How Hawaiian Immersion Programs Are Inspiring Public School Students

Learning centers and Hawaiian language immersion are among the programs that show that Hawai‘i public schools reach far beyond test scores and letter grades.
Class Acts


On a late Tuesday afternoon, Alysia Kepa‘a and her friends gather in Nānākuli High and Intermediate School’s cafeteria, waiting to practice for an upcoming show.


Some sing and dance to songs blasting from their phones. Others try to finish their homework. Sprinkled throughout the cafeteria are subtle signs that the building isn’t just a place to eat: a winding staircase and balcony scenery shoved into a corner; professional lighting mounted on the ceiling; a thick black curtain, drawn.


At 3:45 p.m., teacher Robin Kitsu raises his hands to his mouth and shouts over the laughter, singing and loud music. “On stage!” The 30 kids, fourth- to 12th-graders, rush to the front—some race up the stairs on the side of the stage while others jump up to sit on the edge, their legs dangling off the front. Older kids mix freely with their pack of younger siblings, as they describe them, as they all listen intently to Kitsu, who’s prepping them for their next performance.


Students enrolled in Nānākuli High and Intermediate’s performing arts learning center practice for an upcoming show.


Minutes later, the talk is over and rehearsal begins. Kitsu turns up the music ringing through the speaker system and kids run to their spots, get set and then burst into an enthusiastic rendition of Panic! At the Disco’s popular song, “High Hopes.”


“Once you step into the program, it’s like your second family,” says Kepa‘a, a junior who joined the performing arts program in fourth grade. “It’s just open arms walking in.”


The school’s performing arts learning center is one of 29 centers statewide that focus on a specific area such as business, technology and the arts. While relatively different in nature, specialized programs, like learning centers and Hawaiian language immersion, are ways schools offer more meaningful, deeply anchored curriculum and lessons.


Teaching through Hawaiian

Students and teacher
First-grade Hawaiian immersion teacher Kamalei Ontai with her students after a hula performance.


Across the island on a rainy Tuesday morning in December at Pū‘ōhala Elementary School in Kāne‘ohe, students frantically run to their classrooms while a group of about 150 kids waits patiently on the lawn. Colorful backpacks and lunchboxes line the walkway as a few other kids set their belongings down and join the group.


The tardy bell rings and moments later the students, lined up in rows with the smallest in the front and the tallest rounding out the back, stand up straight and begin an oli (chant), asking for permission to enter their classrooms. Their teachers respond with another oli.


When they finish, kindergarten teacher Dukie Akioka steps in front of the group with his ‘ukulele, and they start singing a few Christmas songs in Hawaiian. While singing “Feliz Navidad,” one of the staff jokes, “We’ve got three languages!” as the kids transition from English to Spanish to Hawaiian. One of the girls is in her own world, dancing and making up her own choreography as she sings along.


The students are enrolled in the school’s Hawaiian language immersion program, one of several established by the state Department of Education beginning in 1987. The program, called Kaiapuni, was created to revive the Hawaiian language, banned in 1896. Since it started, 23 public schools (including six charters) have established Hawaiian immersion programs.


Students are instructed in Hawaiian until fifth grade, when English is introduced as an academic subject. They take the same core classes as the nonimmersion side, but the approach is usually different. The program revolves around the idea that learning the language helps students connect with their heritage and build a stronger identity.


“We don’t teach Hawaiian. We teach through Hawaiian,” says Ānuenue School Principal Babā Yim. The Pālolo campus is the only public K-12 school on O‘ahu that boasts a full-fledged Hawaiian immersion program, with all 455 students taught in Hawaiian.


Hawaiian immersion students perform at a school fundraiser for the program.


Immersion programs are not English curriculum directly translated into Hawaiian, Yim says. Lessons reflect a different worldview that stems from traditional Hawaiian teachings and values.


At Ānuenue, students visit the Royal Mausoleum at Mauna ‘Ala every year near the date of the monarchy’s overthrow to learn about Hawaiian history. They explore the deeper meanings of the language through hula and oli.


