Dawn Kaui Sang had no idea what she was getting herself into the first time she stood in front of a class of kindergarten students and started speaking to them in Hawaiian.

Sang had gone back to college at the age of 24 determined to work in one of the state’s fledgling Hawaiian language immersion programs after watching her nephews enter a lottery for admission. If Hawaiian immersion was available to some, she thought, it should be available to all.

After graduating from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, her own Hawaiian was still rough around the edges. The elementary school she was assigned to in her late 20s had little prepared curriculum for her to work with. Worst of all, Sang quickly realized that she didn’t really understand what Hawaiian immersion was about.

I had assumed that Hawaiian language immersion education was just mainstream education in Hawaiian,” Sang said. “That’s not what it was at all.”

Instead, she said, it’s about helping students to think about classroom content in a way that reflects Hawaiian culture.

Kaui Sang. 18 aug 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Dawn Kaui Sang is the first director of the Office of Hawaiian Education.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Not only do many Hawaiian words have multiple meanings, but there are cultural values embedded in the language, Sang said. The work of Hawaiian immersion, then, is to develop the right framework of language through which to view subject matter from a different perspective.

Transforming her understanding of Hawaiian language immersion — one of several ways the Department of Education meets a state constitutional mandate to teach Hawaiian language and culture in public schools — was the first step in a journey that would lead to her becoming the highest-ranking administrator for K-12 Hawaiian education.

As the first-ever director of the Office of Hawaiian Education, Sang is tasked with carving a path forward for the state’s 21 Hawaiian immersion programs, and improving the quality and availability of Hawaiian language, history and cultural classes for all students in the state.

It’s a tough task.

In some ways, the Hawaiian education movement is poised to flourish like never before. Sang’s appointment earlier this summer is a sign of the value the Board of Education is placing on Hawaiian education.

Sang is tasked with carving a path forward for the state’s 21 Hawaiian immersion programs, and improving the quality and availability of Hawaiian language, history and cultural classes for all students in the state.

But Hawaiian language and cultural programs are still facing a slew of problems in public schools — from limited funding to a shortage of Hawaiian language teachers and an often uneasy relationship between Native Hawaiian education activists and the DOE.  

The biggest challenge might be changing public perceptions surrounding Hawaiian education programs, and better articulating what Hawaiian immersion is, what it isn’t, and why it’s important.

If she can do that, Sang says, the results could be monumental — not just for Hawaii but educational communities around the world.

“The Department of Education has really been sort of designed to just deliver one kind of education based on a monocultural view of the world,” Sang said. “To take this bold step forward to say, ‘Let’s start to lift up something different,’ the potential for it to start to transform the way our public education (system) does education is revolutionary. It’s absolutely revolutionary.”

A Constitutional Mandate

Hawaii’s first public Hawaiian language immersion school opened in 1986, eight years after the the passage of a constitutional amendment making Hawaiian an official state language.

Hawaiian was on the verge of becoming an extinct language — in large part because of an 1896 law that mandated public and private school instruction be conducted in English. The law allowed for other languages to be taught at school, but was used as a tool to effectively eliminate the speaking of Hawaiian on many campuses.

Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to the 1896 law as a ban on speaking the Hawaiian language in schools.

But the constitutional changes in 1978 mandated that the DOE teach Hawaiian culture, language and history in public schools.

“We have a legal obligation to make sure we are perpetuating the language,” Rep. Roy Takumi says. “And perpetuating the language of course means perpetuating the culture because language is culture.”

All public school students in Hawaii are now supposed to receive Hawaiian cultural lessons in elementary school, along with Hawaiian history in fourth, seventh and ninth grades. The department also offers electives for grades seven through 12 in Hawaiian language, dance and Hawaiian Studies (a subject that examines the economic, cultural and political history of Hawaii.)

Newly appointed DOE Hawaiian Language head Dr. Dawn Sang.  28 june 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Sang at a Board of Education meeting earlier this year.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The most intensive instruction is in the DOE’s Hawaiian immersion programs in 15 schools, where students are taught exclusively in Hawaiian until fifth grade, when they begin to get some additional instruction in English. 

When it comes to Hawaiian education though, much of the public focus in recent years has been on the work of charter schools. There are currently 17 charter schools with curriculums and missions centered around Hawaiian culture, including six language immersion charter schools.

That’s in part because of the autonomy the charter schools have, which allows them to move more quickly in implementing innovative programs and allocating resources as they see fit. It’s also because the DOE’s implementation of Hawaiian programs has been spotty at best.

The DOE is currently being sued by a parent on Lanai because the island lacks an immersion program for her children, who exclusively spoke Hawaiian until they entered public school.

A 2008 state audit of the DOE’s Hawaiian Studies Program slammed the department for lax oversight, financial mismanagement, a lack of clear outcomes or goals, and “longstanding stakeholder dissatisfaction.”

“We have a legal obligation to make sure we are perpetuating the language. And perpetuating the language of course means perpetuating the culture because language is culture.” — Rep. Roy Takumi

Five years after the audit, a group of kupuna — community elders that all elementary schools are supposed to employ to teach Hawaiian cultural practices — told the Board of Education that the DOE had failed to make any real improvements.

