Hawaiian-Immersion School Partners with Minnesota’s University of St. Thomas

The second charter school I visited on the island of Kauai earlier this month also serves the students and families of the Niihau community. Again very small, with a student population of about 50 students, Ke Kula Niihau O Kekaha (KKNOK) is different from its nearby Niihau school profiled Tuesday. This is an Hawaiian-immersion school rather than a bilingual school. What does that mean?

In this school, led by principal Tia Koerte (right), the Niihau language is the primary language of instruction. In the preschool, the language of instruction is exclusively Niihau, to help strengthen and perpetuate the fluency of native speakers. The two-way bilingual program allows students to be introduced to English reading in Kindergarten. There is a gradual progression thereafter of English instruction until grade 5. In grades 6-12, instruction is delivered equally in both the Niihau and English languages.

Archiving the Niihau language is of vital concern to this school’s mission. Therefore, this school is an active participant in programs like the PBS Hawaii HIKI NO student news program as a learning/teaching venue for its students. At right, Studio Director Jim Lucas and Principal Koerte stand within the fully equipped state-of the-art studio where students and teachers help produce such programs, with subtitles in Niihau.
It is the only programming that includes this language. The white board shows a story board for an anti-bullying video.

Mr. Lucas kindly showed me some HIKI NO programming. Imagine my surprise when the program featured students and faculty from our own University of St. Thomas (UST) in the Twin Cities! UST, which happens to be a charter school authorizer, has an annual course entitled “Multi-Cultural Communication in Diverse Organizations” in partnership with this charter school in Kauai. Every year, students and faculty member Debra Peterson partner with the school to create a reciprocal service-learning experience on an environmental theme that meets the curricular needs of the charter school students from pre-K to high school. Past projects include study about an endangered Hawaiian duck–the kaloa maoli–in 2010. Recently, the charter and college students learned about the Waimea River, including ecological challenges to the river and surrounding watershed. This topic was recorded in a HIKI NO program to be aired this fall on PBS Hawaii.

I continue to be amazed at the educational opportunities that even the smallest charter schools can create. This truly is 21st century education: partnership across four thousand miles, from the oldest college student to the smallest pre-school student.