The Board of Education adopted sweeping changes on Tuesday to two policies governing Hawaiian education and immersion schools, a move that garnered the support of hundreds of advocates who hope the revisions will address many of the issues that have plagued the programs for decades.

The new policies reorient and clarify general Hawaiian education expectations and establish a more concrete structure for the state’s 20 language immersion programs, which currently serve roughly 2,000 children who learn primarily in Hawaiian rather than English.

One of the most substantive amendments is the creation of an Office of Hawaiian Education within the Hawaii Department of Education that will oversee both the immersion schools and the implementation of the new guidelines across the board. Native Hawaiian teachers and school administrators who testified on Tuesday said the office means they’ll finally have Hawaiian-speaking representation on the DOE’s leadership team.

“In many ways a lot of your work has been misunderstood, and I apologize for that,” board Chairman Don Horner told immersion advocates who attended the packed meeting. He added that he hopes immersion enrollment grows from 2,000 students to 20,000.

The new policies, he continued, are designed to ensure all students — immersion or otherwise — are equipped with Hawaiian values and lessons for success throughout life.

“You train the heart, and you train the head,” said Horner, who along with board member Cheryl Lupenui spearheaded the revision process.

While the policies still need a lot of work, the long-awaited changes mark a big step in the right direction, advocates said Tuesday, many of them pointing to a range of grave challenges they’ve been faced with over the years.

One of the most high-profile controversies involved several Hawaiian immersion schools where families have for years boycotted standardized state assessments, arguing they fail to accommodate the learning needs of Hawaiian-language speakers. Consequently, those schools fell to the bottom of the state’s new performance and accountability system last year — even if those schools excelled according to other metrics.

Civil Beat featured two of those schools — including Nawahiokalaniopuu Iki, the immersion movement’s poster child — in its week-long education series last year, “Learning Hilo.”

Meanwhile, teachers say the state has long failed to comply with a decades-old constitutional mandate requiring public schools to promote Hawaiian culture, history and language. Kupuna involved in the DOE’s beleaguered Hawaiian studies program often cited a scathing 2008 state audit calling on the department to improve, clarify and better fund the program — recommendations that they say haven’t been addressed until now.

The changes to Policy 2104, which outlines the DOE’s Hawaiian education obligations, create a framework in which Hawaiian values, language, culture and history are incorporated into every public school student’s learning. The new policy also requires that the department set aside money for these efforts and develop an evaluation system to assess them.

“This is definitely a win-win situation,” said Kealii Gora, who represents Ka Lei Papahi o Kakuhihwa, an organization of Native Hawaiian kupuna and parents who have taught or are teaching in the state’s Hawaiian studies program.

The new version of Policy 2105 solidifies the DOE’s Hawaiian immersion program — or “Ka Papahana Kaiapuni” — calling on the department to develop rigorous standards and lesson plans in conjunction with stakeholders such as the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and the University of Hawaii.

One of the most noteworthy amendments is a stipulation that the DOE develop an assessment that’s aligned with immersion education. This “allows our haumana to be assess based upon what they are actually learning in school,” wrote dozens of parents and teachers in testimony.

The new policy also stipulates that immersion teachers are expected to be qualified in both Hawaiian and English — and, in turn, compensated for this extra expectation.

The revisions to policies 2104 and 2105 are the result of nearly a year of collaboration among board members and experts in Hawaiian language and culture, including more than 40 meetings.

Lupenui, who chairs the board’s Student Achievement Committee and is the only Native Hawaiian board member, stressed on Tuesday that the policies are a work in progress and that she hopes community members and state education officials continue to collaborate and refine the guidelines.

For example, Hawaiian linguist and scholar Pila Wilson, who helped found Nawahiokalaniopuu, said he generally supports the revisions but that the new Policy 2105 still downplays “the true potential of Hawaiian as an official language” and effectively weakens Hawaii’s position as a national leader in indigenous language education.

And Tom Hutton, the executive director of the charter school commission, requested that the board better define how the policies apply to charter schools. Policy 2104, for example, is applicable to all charter schools but doesn’t state how much flexibility will be granted to them. While six charter schools are immersion programs, many others have expressed concern that the new policies could undermine their ability to implement their own Hawaiian education programs.

“What’s most important is that we continue the work we’ve started so far and put them (the policies) into practice for generations to come,” Lupenui said.

Slideshow: Photos of Civil Beat’s visit to Nawahiokalaniopuu. (Photos by PF Bentley)

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