“What exists now is at best piecemeal,” kupuna Alma Cirino said in her testimony. “This is not pono in carrying out the constitutional mandate.”

The BOE has been trying to remedy that in recent years by revising its Hawaiian education policies, and creating an Office of Hawaiian Education in 2014.

Because the director of the Office of Hawaiian Education is the highest position ever created in the DOE to oversee Hawaiian programs, the expectations for Sang are high.

Guided by Early Lessons

When Sang thinks about the responsibilities of her new position, she thinks about a lesson from childhood.

Both of Sang’s parents were leaders in Hawaiian homestead communities — land leased to Native Hawaiians through a government program — and they imparted a strong sense of values and a commitment to public service. But it was Sang’s mother who taught her the importance of never starting something unless she was prepared to finish it.

One of the biggest defining factors of who I am as Dawn Kaui Sang comes from my mother, and the sense of kinaole,” Sang said. “Trying to make sure if you are going to take on a task, you are going to make sure you take it on the right way in the first place.”

Sang, who was born in Honolulu and raised in Waimanalo, spent her first year as a teacher in a special education classroom before transferring to Ke Kula Kaiapuni ‘O Anuenue in Palolo as a kindergarten teacher in an immersion classroom.

One big task will be establishing better goals and expectations for the Hawaiian educational programming that all students in the state are supposed to receive.

It was in her first year in Palolo that a professor from UH challenged her assumptions of what Hawaiian immersion was, and then worked with her to explore what it might become.

Sang went on to become a resource teacher, and then an education specialist in the state DOE office, working on curriculum and student support for Hawaiian programs. Too often though, Sang felt Hawaiian education programs were having to justify themselves as fulfilling a constitutional mandate, as opposed to existing because they provided a rigorous education.

I couldn’t pop my head up long enough to see what the landscape looked like before it got chopped off,” Sang said.

Part of the problem, Sang felt, was traced back to the common perception that Hawaiian immersion was a translation of mainstream programming.

“I felt like there needed to be some foundational work that needed to happen,” Sang said, “to make space for what I had learned Hawaiian language immersion education to be.”

In 2011, Sang started working with an advisory council of stakeholders to create a new document defining Hawaiian language immersion within the DOE. Once that was done, she moved on to helping re-craft BOE policies overseeing Hawaiian education — including one that says all education in the state should be guided by principles grounded in traditional Hawaiian belief systems.

Dawn Kaui Sang, the new director of the Office of Hawaiian Education speaks at a conference on native Hawaiian education. 21 july 2015.

Sang speaks at the Native Hawaiian Education Summit last month.

Jessica Terrell/Civil Beat

Kalehua Krug, a professor of Hawaiian at UH, credits Sang with helping to push the DOE to get a federal waiver allowing the state to pilot high stakes tests in the Hawaiian language for third- and fourth-grade immersion students.

In the last several years, Sang says a big part of her task has been trying to figure out how to bring the Native Hawaiian education community closer to the DOE to create a stronger partnership instead of an “antagonistic friendship.”

Part of that work, Krug said, has translated into a more collaborative decision-making process that takes some of the power away from the DOE and gives it to the community.

“What she is actually trying to do is take those beliefs and perspectives she was raised with and bring them out to education,” Krug said.

Sang is confident she can take on the office with kinaole like her mother taught her because she won’t be doing it alone.

“I don’t feel like a leader that sort of sits in a higher space than anyone else,” Sang said.  “I feel like I sit at the table with everybody, and everything that we do is going to be directed by community.”

Moving Hawaiian Education Forward

Sang’s first step is to create a strategic plan for the office, a process that she hopes will be completed by December. The DOE is hiring an outside firm to help, through a funding partnership with Kamehameha Schools.

The strategic plan will dive into the three BOE policies guiding Hawaiian education, and lay out an implementation plan and timeline for moving forward with new and strengthened programs.

From Sang’s years of working in Hawaiian education, she already has a sense of what the Native Hawaiian community wants and needs moving forward.

“It’s not just a Hawaiian issue, it’s an innovation issue.” — Kalehua Krug, UH professor

One big task will be establishing better goals and expectations for the Hawaiian educational programming that all students in the state are supposed to receive.

That will likely mean getting a clear understanding of what every school in the state is teaching for Hawaiian education, Takumi said.

“I suspect there are varying degrees of implementation,” he said.

Other needs are more specific to immersion, such as addressing teacher shortages, developing more curriculum, and creating state tests in Hawaiian for more grades.

The bigger goal, though, is an education system with multiple pathways and world views, where all students are provided with the opportunity to graduate biliterate, bilingual and bicultural.

But first, Sang’s job will be spreading the gospel of Hawaiian language and cultural education to the public.

Hawaiian language education has been viewed in the past as a “second class” issue, DOE Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi said last month at the Native Hawaiian Education Summit. Changing that will involve creating Hawaiian education lessons and programs so engaging that students go home eager to share what they learned with their parents, she said.

The creation of the position and Sang’s hiring represent early steps toward building that, Krug said.

“It’s not just a Hawaiian issue, it’s an innovation issue,” Krug said. “We have to have different systems, and acknowledge different styles of learning. Because without acknowledging that, we are not going to go anywhere.”


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