Group wants Paia School to be entirely immersion

Enrollment of students at Paia School’s Hawaiian Language Immersion Program has grown so rapidly in the past three years that some parents are now pushing to convert the school to an entirely Hawaiian-speaking immersion site.

“If you look across the state at some of these immersion schools like on Oahu or on the Big Island, the learning environment is very different when it’s fully immersed in the language, versus a split,” said Sheri Daniels, president of Na Leo Kako’o O Maui, a group of parents and community members that support Ke Kula Kaiapuni O Maui (the Hawaiian Language Immersion Schools).

“Right now, they (students) are taught Hawaiian in the classroom, but other activities like sports or recess are often conducted in English; whereas in an all-Hawaiian immersion, everything is in Hawaiian,” Daniels said. “It’s not just about ‘Oh, my kid can speak a second language or my kid can talk Hawaiian.’ It’s about an identity, a lifestyle. It’s about who they are and where they come from.”

The Hawaiian Language Immersion Program at Paia School started in 1989 with just a handful of students, but it has since grown to an enrollment of 243 students from kindergarten through 5th grade, many of whom ride buses to the school from other districts. The only other elementary school on Maui that offers a Hawaiian immersion program is Princess Nahienaena Elementary in Lahaina.

The immersion side of the school accounts for nearly 70 percent of Paia School’s enrollment, outnumbering the nonimmersion, or English-speaking side, which has only 113 students enrolled.

Last spring, the immersion program received nearly 60 applications for kindergarten students, which exceeded the 40-student enrollment cap and prompted school officials to propose a lottery selection system. The lottery would have turned away dozens of incoming students.

Parents fiercely protested the proposal, which eventually was abandoned after a third Hawaiian immersion class was created to accommodate all immersion applicants.

The addition of a kindergarten class is a long-term investment in the program because more classes in other grades will have to be added over the next five years to accommodate the increased enrollment. Currently, the Hawaiian immersion program at Paia has three kindergarten teachers, two for each grade from 1st to 3rd and one each for the 4th and 5th grades. The English-speaking side has one teacher per grade.

Because the majority of Paia School students are enrolled in the immersion program, Hawaiian language should be “at the center of our school,” one parent said.

“English is at the center and Hawaiian is in the margin, even though we are the school majority,” Kahele Dukelow, a parent of three Hawaiian immersion children and a professor of Hawaiian studies at the University of Hawaii Maui College, said in an email. “A full immersion site is needed to fully develop appropriate learning environments for Hawaiian language development. It is difficult to do this as part of an English-dominated space.”

She added that because there are no other viable facilities, or “empty schools,” on Maui, “Paia is our only option for a full immersion site.”

“We really don’t have a choice,” Dukelow said.

But for Johnalyn Fujieda, who has two children currently enrolled in the English-speaking program at Paia School, the thought of moving elsewhere is “hard to imagine.”

“I would hate to see my children leave their community to go to school somewhere else,” said Fujieda, whose family has lived in Paia for generations. “We encourage our kids to hang out with their peers in their neighborhood. These are the kids who they’re going to see for the rest of their lives. They’re invested here.”

She added that most of the students on the nonimmersion side are the ones who actually live in the Paia school district, whereas many of the immersion students commute from out-of-district.

“It’s sad to see that the majority of people who will be displaced are from Paia, these are the people who need this campus the most,” Fujieda said. “I love the immersion program. I would like to see them grow to other locations all around the island, but I don’t want to see any families displaced, especially families that have been here for years. We want to continue to share the school.”

Daniels said that Na Leo Kako’o O Maui is not looking to “kick anybody out” but merely wants to start the conversation on how to address the growing enrollment numbers without having to face the threat of a lottery every other year.

“Race has nothing to do with it. Language ability has nothing to do with it. They just have to understand that the medium that is going to be taught is olelo Hawaii,” Daniels said, adding that all students interested in a Hawaiian immersion education would be accepted regardless of race or cultural identity.

The “transition” will likely happen over the course of several years, so that students already enrolled at Paia would not be forced to move to neighboring elementary schools in Haiku or Makawao, Daniels said. Instead, the English language side would be slowly phased out by no longer offering an English kindergarten at Paia School.

But both Makawao and Haiku elementary schools are already at capacity, according to a state Department of Education spokeswoman.

“Paia School is established as the community public school in that area to service all children,” spokeswoman Donalyn Dela Cruz said in an email. “Most Kaiapuni (immersion) schools are charter schools. . . . However, in this case, there is an expressed desire by parents of the Hawaiian immersion students to convert Paia Elementary School into a DOE Kaiapuni school. This type of conversion has not been done before.”

She added that the process would need to be discussed by the community, brought before the Board of Education and then executed by the department.

“The discussion of adding a full immersion school in the community due to the growing interest of the language program at Paia is a very important decision that should be driven by the community and its stakeholders,” Dela Cruz said.

Repeated attempts to reach Paia School Principal Sue Alivado were unsuccessful.

There are currently six self-contained Hawaiian immersion schools in the state, with two department schools (Kula Kaiapuni o Anuenue on Oahu and Ke Kula o Ehunuikaimalino on Hawaii Island) and four charter schools. There are four schools with immersion programs on Maui, but no self-contained Hawaiian immersion schools, according to state records.

Na Leo Kako’o O Maui will hold two meetings to discuss the issue – from 9 to 10:30 a.m. Saturday in the Paia School Cafeteria and from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Oct. 9 at the Paia Community Center.

* Eileen Chao can be reached at