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After more than 20 years, Hawaiian immersion programs continue to keep the language alive.


This summer, students at Anuenue Hawaiian immersion school in Palolo
celebrated the Makahiki season.

Photo: Gina Finkelstein

In 1987, teacher Alohalani Housman helped launch one of the first Hawaiian immersion classes in the state at Waiau Elementary in Pearl City. “We were lucky to have 30 books in Hawaiian,” she says. “At the time, you couldn’t just order books [in Hawaiian] on the Internet. They had to be written or translated from English titles.”

The Hawaiian language began to decline after the 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy. The language went into hiding until the Hawaiian renaissance of the 1970s, when Hawaiians began to resurrect the language and culture. The Hawaiian immersion program, led by a grassroots organization known as Aha Punana Leo, was part of that movement.

Report Card

How do immersion school students perform on standardized tests compared with their traditional Department of Education counterparts?

In the most recently available Hawaii State Assessment, the test that determines how schools fare under the federal No Child Left Behind act, 58 percent of immersion students achieved proficiency in reading, compared with 60 percent systemwide. In math, 31 percent were proficient, compared with 39 percent systemwide.


Why the gap?

The picture is incomplete. Numbers weren’t available for immersion students in schools attended by both immersion and non-immersion students. Still more immersion schools were too small for their test results to be released. As a result, these numbers account for about half of immersion students statewide.

It’s been more than 20 years since the first Hawaiian immersion class was created. This year, the program celebrated an important milestone—its 10th graduating class of students, educated entirely in Hawaiian. How is the movement doing today?

Hawaiian immersion programs have overcome many obstacles, namely a lack of resources and public misperceptions, says Housman. At first, “people said that we were harming the kids, that they wouldn’t learn English,” she says.

There are now 33 Hawaiian immersion sites statewide, from programs within mainstream public schools to charter schools teaching only in Hawaiian. About 1,800 K-12 students attend immersion programs, 500 more than a decade ago. The program’s 10th graduating class had 66 students, compared with 11 in the first graduating class in 1999. 

The immersion program’s biggest strength is parental involvement, Housman says. In the early days, before Hawaiian textbooks became available, parents participated in Oki a Kapili days, when they literally had to cut and paste Hawaiian translations into English books. Today, Housman is an assistant professor of Hawaiian language at the University of Hawaii Hilo, where she’s in charge of a literary project for K-3 students. “There’s collaboration now with organizations that want to help us,” she says. “There are original books being published for the classrooms, and there’s lots of professional development.”

Housman’s daughter, Kaui Lauano, is an immersion program graduate who just completed a Hawaiian language teacher-training program. There’s still much more work to be done, she says. Performing arts is her passion, and she’d like to see the subject added to the program’s curriculum. “It’s important that we expand our immersion programs so that we incorporate other ways of learning and other aspects of the world,” she says.

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Honolulu Magazine March 2020
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