“It’s an alternate path of education to give kids an experience in their native language of this place,” Yim says. “Hawaiian culture and Hawaiian language are inseparable. You should not and cannot teach one without the other.”


That idea is shared at Waiau Elementary, which boasts an immersion program of 120 students (about one-fourth of the enrollment). Waiau offers both Hawaiian immersion and nonimmersion curriculum.


During a lesson about the solar system, a second-grade immersion teacher uses vocabulary from ancient Hawaiian navigators instead of terms translated from English. Aulia Austin, Waiau’s curriculum coordinator, says that’s “a way of using a science curriculum with a Hawaiian frame.”


Fourth-graders learn about their genealogy by describing and drawing their ‘aumakua (ancestral spirit). And fifth- and sixth-graders track their progress on a chart with a picture of a mountain labeled with Hawaiian terms for the different sections of land.


Not all of the immersion students are Hawaiian. “Your understanding of your identity and how you have an impact on your community and the world, I don’t think that has to do with your blood quantum or biology,” Austin says. “We’re not just learning ABCs and 1, 2, 3s. We are re-establishing our identity through an educational setting.”


Learning through a different lens

Moanalua High
Moanalua High MeneMAC students film an interview for a class project.


At Moanalua High, students enrolled in the school’s videography and filmmaking learning center, called MeneMAC, learn core subjects through a digital media lens.


Austin Zavala, who teaches MeneMAC English classes, finds ways to add digital media to language arts: Assignments are done on websites. Essays are written as blog posts and then translated into posters designed by students. Final projects are film and video packages that are shot and edited by students, who interview community members.


“I’ve only had a handful of them actually go into the field and work in media-related jobs,” he says. “But what they learn the most is how to converse with adults, how to carry themselves in public and just really good habits that will set them up for success later.”


Learning centers, as part of a DOE initiative that began in 1984, give students opportunities to explore their interests through specialized programs at some high schools. Centers focus on STEM, business, performing arts or agriculture/natural resources and are funded by the DOE, which pays for equipment and other resources. Many also offer additional after-school programs open to students from nearby schools.


Leilehua Highschool
Leilehua High agriculture students test the ammonia levels of their aquaponics systems.


At Leilehua High, the nearly 200 students enrolled in the agriculture learning center learn math and science through the development of aquaponics and hydroponics systems. They learn the names of chemicals and how to test for them, and even conduct health screenings on animals.


Students grow carrots, kale, bok choy, corn, bananas and more. Jackie Akuna, the center’s longtime coordinator, jokes, “Whatever you can think of, we grow here.” They also sell produce to the community and, by doing so, learn about money management. They sold 700 pumpkins and attracted more than 950 people to last year’s fall fair.


In Akuna’s aquaponics class, students trickle in, some later than others, while she takes attendance. She writes the agenda for the day on a whiteboard and passes out worksheets. Students then head outside to take measurements of ammonia, pH, nitrate and nitrite from their aquaponics systems. Some try to figure out what went wrong and how they can fix it. A group tells Akuna that because their ammonia is too high, they need to add more water.


“When they come in the beginning of the school year, the greenhouse is empty,” says Akuna, a graduate of Leilehua’s agriculture program. “They walk in, and they have to create it every year.”


Leilehua High
Students fertilize their hydroponics crops.


Growing pains

Nānākuli High and Intermediate’s performing arts center is much more than academics, too. Kids from other Leeward Coast schools work together to put on shows that mirror the professional theater process.


They meet every day after school and on Saturdays to rehearse for their productions (they hold at least three major shows a year). Some shows attract about 50 people, but others, like their recent production of Shrek, filled the Pearl City Cultural Center with more than 150 people per show. Students help to make and design everything, from costumes to props and backdrops. The group has won numerous awards and has traveled to the Mainland and abroad, a first for several students.


“It’s using the performing arts as a way for them to develop confidence, work skills and help them to get into college,” says Kitsu, who started the program about 30 years ago. “It’s just having a safe place after school where they’re accepted, comfortable and [can] be themselves.”


