An Aug. 27 letter from Puohala Elementary Principal Ikaika Plunkett to families enrolled in the school’s Hawaiian language immersion program delivered the sobering news.

“The State Distance Learning Program is offered to all students and is only provided in English,” the principal wrote, underlining the word “English.”

“There is no comprehensive online learning in the Olelo Hawaii platform offered at this time in the Windward District or at the State Level,” he added.

More than a month later, the DOE is scrambling to assemble a distance program for Hawaiian immersion secondary students for this school year. But the lack of one has already disrupted the school year for immersion students, parents say, and it remains to be seen what shape it will take as the DOE seeks qualified instructors.

There are 21 DOE Hawaiian language immersion school sites plus six immersion charter schools. Combined, they enrolled roughly 3,400 students in the 2019-20 school year. April Estrellon/Civil Beat

Plunkett’s letter to Puohala parents, sent more than three weeks into the start of the new school year, posed stark alternatives. Parents could either send their children to campus to participate in regular in-person Hawaiian language instruction, enroll them in English language-only distance learning or withdraw them and homeschool.

The Kaneohe school offers Hawaiian immersion education in grades kindergarten to eight.

“These are more like threats than options,” a message on the webpage for the parent board for Hawaiian immersion students, Hui Makua O Puohala, states. “Our haumana have a right to kaiapuni education; this is unacceptable,” it added, using the word for Hawaiian immersion schooling.

Like many other families, some parents in the Department of Education’s Hawaiian Language Immersion Program, or Ka Papahana Kaiapuni Hawaii, have been reluctant to send their children back to the classroom this year because of Covid-19, especially since only those 12 and over are currently eligible for the vaccine.

All 257 DOE schools have been in-person this school year, as state and health leaders emphasized the benefits of being in the classroom compared with the challenges of distance learning. Still, the DOE hastily assembled a regular statewide distance learning option shortly before the new school year started on Aug. 3 at the urging of parents.

But unlike their counterparts, the Hawaiian immersion families were offered no distance option before the new year started, despite asking for it. Some have withdrawn their children from their home schools. Others are “suffering through” the statewide English-language distance program, according to Puohala Elementary parent, Ku‘ulei Malohi.

“I don’t think everybody understands that the Hawaiian language curriculum doesn’t introduce English until the fifth grade,” she said.

So when a child who has only been exposed to the Hawaiian language at school is placed in a regular English distance program, “it causes all kinds of confusion,” she added.

Other parents say it poses an equity issue, because the Hawaiian language immersion program, established in 1987, is every bit as much under the jurisdiction of the DOE as the regular schools. Statewide, there are 21 DOE immersion school sites — programs that serve as a “school within a school” — plus six independent Hawaiian immersion charter schools, serving 3,393 students as of the 2019-20 school year, a 40% increase from four years prior.

“The pandemic is still raging … and our families need (a distance option), for health reasons mainly,” said Brandi Cutler, who sits on the board of Hui Makua O Puohala, and has three kids enrolled in the immersion program.

“They need it and they deserve it. If it’s an option for their English-speaking peers, we’re unclear why we don’t have it for the Kaiapuni side.”

Hana High and Elementary on Maui operates a Hawaiian immersion program for kids in kindergarten through fifth grade. April Estrellon/Civil Beat

Parent complaints appear to have led to action.

The DOE, through its Office of Hawaiian Education, is currently recruiting seven full-time teachers and 14 part-time teachers, as well as a full-time curriculum/technology coordinator and full-time counselor/registrar, to lead a centralized Hawaiian language immersion distance program for students in seventh through 12th grades.

Candidates at a minimum must have “a functional understanding of Olelo Hawaii in a school setting,” according to the materials.

The DOE hopes to have the program set up in time for the second quarter, which starts Oct. 18, deputy superintendent Phyllis Unebasami told Board of Education members at a Sept. 16 meeting.

“The Office of Hawaiian Education is working with an ad hoc committee to design the grades seven to 12 program,” she told them. “The department remains committed to effective Kaiapuni teaching and providing all our students with equitable access to educational opportunities.”

But the distance program is designed for older students only, and some parents wonder why this is only happening now. Even with Covid case counts subsiding in the islands, the demand is high: at least 20 families at Puohala Elementary said they would opt for a distance program if one were available, Cutler said.

“We understand there is no quick fix to a Hawaiian distance learning program but why hasn’t something been started in the meantime?” Ka‘ena Elaban, an immersion parent on Maui, testified at the BOE meeting.

When the pandemic caused all classes to shift to virtual in March 2020, Puohala Elementary, one of the oldest immersion schools in Hawaii, shifted to Zoom.

“They created this robust, beautiful distance learning program,” Cutler said. At least two to three of the immersion teachers offered to keep teaching in a distance format this year, but their requests were denied, according to Malohi.

Plunkett, the school principal, did not respond to requests for comment.

Paia Elementary Hawaiian language immersion teacher Leina‘ala Vedder said two of her 40 families opted not to send their kids back for in-person instruction this year out of Covid concerns. April Estrellon/Civil Beat

His Aug. 27 note to families emphasized that the “in-person classroom experience in the Kaiapuni setting is the optimal learning environment” and that language proficiency is best acquired in a classroom.

Paia Elementary immersion teacher Leina‘ala Vedder doesn’t dispute that in-person language learning is ideal, but said she supported a distance learning plan in recent written testimony to BOE.

The Maui teacher urged the DOE to find new distance instructors rather than relying on individual schools to supply existing staff.

“Hawaiian is the language of these islands and I know that this administration will continue its support to maintain its commitment to see it flourish,” Vedder wrote.

The Hawaiian language immersion program already faces challenges.

Given the diversity of the language and culture across different parts of the island, schools often have to build their curriculum from scratch.

The DOE pays an $8,000 yearly salary differential to Hawaiian language teachers because they are in such short supply.

After that policy took effect in early 2020, the number of Hawaiian language teachers jumped 8%, from 87 to 94 between the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years.

Kili Namauu, a Board of Education member and site coordinator at Aha Punana Leo, a Hawaiian language preschool, in Wailuku, Maui, said she believes there initially was no effort to set up a statewide distance immersion option due to lack of resources, “plus language acquisition is best face-to-face.”

“They really need the constant reinforcement that a teacher can offer them in the classroom, especially for kindergarten through second grade,” she said. “But as Covid numbers were spiking, families were very worried and there needed to be options for those who were concerned about health and safety.

“And it really is an equity issue.”

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