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The Struggle for Hawaiian Education

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The movement for Hawaiian education is agitating for Native Hawaiian self-determination, for the Hawaiian language to be allowed in public schools and for the creation of independent schools based on philosophies and politics of Hawaiian culture, land and resilience.

The Struggle for Hawaiian Education 1

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Native Hawaiians have been fighting for their education since the colonization of Hawai’i in the late 1800s, though the current wave of education activism sparked in the 1980s, when Hawaiian activists successfully overturned the violent, racist, Department of Education ban of Hawaiian language in public schools.

Beyond the demand to allow Hawaiian language in public schools, Hawaiian community members and educators have rejected the Western assimilation model of education, creating independent schools based on philosophies and politics of Hawaiian culture, land and resilience, such as the first Pūnana Leo schools in 1984. Today, the movement for Hawaiian education is complex and diverse, with a shared goal of self-determination for Native Hawaiian students and their communities.

Kuuleianuhea Awo-Chun, an educator, activist and single mother from Ko’olaupoko, O’ahu, speaks about her experience in the Hawaiian education movement.

I knew I wanted to be an educator from a very young age. I can remember playing “school” in the backyard of my tutu’s house in Waimanalo, and having my cousins be my students. I would have a grade book and take attendance, and we would do cooking lessons (making “tacos” with leaves and rocks) and science lessons to determine the “best potions to clean the garage” (which mainly worked because the key ingredient in all the potions was water).

As I got older, around high school, I started to sense an injustice in the public school system. What I saw were my extremely talented and intelligent family members in special education classes that were not honoring or acknowledging their true ability. I was also noticing that all around me, in these “gifted-and-talented” classes, there was only one or two Native Hawaiian students with me.

I then did my teaching internship at Olomana Youth Center; I was working with mostly Native Hawaiian or Polynesian students who had so much going on in their external lives that school was sometimes difficult to prioritize. Many were dealing with issues such as drug addiction, extreme poverty, abuse and violence in their household or as perpetrators themselves, incarceration, teen pregnancy or pretty much any other social issue you can think of, wrapped up in their very young lives. I truly understood, at that point, how important it would be to get my people out of that cycle, through education.

I eventually ended up at Halau Ku Mana, another Hawaiian charter school in Makiki, where I feel I have been able to impact change and progress in terms of education for students that is relevant, culturally grounded, and community- and place-based. Through my work at Halau Ku Mana, I’m able to learn alongside the students and develop and grow as a practitioner myself. In particular, I’ve been able to learn about wayfinding and sailing on Kanehunamoku (a Hawaiian double-hulled coastal sailing canoe), through both modern and traditional lenses, and integrate that into our actual curriculum.

As a movement, I feel like we have increased participation and attendance in both school and community activities, and achieved more positive statistics in attendance compared to their traditional school counterparts, and significantly higher percentages in parent and student satisfaction data. In the end, though, the real rewards cannot be measured yet. If we are truly affecting change, we won’t know for generations. When we have impacted generational change, that is when we have met our goal.

Hawaiian education is not necessarily for Native Hawaiians exclusively. At its core, it is based on a particular set of values and beliefs from a specific culture, but the method, content and takeaways are actually globally relevant. It’s about education reform to undo oppressive colonial rhetoric. It’s about building strong leadership that will participate civically, politically and socially in ways that are pono (righteous). It’s about sustainability and kuleana (one’s sense of responsibility) to family and community. One challenge we face is constantly trying to justify our existence, and prove that what we are doing is valuable and worth doing.

The challenge of public perception and perceived value is exacerbated when schools end up closing or not doing well and the media then exploits those examples. But when Hawaiian-focused schools are successful, where is the media? When our students participate in national and international forums, where is the coverage? Further, when public or Department of Education schools fall short, where is the investigative journalism?

