research component, the program will also prepare students to create much-needed instructional materials.

"We've got to build capacity," said Margaret Maaka, director of the program. "We're preparing the teachers, but there are only a set number of schools."

While the university develops the experts to teach in the schools, she hopes the DOE will build more Hawaiian-only schools to accommodate the teachers and give the program autonomy from traditional public schools.

One of the big needs in the immersion programs is fluent Hawaiian special education and specialized secondary teachers, so that students do not have to have some educational services in English.

Kawika Shizuma wants to teach high school science and is undaunted by the lack of Hawaiian-language teaching materials. "I'm looking forward to developing some science curriculum related to Hawaiian culture," he said.

'Anela Nacapoy plans to meet one of those needs by becoming a speech pathologist.

She said she and the rest of the program's students feel the weight of their responsibilities as the next generation to concentrate on elevating the status of Native Hawaiians in the public schools.

"Our first day in class, (Maaka) told us 'we're not just preparing you for the classroom, we're preparing you for your people,' " Nacapoy said.


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