“We’ve graduated a whole generation of Native Hawaiian speakers. We want to build that foundation so these children will take the language and what they learned and pursue greater things.” — Kanoe Kealoha, Pū‘ōhala Elementary immersion teacher


Kitsu points out that funding from the DOE covers about 30 percent of the $30,000 it takes to run the school’s performing arts program, with the remainder coming from donations and fundraisers. It can be a challenge, especially when the group wants to travel. In 2011, the group put on a record 55 shows to raise money for a trip to Scotland.


Still, the Nānākuli students say they are fortunate to have the program. Other schools’ plans to start learning centers are stalled for lack of DOE funding. Several high schools with learning centers land in the upper half of the Grading the Public Schools chart.


Anna Viggiano, the DOE’s learning center coordinator, says there’s only enough allotted money to pay for 29 centers. Each is evaluated annually through surveys by parents, students, teachers, administrators and community members. If a center gets a C two years in a row, its learning center status is dropped. The only way for a school to get a new center is if an existing one fails to meet standards.


Pushing the system

State rankings and test scores don’t always reflect well on Hawaiian language immersion schools, which rank all over the chart, including several near the bottom. But the numbers don’t tell the whole story—at least not yet.


Over the past few years, the DOE, in partnership with UH and other stakeholders, developed Hawaiian standardized tests for third- and fourth-grade language arts, math and science that were aligned more with standards for immersion schools, a pivotal move led by the DOE’s Office of Hawaiian Education. Prior to that, students took an English-based version of the test that was translated into Hawaiian. The department also had an option where immersion students were double tested in both English and Hawaiian. The DOE is in the process of developing Hawaiian versions of the tests for upper grades.


Another challenge? Finding enough Hawaiian textbooks for all grades. That means teachers are constantly translating and creating their own materials.


Access and transportation are also barriers, especially for families whose neighborhood schools don’t offer Hawaiian immersion. Some families drive across the island to get to school.


And then there are the stereotypes associated with Hawaiian immersion—that students are at a disadvantage or the program is easy.


Kamuela Yim, a resource teacher in the Office of Hawaiian Education, points out that the merits of bilingualism seem to be questioned only in the U.S., although there are many studies that prove it’s an asset. They have found that immersion students tend to catch up with their non-immersion classmates beginning in eighth grade, says Kalehua Krug, the office’s education specialist.


But there are other positive strides that point to progress in Hawaiian immersion.


Although many teachers and staff still create their own curriculum, they know the materials well and can include their backgrounds and teachings.


And interest appears to be growing. The Office of Hawaiian Education is looking to expand online classes to upper grades so students statewide can continue their language studies. Pū‘ōhala Elementary created a seventh-grade immersion program in 2017 and is on track to add eighth grade next school year. School officials have also been working with nearby Castle High to establish Hawaiian immersion there by the time the first class of eighth-graders moves up. Principal Makala Pa‘akaula says the school’s program has grown from 25 percent of the student population five years ago to more than half this school year. That’s about 150 students and eight teachers.


“You can find pockets of weakness, but that’s what they are, pockets of weakness. You will find that in any program and at any school,” she says. “Sometimes we have to push the system and not wait for it.”


Learning hula
Pū‘ōhala Elementary students learn hula as part of the school’s Hawaiian immersion program.


Pursuing greater things

Many students find that lessons learned from Hawaiian immersion and learning centers go beyond the classroom. Both programs must continue building on that for future generations.


Ka‘ano‘i Walk, whose three kids attend Pū‘ōhala’s immersion program, decided early on that it would be a “deal breaker” if his future wife wasn’t on board to sending their kids to immersion. He says immersion set the foundation for his journey through school and beyond.


Akuna, Leilehua’s agriculture learning center coordinator, fell in love with the program as a student and returned to run it. Other alumni, including Zavala of Moanalua High, say these specialty programs helped to shape them.


“We’ve graduated a whole generation of Native Hawaiian speakers,” says Kanoe Kealoha, a Pū‘ōhala immersion teacher. “We want to build that foundation so these children will take the language and what they learned and pursue greater things.”


Read more stories by Jayna Omaye