Most educators, parents and teachers approve of broader access to olelo Hawaii learning while acknowledging the challenges around implementation.

An ambitious proposal that would have required the Hawaiian language be taught throughout K-12 public schools has run out of legislative momentum this session.

Rep. Diamond Garcia, a Republican who authored House Bill 157, said he didn’t expect the bill to become law this year but hoped it would steer a wider conversation about normalizing its place in public schools.

“It’s not going to happen overnight, and it’s not going to happen in one to three years,” Garcia said. “If we pass the bill and move in this direction in 20 to 30 years, then we would live in a society where olelo Hawaii is spoken more fluently.”

Any plan at this scale would have to confront significant funding obstacles, a chronic teacher shortage, and parents who may not want their kids to compulsorily learn the indigenous official language of Hawaii. 

Kumu Kalae Akioka teaches students in her olelo Hawaii class at Kailua High School. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

The bill failed to get a hearing so it’s unclear how much it would’ve cost to fund teacher positions. Garcia said it would’ve been up to the DOE and the House Finance Committee to determine an amount that would pay for the teachers’ salaries.

Requiring the teaching of the Hawaiian language in every grade level in all traditional public schools would require at least one teacher per grade level at each school, according to DOE spokeswoman Krislyn Yano.

“Using current HIDOE English Language Arts classes as an equivalent, it would mean needing approximately 1,000 teachers fluent in Hawaiian language to teach those classes,” Yano said.

William Wilson, a University of Hawaii Hilo professor, said the overall idea is well intentioned but not feasible.

“The resources in terms of teachers do not exist,” Wilson said. “What about the kids whose parents don’t want them to speak the Hawaiian language? Why waste your efforts and resources on people who don’t want to learn it?”

Hawaii has 258 public schools comprising more than 156,000 students with various ethnic backgrounds, including Filipino, Hispanic, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander and more. It also includes students who are English language learners.

A legislative proposal would have made it mandatory for students in all public school grade levels to be taught oleo Hawaii. (April Estrellon/Civil Beat/2020)

Civil Beat spoke to educators, parents and lawmakers regarding the idea of the department requiring the teaching of the Hawaiian language in all grade levels, and many approved of the idea but said the resources are not attainable.

The failed measure is, as per Garcia’s wish, fueling discussion on the place of Hawaiian language in public education and highlighting the need for qualified teachers who are fluent speakers amid the challenge of attracting teachers to work in public schools.

Ongoing Challenges Amid Increasing Demand

Forty-five years after the revitalization of the Hawaiian language, there’s been a consistent push to mainstream the language ranging from translated letterheads on government websites to an official apology to people who were punished for speaking the olelo Hawaii. 

The DOE already requires students to learn elements of the Hawaiian language, culture and history from kindergarten through grade 6 and the Hawaiian language is offered as a world language option at some schools as an elective.

The department also offers the Hawaiian immersion program through the Kaiapuni schools, which exclusively teaches students in the Hawaiian language. English is introduced by grade 5.

But Waimanalo resident Kalani Kalima, who is Native Hawaiian, said olelo Hawaii is more than just speaking the language, it’s also about preserving indigenous identity and passing on traditions.

Kalima said he learned to speak olelo Hawaii when he went to the University of Hawaii. He was 19. 

He found inspiration when he heard Lilia Wahinemaikaʻi Hale, a prominent champion of the Hawaiian language during the Hawaiian Renaissance, speaking in her native tongue at his second-grade class at Waimanalo Elementary School.

“She showed me that one teacher can make a difference,” Kalima said. “I was inspired to be a pioneer and part of the change.” 

Now 47, Kalima has taught at Halau Lokahi Public Charter School, passing down knowledge to his students and his children. The father of four said he tries to incorporate the language into his kids’ daily rituals.

“Whatever questions they may have, I try to infuse as much olelo Hawaii values, traditions, and culture into their everyday living, so it’s part of the norm,” Kalima said.

He said requiring olelo Hawaii to be taught through the public school system is doable, underscoring that the language is more than a tool for attracting tourists.

Kumu Kalae Akioka assists students in her Olelo Hawaii class at Kailua High School. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Wilson said that a more achievable goal would be ensuring the Hawaiian language is available throughout all high schools. 

The DOE already has a world language program that offers all elementary and secondary schools instruction in American Sign Language, French, German, Hawaiian, Ilocano, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Russian, Samoan or Spanish. 

So far, there are 32 high schools that offer Hawaiian world language classes, according to Yano.

Other measures still making their way through the Legislature would appropriate funds to public charter school commission to study the Hawaiian language and publish educational resources for native speakers and require the state Board of Education to create a Hawaiian language kindergarten assessment to be given by the DOE.

At the Kaiapuni schools, enrollment has grown about 300 to 400 more students within the past five years, according to Dawn Kau‘i Sang, director of the DOE’s Office of Hawaiian Education. However, there are roughly 75 teacher vacancies for both DOE public schools and charter school Kaiapuni programs.

Sang said she’s excited that the conversation around olelo Hawaii is starting but noted it would take a lot of effort to make it happen.

“It’s going to take an entire community to hold value to olelo Hawaii,” Sang said. “To rely on the Department of Education’s programs to get to normalization will take forever. But the more people can adopt, take action and speak Olelo Hawaii across the community, then you will see this wave as a movement to help us to normalization.”

Civil Beat’s education reporting is supported by a grant from Chamberlin Family Philanthropy.

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