A 1978 amendment to the state constitution mandated that Hawaii’s public schools teach Hawaiian education. Thirty-nine years later, the state’s Department of Education still struggles to offer Hawaiian education programs to the vast majority of public school students.

While instruction in Hawaiian language and culture flourishes in the state’s 17 Hawaiian immersion programs and 11 Hawaiian-focused charter schools, the programs serve fewer than 4 percent of the almost 180,000 students enrolled in Hawaii’s public schools this year.

What about everybody else?

The DOE’s latest effort encourages schools and the communities they serve to come up with their own approaches.

Malama Honua Charter School hula. 22 dec 2016
Students at Malama Honua, a Hawaiian-focused charter school in Waimanalo, start their morning with a hula lesson. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The Board of Education’s E-3 policy, also called Na Hopena A’o, outlines six values that both students and DOE employees should aspire to. The policy links local community organizations with public schools in an effort to infuse Hawaiian education and community service programs into public school curriculum.

“It’s founded on Hawaiian perspective,” says Dawn Kaui Sang, director of the Office of Hawaiian Education. “If everyone had access to that, then we could say that Hawaiian education is having an impact on every student and every staff member of the department.”

When Sang became the office’s first-ever director, she foresaw “revolutionary” change in the state’s public school system, especially in relation to how the system addresses Hawaiian education.

The Na Hopena A’o policy is a step in that direction.

Last year, Sang’s office began implementing a three-year pilot of the policy. Her office received a grant for almost $200,000 from the Center for Innovation in Education and Next Generation Learning Challenges to study its effects.

In February, 20 schools grouped into 16 regional teams made presentations on how they have chosen to implement the policy in public forums throughout the state.

The gatherings, called “HA Community Days,” took place at schools, beach park pavilions and local farms and fishponds.

The Office of Education is scheduled to give an update on Na Hopena A’o and other policies related to Hawaiian education at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday at the BOE meeting.

Working From the Ground Up

Part of what makes the policy unique is the way it’s implemented. Rather than a departmental mandate, teachers, students, administrators and community groups gather to choose how and when they will implement Na Hopena A’o.

It’s a from-the-ground-up effort in a department long criticized for being too top-down.

The policy starts with an online application that offers an open door to people inside and outside of the DOE system. Through the application, anyone can request the Office of Hawaiian Education do a presentation on the E-3 policy.

Jessica Worchel, the special projects manager for Na Hopena A’o, hosts public presentations to review and interpret the policy with school staff, students and community members.

Following an initial presentation with Kalihi Waena Elementary, Worchel took a group of administrators to Ho’oulu Aina, a 100-acre native plant restoration site and Hawaiian cultural center in the back of Kalihi Valley.

This is not a training where you sit in and you’re passively taking in information,” Worchel said. “It’s a constant engagement process.”

After the initial presentation, Worchel checks in with the schools to review their progress on implementing the policy.

Administrators and teachers at Kalihi Waena Elementary decided to take groups of students on weekly trips to the work and learn at Ho’oulu Aina.

Each regional team participating in the HA Community Days has partnered with one or more community organizations, from community colleges to nearby taro farms.

Creating A ‘More Flexible System’

Traditional Hawaiian education programs in public schools have fallen short of fulfilling the constitutional mandate.

The Kupuna Component program, originally created in response to the constitutional mandate employs kupuna, or elders, part-time to teach Hawaiian studies in elementary school classrooms.

The program came under fire in 2008 when a state auditor’s report said it lacked oversight and means for measuring success. These problems, according to the report, were “decades old and persistent.”

Five years later, kupuna spoke out at a School Board meeting, arguing the DOE’s efforts to remedy the program still didn’t satisfy the constitutional mandate.

Today, about 80 percent of public elementary schools offer the Kupuna program, according to Sang.

Newly appointed DOE Hawaiian Language head Dr. Dawn Sang. 28 june 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Sang, seen here at Board of Education meeting in 2015 , started her career as a teacher in a Hawaiian immersion school. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Rather than implement a program uniform to all schools, the Na Hopena A’o policy allows each school to utilize nearby resources.

“The fact that we’re not mandating this, and that we’re actually allowing those who are ready to come to it, is highly successful,” Worchel said. “When we walk in one of the first things we say is that we’re here to share, we’re not here to prescribe.”

Programs arising from the policy take learning outside of the classroom context, an aspect Sang stressed as important.

That makes the Na Hopena A’o programs different than other Hawaiian education programs offered in the state’s public schools, including the Kupuna program, the Hawaiian history lessons in fourth, seventh and ninth grade classrooms, or the  Hawaiian language elective offered to high school students.

The goal of the policy is not to add more Hawaiian-related lesson plans in classrooms, Sang said.

Instead, she said, it makes the DOE a “more flexible system,” capable of embracing the efforts of local Hawaiian education advocates.

It’s been one year since she began implementing the policy, and Worchel said pilot programs are starting to pop up in schools and community organizations across the state, many of which were showcased at HA Community days.

To expand the reach of Na Hopena A’o, the DOE is requesting $561,362 from the Legislature over the next two fiscal years to fund three more positions at the Office of Hawaiian Education.

About the Author