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Anuenue, a K-12 Hawaiian immersion school located deep in Oahu’s Palolo Valley, found itself in a bit of a bind this year: it had to cap its kindergarten enrollment, when it had already converted its library into two additional classrooms last year due to a need for space.
“We turned away some families. It’s the first time we ever had to do that,” Principal Christopher Yim said.
Enrollment in Hawaiian immersion schools, also known as Kaiapuni schools by the Hawaii Department of Education, has been steadily growing over the last couple of decades.
But the recent spike at Anuenue dovetails with a defining moment in modern-day Hawaii history: an ongoing protest movement over planned construction of the $1.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea, which has become a symbol for Native Hawaiian identity and the protection of lands believed to be sacred by many in the community.
In fact, two new families enrolled at Anuenue this summer specifically because of TMT, according to Yim.
“A parent said, ‘I just came from the mauna, I want to send my kid to immersion school,’” he said. “Parents are seeking for their children to have a strong sense of identity, a connection to this place.”
Anuenue is not the only immersion program that’s seen a bump in enrollment this year: Hauula Elementary’s Hawaiian language immersion kindergarten class doubled in size from the year before — from 15 to 32.
And Ehunuikaimalino, a K-12 immersion school in Kona on the Big Island, had a kindergarten waitlist about a dozen deep this year.
“We’ve seen an explosion in growth this summer, so much so we’re scrambling to find facilities,” said the principal, Keli’ikanoe Mahi. Interest is also coming from kids old enough to express why they want to enroll.
“A sixth grader, when asked, ‘What attracted you (to the school)?’ directly articulated to me, ‘I was on the mauna, and I want to learn more about the language and my culture,’” she recounted.
The growth in interest is empowering for immersion school leaders, but it also presents something of a conundrum. The DOE has been struggling to meet the demand for such programs, even getting sued in 2014 by a Lanai parent of two young girls who contends the department hasn’t met its constitutional obligation to try and provide reasonable access to an immersion program on that island.
Earlier this month, the Hawaii Supreme Court issued a 49-page majority opinion that said the revival of Olelo Hawaii — on the brink of disappearing by the turn of the 20th century — can only be guaranteed through full-on immersion education rather than cursory teaching of Hawaii history and supplemental language courses, as the DOE had argued was sufficient to fulfill the constitutional mandate.
The decision, which sent the case back to the lower court, could put pressure on the DOE to do more to make immersion programs more widely available.
In the 2018-19 school year, there were a total 3,100 students enrolled in 24 Hawaiian immersion schools statewide. That includes traditional DOE schools and public charter schools, which are operated by independent governing boards.
That’s a 10% increase from the previous school year and a 35% increase from four years ago. In the last year, several schools, including Hana High & Elementary on Maui and Puohala Elementary on Oahu also added a grade level. Blanche Pope Elementary in Waimanalo also opened a new immersion program this year with a kindergarten and 1st grade class, according to the DOE’s communications office.
Enrollment numbers for the current school year, which began August 5, are not yet available, according to DOE.
DOE’s Kaiapuni schools, which were first established in 1987 and can be either self-contained or a program within a regular school, teach exclusively in Hawaiian until English is phased in as a subject starting in the fifth grade.
One of the challenges with meeting demand for the programs is a lack of available resources.
At Ehunuikaimalino, which was established in 1995, teachers are largely former high school graduates of that school who are interested in going into teaching, according to Mahi.
The school has a current enrollment of 235 compared to 200 at the same time last year. The school took in more students at every grade level except high school this year. In her interviews with parents wanting to enroll their kids, many cited wanting to learn more about their native language, Mahi said.
Interest in Hawaiian immersion education has remained strong since the founding of Kaiapuni schools, according to Konia Freitas, director of the Center for Hawaiian Studies at the University of Hawaii Manoa.
“Hawaiian language immersion was a movement unto itself,” she said. “There didn’t need to be a TMT in order for there to be an uptick in Hawaiian immersion. It’s a natural progression of cultural revitalization and coming to terms that the Hawaiian language is a language in survivance.”
Parents at a recent kindergarten pickup at Hauula Elementary said they had a variety of reasons for enrolling their children in an immersion program.
“Why send her here? It’s happening because it’s almost like the DNA is bubbling up,” said Paula Duke, whose 5-year-old daughter, Honua, is in the immersion kindergarten class.
“I didn’t know my history, being raised on the mainland,” explained Duke, who is Native Hawaiian and grew up largely in Southern California. “They don’t teach you the real history.”
Ivy Stiefvater, whose 6-year-old son is in the first grade in Hauula’s immersion program, is originally from Papua, New Guinea. Her husband is Caucasian, but she wants her son, Kinavai, to have a foundation of two languages at home.
“If we can afford to live here longer, I would definitely sign him up until he graduates high school,” she said. “They’re more well-rounded. They don’t just learn about math or science, but they learn about the culture and how to show respect for community, for the land, for the language, and that’s the same thing my parents have instilled in us growing up.”
If the TMT movement is driving enrollment in Hawaiian immersion schools, it’s also occupying a broader place in traditional schools. Social studies teachers are trying to integrate the issue into classroom discussions, while parents concerned about possible bullying over support for the telescope have aired their concerns on online message threads.
Some schools, like Kalama Intermediate on Maui, have been very open to embracing multiple viewpoints on this issue, said parent Artrina De Lima, noting that a “Mauna Kea Club” formed among students at the beginning of the school year.
However, “There is no ‘TMT Club,” De Lima said. “In reality, what teacher is going to go and open that club?”
Joseph Cassler, a social studies teacher at Kauai High School, said one thing he’s observed among his students is that they have strong emotions about TMT, but can’t quite explain why they feel the way they do, no matter their stance on the issue.
That provides an opportunity to help harness those emotions into “rational arguments that hopefully, will provide opportunities for community discussion and change,” he wrote by email.
Mahi, the principal at Ehunuikaimalino, said the school takes a neutral stance on TMT “so that everyone feels safe and respected,” but acknowledged those who gravitate to the immersion school tend to be those who support “protecting the aina (land).”
The activity on Mauna Kea itself, where leaders have set up the makeshift Pu’uhonua O Pu’uhuluhulu University to hold classes on Hawaiian language and culture, has helped bring the mission and vision of her school more into the public consciousness, she said.
“It’s like a dawn of enlightenment,” the principal said. “Our language needs to live. It needs to be living and not just at school. At school we talk Hawaiian and then we go into the world and live. That’s the whole point of our school — to get out there and speak Hawaiian in our environments, whatever they may be.”
Correction: An original version of this story said Anuenue’s library was converted into classrooms this year. The library was converted into new classrooms last year. Also, a new immersion kindergarten and first-grade classes were added at Blanche Pope Elementary this year.
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