Learning to love the language

MAKAWAO – For founders of a new Hawaiian education school for children on Maui, learning has no limits.

“Learning happens every day – at the beach, at the mountain, when I pick up my child from school,” said adviser Kanani Kan Hai of Waihee. “Learning doesn’t stop. Why does it have to be confined to four walls?”

Ke Kula ‘o Pi’ilani, an independent Hawaiian language school set to start next month in Makawao, will thrive on that freedom and flexibility. It aims to be the only school in the state to offer a curriculum of Hawaiian language and common core grading systems that’s created entirely by the kumu (teacher).

KKOP is open to students of all races and ethnicities; pupils do not need a background in Hawaiian language to attend. In fact, founders are so passionate about inclusivity that they will involve parents in the language-learning journey. Then, parents will be able to help guide children as they navigate future Hawaiian immersion opportunities, whether through public or independent schools.

“Immersion preschool helps with immersion parents,” said Kaimana Brummel, a KKOP board member and Pukalani resident. “We want to continue that for those who didn’t get to go to preschool. In general, if we are talking about strengthening the family unit through Hawaiian values . . . then this is it.”

Students will be under the direction of kumu Kamaleiku’uipookalani Kalehuawehe, who received her bachelor’s degree in Hawaiian Studies from University of Hawaii at Hilo, along with the Indigenous Teacher Education Certificate from Kahuawaiola, a rigorous university program taught only in Hawaiian.

“I grew so much there,” Kalehuawehe said. “I appreciated the challenge.”

The Maui native spent the last year as a student-teacher at Ke Kula ‘O Nawahiokalani-‘opu’u, a K-12 Hawaiian immersion school in Puna, Hawaii, where she said she learned from some of the best Hawaiian language instructors in the state.

“Many of the people in Hilo revitalized our language,” she said. “I always wanted to take that ‘ike, and take that knowledge, and come back to help my community. . . . My goal was to get an education and come back to help my community here.”

Growing up on Maui, Kalehuawehe, who now resides in Wailuku, said she didn’t have the opportunity to attend a Hawaiian language school. She credits her grandmother for sparking a passion for Hawaii’s native tongue and culture, which led to a dream to eventually share it with others. Then, she said, more Hawaiian education options would be available to her nieces, nephews and the future generations.

The Native Hawaiian language is intended for everyone, Kalehuawehe said, especially for kanaka Hawaii -the people of Hawaii.

“It’s for all of us,” she said. “We have open doors. It’s not about being selective, it’s about educating as many people as we can.”

It’s with open doors, arms, minds and hearts that Kalehuawehe and other KKOP leaders will approach families interested in learning more.

“As a kumu, and how I approach my keiki, I would stress that it doesn’t matter what hair color, what gender, what race we are – we are trying to learn and grow as kanaka Hawaii. The kumu is the one who models that kind of behavior. How do we show people love and not discriminate? By teaching our keiki through our (KKOP) three values, ‘ike hawaii (knowledge of ancestry), aloha (love), kuleana (responsibility). Our ancestors were not racist – they welcomed people willingly into our culture, our islands.”

Kalehuawehe said that the Hawaiian language isn’t just for keiki, either.

“It’s for the community and the family members as well,” she said. “It’s always intimidating to learn something new. But our goal is to make our learning environment as comfortable as possible.”

KKOP will solidify its Makawao location in the next week. From there, its team plans to secure licensure for Hawaii Association of Independent Schools, along with accreditation.

* Reach Kehaulani Cerizo at kehau.deutsch@gmail.com.