Part 4 of a 5-part series

HILO, HAWAII — A group of barefoot children around 10 years of age wait patiently for one of the few actual classrooms at a South Hilo charter school to empty out so they can go into class. On a cement pathway they sit on simple white plastic buckets they have turned upside down to use as makeshift seats while sheltered from the drizzle. One dark-haired boy stands out because he is so small that his feet dangle inches above the ground and because his feet are covered — with socks but no shoes.

Welcome to Ka Umeke Kaeo public charter school. If necessity is a key source of invention, this Hawaiian-immersion school, whose two campuses are located a 10-minute drive from downtown Hilo, may become a wellspring of creation. Ka Umeke has few permanent classrooms and many of the meeting and teaching spaces lack walls of any sort. Sometimes they are sheltered by nothing but a tent-like canopy. At stormy moments teachers put class on hold as students crowd into the few sheltered spaces to avoid getting drenched.

The school’s emphasis on Hawaiian-style innovation and resourcefulness suggests a whole other definition of a bucket list — all of the practical applications of a simple plastic pail. The students lug their multipurpose buckets — with a student’s name tag on each — around the ad-hoc campus. Children sit on them during courses, sometimes use them to hold their stuff instead of backpacks and put their bags to protection them from the rain. They also serve creative purposes, like drumming.

Students multipurpose the barrels as chairs and storage at the Ka 'Umeke Ka'eo charter school in Hilo HI. Students wait outside to go into their next classroom.
Students multipurpose the barrels as chairs and storage. PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Ka Umeke officials say the buckets offer a simple solution to pressing challenges the school faces: a budget shortfall and limited space. In some ways, Ka Umeke can feel like the incredible shrinking school. Like many charter schools in Hawaii, much of its campus is improvised. It leases classrooms from a regular public school down the street, but the Ka Umeke’s overall space has actually dwindled over the years, according to the school’s facility planner Olani Lilly. Now, it only has a few classrooms serving grades one through three, and it will likely lose more space next year. Lilly describes the situation as a “facilities crisis.”

Beyond the practical, those simple buckets impart countless life lessons for the children, particularly in relation to the school’s Hawaiian-style spirit of resourcefulness.

Civil Beat is profiling Ka Umeke as part of our five-part series, Learning Hilo, focusing on our field trips to schools in and around the Hilo area as snapshots of Hawaii’s diverse charter landscape. About half of the state’s 33 charter schools offer education that’s anchored in Hawaiian language or culture.

Ka Umeke isn’t all about buckets, of course. The school aims to create a generation of graduates who can harness a Hawaiian worldview and use it to navigate a path through the conventional courses it teaches and through Hawaii’s broader multicultural society.

Love — Even for Non-Hawaiian Speakers

Students during morning opening protocol at the Ka 'Umeke Ka'eo charter school in Hilo HI.
Students during morning opening protocol at the Ka ‘Umeke Ka’eo charter school in Hilo, HI. PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Like Nawahiokalaniopuu Iki, which Civil Beat also profiled, Ka Umeke is a K-12 language-immersion charter school where students are taught in the Hawaiian language. While the school placed third-to-last (with just 36 points out of a possible 400) on Strive HI, the state’s new system for measuring school performance and improvement, that’s largely because three-fourths of the students last year declined to take the state’s standardized tests at all. Many families don’t think it’s fair to measure immersion students with that yardstick.

But while the other school is an activist institution that is fighting deep in the trenches of a political movement to restore a language, Ka Umeke is following a different path, one that blends a Hawaiian way of seeing the world with more traditional North American education.

Much of the class space at Ka Umeke is outdoors, and it’s clear the students and teachers share a powerful camaraderie with each other and loyalty to the Native Hawaiian identity. A visit to the classrooms shows teachers interacting with students, even the youngest ones, speaking only in Hawaiian on subjects like math and earth sciences. Roughly two out of every three students are low-income.

But unlike at the other school, where the Hawaiian language can feel like the driving goal of education, Ka Umeke school leaders see Hawaiian-language teaching as more of a means than an end. Ka Umeke, which became a charter school in 2001 after operating under the Hawaii Department of Education for 14 years as a traditional immersion school, is all about flexibility. In fact, school administrators admit that while Hawaiian-language proficiency is a plus when it comes to hiring new teachers, the top priority is core schooling. And many of the books are in English.

“We’re going to love you even if you don’t speak Hawaiian,” explained Leinaala Thornton, a parent who works closely with the school in a nonprofit role and as a member of the local school board.

Papaku Makawalu

Ka Umeke’s blended learning model offers one example of the kind of approach that Cheryl Lupenui, the only Native Hawaiian on the Board of Education and chair of the body’s student achievement committee, thinks can fundamentally change how Hawaiian culture fits into public education.

Ka 'Umeke Ka'eo charter school teacher Roxanne Stewart 10/29/13
Ka ‘Umeke Ka’eo charter school teacher Roxanne Stewart PF Bentley/Civil Beat

“I firmly believe in the value … of being able to look through different worldviews,” Lupenui said, adding that she believes using the Hawaiian language in schools can help to develop a powerful sense of identity among students, regardless of whether they live in the islands or elsewhere. While “Hawaiian language outside of Hawaii may not seem practical,” she added, people don’t always need to have an economic incentive to learn another language. For Native Hawaiians, learning the language of their ancestors can be the first step in a process of self-discovery that could change them and society in the islands.

