Starting next spring, all Hawaii Department of Education employees will be eligible to take free introductory Hawaiian language classes through a new partnership with the Office of Hawaiian Education and University of Hawaii Community Colleges.

All 22,000 DOE employees — from teachers to assistants to custodial staff — are invited to receive fully subsidized Hawaiian language instruction at any one of UH’s seven community college campuses, beginning in Spring 2020.

The program was officially announced Thursday by the DOE communications office, but first mentioned Wednesday evening at a Board of Education community meeting at Ke Kula Kaiapuni O Anuenue, a K-12 Hawaiian immersion school, to discuss priorities and concerns among immersion educators and parents.

Hawaiian and English are the state’s two official languages. Nearly a quarter of the state’s public student population is Native Hawaiian, while Hawaiian or part-Hawaiian teachers comprised just 10.5% of the teacher workforce in the 2017-18 school year.

Anuenue School in Palolo is one of 18 Hawaiian language public immersion schools run by DOE. Some of these schools face a shortage of qualified teachers. Suevon Lee/Civil Beat

The partnership is the result of a two-year effort spearheaded by the Office of Hawaiian Education, a DOE entity established in February 2015 to expand Hawaiian education across the K-12 system.

“Our commitment to the public education system to have as many people as possible speaking Olelo Hawaii is a value statement that we’re making,” Superintendent Christina Kishimoto told Civil Beat Thursday. “We’re absolutely committed to it.

“It’s not just Kaiapuni (immersion) programs, but all of us collectively being involved and being able to develop ourselves as at least bi-literate, if not in other languages.” 

Under the new partnership, which is funded internally by the education department, an employee can enroll directly in Hawaiian 101 or 102 at any community college campus. Or, they can participate in a custom “sheltered” course organized by a DOE leader for a designated group of employees taught by college-approved faculty.

The scholarship covers the cost of tuition and student fees, while the DOE employee is responsible for paying for books and materials, according to an enrollment guide.

DOE employees are also eligible to enroll in intermediate Hawaiian 201 and 202, but must first be cleared by the Office of Hawaiian Education and meet prerequisite requirements.

Teachers who successfully complete a Hawaiian language course by receiving a C grade or better can receive professional development credit, while other DOE employees can receive college credit.

“This collaboration will support the advancement of Hawaiian language across public education,” UH President David Lassner said in a statement. “This project is an important extension of the foundation across the Department of Education and our public schools statewide.”

According to a course description of a Hawaiian 101 Elementary Hawaiian class offered by Kapiolani Community College, the class covers the basic structure of the language with an emphasis on listening, speaking, reading, writing and cultural understanding.

Dept of Education Superintendent Christina Kishimoto speaks during meeting.
Hawaii schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto says DOE’s goal is to have as many staff as possible speaking Olelo Hawaii. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The DOE offers Hawaiian immersion education through 18 Kaiapuni schools. There are also six public charter schools offering Hawaiian immersion education.

These schools teach exclusively in the Hawaiian language until English is introduced as a subject in grade 5.

Kishimoto, who herself is bilingual in English and Spanish, has put a high premium on promoting multilingualism in the state. The DOE convened its first-ever “Multilingualism Symposium” in March. And at a recent Board of Education data retreat, the superintendent spoke about how having high literacy skills in one’s home language in addition to English can help a student persist in upper levels of education.

The DOE’s push on the language front is evident in the rising number of students earning a “Seal of Biliteracy,” a distinction awarded to high school graduates who demonstrate high proficiency in both English and Hawaiian, or one of those two languages and at least one other language.

The Board of Education’s community meeting Wednesday evening in the Anuenue school cafeteria was structured so that parents and educators could break up into small groups and discuss concerns and priority areas around three main areas: curriculum and standards, leadership and staffing.

According to Corey Rosenlee, president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, one of the biggest shortage areas among the state’s teaching staff is in the area of Hawaiian language immersion.

“As a percentage of the (teaching) field, they have the highest shortage in the state,” he said.

That’s partly due to the fact there is no bachelor of education program for Hawaiian Immersion offered in the UH system, although UH is looking to create such a program in 2021, according to HSTA.

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