As teachers in this movement, we are activists. To choose this line of work is a choice to resist and respond. What we need to do is hone our craft and do this work so well that we can no longer be marginalized and denied. We are educating the next generation of activists. That is how we resist and respond. We grow the movement exponentially.

Luanna Peterson, an educator and curriculum developer for Hawaiian charter schools, shares her thought and experiences in the movement.

I became involved in Hawaiian education when I enrolled my son in a Hawaiian immersion preschool called Pūnana Leo back in 2008. The founders of this statewide preschool spearheaded a movement to preserve and perpetuate the Hawaiian language (which was at the verge of extinction) and culture through the education of preschool-aged children. I felt it was only natural that my son would be educated within a framework of Hawaiian epistemology. I wanted him to understand the world through the lens of the native language of this land. Though I am not of Hawaiian descent, I can relate to the desire to return home. Essentially, that is what we all want … to return to the source, to the me that is me before the forced removal, back to the beginning. The story of colonization and displacement, of reclamation and justice, is one that is familiar to me.

A formidable challenge is inequitable school funding. Charter schools receive 33.9 percent less than what the traditional public schools would have received for those students and they have to pay for facilities on top of it. Another huge challenge is the need to recreate educational tools and resources in the same workday as running a school, teaching, counseling and tending to the everyday challenges. Hawaiian charter schools are not using textbooks out of Texas. Why would they? Teachers have to recreate (maybe more apt to reclaim) content, translate content, and provide out-of-the-colonized-box opportunities for students with very little time to do so.

Every school I have worked with is unique, and so I am sure their philosophies differ from school to school. At the core, though, it seems that all are committed to curriculum and teaching practices that promote and facilitate relevant and place-based teaching and learning for students, that integrate culture, community and the natural environment. Halau Ku Mana’s mission is to cultivate agents of change for the ‘aina (land), ‘ohana (family) and communities. Kanuikapono’s mission is to nurture lifelong learners able to embrace the world of our ancestors and the 21st century, skilled and community minded with aloha and respect for self, family and the environment. Essentially, Hawaiian education is relevant education.

Examples of culturally relevant curriculum include lessons whose guiding light are not abstract standards and bits of digestible information. If students are to learn about science and math concepts such as rate, density, volume or astronomy, why not learn that on their traditional voyaging canoe where these seemingly disconnected and formerly snooze-worthy subjects can come alive, come together and make sense? We should know what allows a canoe to float, why the stars are essentially a compass that allowed Hawaiians to navigate more distance on earth than any other navigating peoples – ever. Why not understand the nitrogen cycle in context with the ahupua’a land system and the intricate ways in which the watershed was cared for from mountain to sea?

A lot of the schools are connected to other social movements. I have been present when visiting tribes from all over the world came to visit Hawaiian charter schools. Tears have run down my face, and my whole body covered in goose bumps (or chicken skin as we say here) as Maori youth proudly shared the chants of their ancestors with students at Halau Ku Mana. Just a few months ago, a group of intertribal youth from the Bay visited schools on O’ahu. They sang together, ate together, made art together and joined hands for a movement that is bigger than just one school or one teaching philosophy. Not only are they working in solidarity with peoples from around the world who are also working toward self-determination, especially as it relates to education, but on the local front, they are involved with many movements from their own efforts to stand up against legislation that affects Hawaiian education to land-based movements centered around GMO, water rights and the protection of the sacred Mauna Kea. At the forefront of these movements are the youth. Instilling a sense of community and responsibility to serve one’s community is a priority for all of the schools I have worked with. Because the teaching is grounded in cultural relevancy and a sense of place, students know where they come from, they understand the value of their land, home, family and community, and so understand the importance of their involvement and the necessity of their responsibility to self, family and the land.

I will leave this here. I should note that everything shared here is based on my experience. I don’t, I can’t speak for all schools; I can’t speak for any movement. I only speak from my limited and ever-evolving understanding of my role in my community, which is to be a part of a transformative learning experience, to promote education as a practice of freedom.

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