Take the academic model that teachers use to teach most sciences. Known as the Papaku Makawalu, it is based on the Hawaiian system of categorizing the natural world into papahulilani (the sky), papahulihonua (the ocean) and papahanaumoku (the underworld). The model is used in nearly every classroom, including with the youngest kids, and it’s being applied to Western science.

In one first-grade classroom there is a posterboard dotted with a patchwork of different symbols from nature — clouds, rain, different animals. The six-year-old children move the Velcro squares around every few days, the teacher says, to keep it in sync with the data they collect during their frequent outdoor excursions. What did the clouds look like? How high was the tide? What animals were out? Then they analyze trends and try to predict future conditions. Such critical processes underpin education trends such as STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), but it is rooted in the Papaku Makawalu way of seeing the world. The school, in Hawaiian, also teaches “Singapore math” — a three-step approach that’s heavy in word problems, uses hands-on learning and is widely seen as a more effective alternative to conventional math instruction.

Students during morning opening protocol at the Ka 'Umeke Ka'eo charter school in Hilo HI.
Students during morning opening protocol. PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Thornton, who was involved in efforts to turn Ka Umeke into a charter school, says she’s seen the value of the Papaku Makawalu model first-hand. Her twin daughters Kamalu and Kolopua, who are now at the high school level, have attended Ka Umeke since kindergarten, while her 20-year-old sons, also twins, transferred from Ka Umeke to Kamehameha Schools for high school because the charter school back then lacked upper grades.

She contrasted the different experiences that her children had, explaining that she had noticed “how much easier the girls took to the language and also Hawaiian cultural concepts … I don’t think it ever seemed foreign to them where you had to balance your Western side and Hawaiian side.”

Crowded Classrooms and the Big Picture

Ka Umeke, however, faces tough choices when it comes to money. Charter schools don’t have access to capitol improvement funds, meaning they don’t get money from the state for its facilities, unlike non-charter public schools. So Ka Umeke improvises. In addition to the buckets, other notable responses to necessity include the classes held on lanai or under plastic canopies and the number of elementary students squeezed into small portable rooms nearby that the school leases from the government.

The school ran on a roughly $2.66 million budget last year, with about $469,500 coming from grants from Kamehameha Schools. (The institution gives $1,500 per student to 17 Hawaiian-focused or immersion charter schools throughout the state.)

But at Ka Umeke, like other charter schools, that budget has to cover salaries, services for about two-dozen special education students and other goods and services that include the facilities that they lease, Lilly said. She noted that it’s going to take $50,000 just to move the modular “portable” classrooms — a 10-minute drive — from one campus to the other.

Students walk into fishpond area near the Ka 'Umeke Ka'eo charter school in Hilo HI.
Students walk into fishpond area near the charter school. PF Bentley/Civil Beat

The lack of a budget for the facilities is so bad, Lilly said, that it’s taken a toll on enrollment, particularly in the upper grades because of the lack of space on the high school campus. Most of the school’s 278 students are in the elementary school. The kindergarden alone has about 40 students (and others on a waiting list), but this year’s first-ever graduating class at Ka Umeke consists of just six students.

The school leases rooms from the nearby Keaukaha Elementary School, which sits on Hawaiian homestead land, but that has decreased over the years, Lilly said, leaving Ka Umeke too little space for its students. (According to Lilly, nearly half of Ka Umeke’s students live in homesteads.)

Absent enough classrooms, students are left to learn outdoors. And, in many ways, where better to teach the lessons of papaku makawalu?

In the holistic learning model — a blend of STEM and Hawaiian spirituality that is being piloted at Ka Umeke with the hope that it will later expand to other Hawaiian immersion and charter schools — students adapt an indigenous worldview to understand scientific processes. Ka Umeke is integrating it into as many classes as possible. One of the teachers using this technique is Roxanne Stuart, a Native Hawaiian marine scientist and aquatic resource educator who started using papaku makawalu with her students in 2008.

Students during morning opening protocol at the Ka 'Umeke Ka'eo charter school in Hilo HI.
Students during morning opening protocol. PF Bentley/Civil Beat

On a recent morning, Stuart and her sixth graders visited a private fishpond along the bay, a short walk from the school’s campus. There, a gate reads “Kapu,” whose rough translation means “forbidden.” The students approached the gate and gathered in oli — chant — before Stuart “oli’d” back and beckoned them in. They gathered around her as she gave instructions in Hawaiian related to the latest in a series of data-collection excursions to the pond.

After that they dispersed, each wearing a pair of rubber boots, to observe the fish in the loko. The visit was part of a project that aims to give the students a better and more direct understanding of the sensitive relationship between Hawaii’s environmental conditions and the types and numbers of fish in the pond. The knowledge they gain, the teacher noted, has significance beyond the classroom — perhaps for their future careers and, just as importantly, for their cultural identity. The children attentively jotted notes on worksheets attached to clipboard — all in Hawaiian — peering carefully into the water.

Stuart’s class is planning to go to Molokai to compare notes with a school there — real research that the school hopes will connect students through mutual-cultural understanding and a passion for learning about Hawaii and making it a better place.

BOE member Lupenui hopes this is the beginning of something big.

“There’s such a great gift in being able to connect to this place that we live,” she reflected. The sense of belonging, pride and community that “comes with the furthering and beginning of Hawaiian language and culture,” she said, can ultimately reform the education system as a whole.

Read other stories in this five-part series:

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