Preserving Cultural Values

I was moved as I stood in the warm sunshine of Kauai earlier this month, listening to this musical native Hawaiian welcome by the students and staff of Kula Aupuni Niihau A Kahelelani Aloha (KANAKA) charter public school. 

Some of these students come from the small island of Niihau, off the shores of Kauai, and some are first-generation high school students.

This is a unique form of chartering that I have found fascinating in my travels. KANAKA is one of a number of Hawaiian-focused or Hawaiian-immersion schools established to continue the cultural traditions of their families, as well as to prepare them for the future. The genesis of this school occurred in 1993 when parents from the Niihau community residing on Kauai initiated a home school program for students whose primary language is the Niihau dialect of Hawaiian.

The school has existed in its current charter school form since 1999. The program implements a bilingual education program. English is taught to raise functional skills in a western dominated world. Niihau cultural values and language are preserved using the language they live.

The classes are small. The school is financially supported by Hawaiian nonprofit organizations committed to preserving the cultural traditions of the families on the island. This has allowed for a nice facility for student learning, in the former offices of a sugar plantation.

Led by Principal Hedy Sullivan, (right),  the school focuses on project-based learning to reinforce Hawaiian cultural values. Technology is blended with traditional learning techniques to increase English, language arts, math, science, and social studies skills. What I observed was true personalized learning, given the small student to teacher ratio.

Is this K-12 school of about 60 students too small to be sustained as a charter, even if it preserves cultural heritage? Some would say yes. Others would ask: are the students learning? Are they achieving good academic results? Is the connection to their cultural origins motivating them to learn? If the answers to those questions are also yes, I suggest that enrollment size may not be the critical factor, if there is funding support.

This is a chartering discussion that goes beyond Hawaiian-focused schools. Rural charter schools face similar challenges. Perhaps we can learn from one another.