Lanai High and Elementary established its first-ever Hawaiian language immersion classroom this school year, seven years after a Lanai parent of two Hawaiian-speaking elementary-age children filed a lawsuit against the Hawaii Department of Education for failing to provide a program on that island.

The program is a combined kindergarten and first grade classroom serving 13 kids, according to Douglas Boyer, the principal of the island’s only K-12 DOE school.

The two children at the center of the 2014 lawsuit were in first and third grade at the time their mother, Chelsa-Marie Kealohalani Clarabal, sued, saying the DOE was in violation of the state constitution for failing to provide access to an immersion program on Lanai despite propping up programs on other islands.

Lanai High and Elementary School sign.
A 2014 lawsuit by a Lanai mother whose daughters were enrolled at Lanai High and Elementary set the events in motion. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The children, who were Native Hawaiian, had transferred from Maui’s Paia Elementary immersion program and were not able to read or write in English at the time they enrolled at the Lanai school. The girls are in eighth and 10th grade now.

“Before the lawsuit happened, it was wishful thinking,” said Iolani Zablan, a substitute teacher at the school whose son is in kindergarten and enrolled in the new program. “This (suit) opened a lot of doors and got people talking about it within the community.”

The program’s teacher is a veteran Hawaiian language immersion teacher from Maui, according to Zablan.

“A lot of the parents are really excited and a lot of students are really excited,” she said. “A lot of parents are hoping for it to expand.”

Lanai High and Elementary, the only public school on the island, serves 574 children, 17% of whom are Native Hawaiian.

The new Lanai program brings the total number of DOE immersion school sites to 21, serving Oahu, Maui, Hawaii island and Molokai. There are also six Hawaiian immersion public charter schools. Combined, they serve 3,280 total students as of the 2020-21 school year – or about 2% of the total DOE student population.

Amendments to the state constitution in 1978 formally recognized Olelo Hawaii as an official state language and required the DOE to provide a comprehensive Hawaiian education program including language, history and culture that would be part of the regular public school curriculum.

But recruiting teachers to Lanai, an island of 3,000 residents with limited housing and a high cost of living, is difficult, and instructors proficient in the Hawaiian language are even harder to find.

In the court case, DOE argued that it had considered all the alternatives and the program for Lanai just wasn’t feasible. District officials said the former principal wasn’t able to find a qualified teacher who was willing to move to Lanai.

But in 2019, the Hawaii Supreme Court said the constitution requires that the DOE take “all reasonable measures” to provide a Hawaiian language immersion program to students. It sent the case back to the lower court for a trial but the case has settled, pending parent signature, according to DOE spokeswoman Nanea Kalani. Attorneys for Clarabal did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Still, the future of Lanai’s new program remains uncertain, due to limited instructors in the system. Two student teachers are currently training to continue the kaiapuni program, as Hawaiian immersion schooling is known in the community.

“We are so happy that it’s finally starting and we want to do everything in our power to make sure it continues because it would be really sad to only have a kaiapuni program that only goes up to the third grade,” said Daniel Forsythe, a teacher candidate at University of Hawaii Manoa who was born and raised on Lanai. He hopes to join the school as a Hawaiian immersion teacher by the 2023-24 school year.

Forsythe, 26, said he had no formal education in the language when he was young and only learned it as an adult.

“I am specifically becoming a teacher to teach the Hawaiian language,” he said. “I have a lot of mahalo to the Clarabal ohana because I think without that, I would not have the kinds of opportunities I’m anticipating when the time comes.”

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by a grant from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

Support nonprofit, independent journalism.

During this election season, we hope that our coverage provides you with the information to make informed decisions on issues that you care deeply about.

Whether it’s affordable housing, education or the environment, these issues depend on your vote, and our ability to report on them depends on your support.

Every contribution, however big or small, allows us to continue keeping readers informed through election day and beyond. So, if you found value in our coverage, please take the next step by making a contribution to Civil Beat today.

About the Author