Principal aims to preserve culture, fill immersion job

West Maui parents and principals are in the process of securing a Hawaiian language teaching position at Lahaina Intermediate School next fall.

The move to establish a Hawaiian immersion program in West Maui would save hours of commute time for students who ride the bus Upcountry daily to attend Kalama Intermediate School’s Hawaiian immersion program.

“We want an immersion program so our kids at Princess (Nahienaena) Elementary have someplace to go,” said Tiara Ueki, president of Hawaiian language parent group Na Leo Kalele. “Right now, parents are busing their children Upcountry. The kids have to get on the bus about 5:30 a.m. every morning.”

Ueki’s daughter will need to ride the bus to Kalama next year if the Hawaiian language program is not expanded in Lahaina. Ueki has been meeting with community members, school administration and department officials for about a year.

Having a program at Lahaina Intermediate School, and eventually Lahainaluna High School, is “important for our generation to learn our culture and language where they live,” she said.

Kalama is the only Maui middle school that offers a Hawaiian language immersion program, according to state Department of Education officials.

Enrollment in the immersion program at Princess Nahienaena Elementary has grown almost to capacity in recent years, with about 60 students, kindergarten through 6th grade, currently enrolled. If no immersion program is available at Lahaina Intermediate next year, most of those students will have to either quit the immersion program or travel to Kalama.

Lahaina Intermediate Principal Marsha Nakamura said a number of issues must first be addressed before the program may be expanded to the middle school, the first of which is to find a qualified Hawaiian language teacher to teach 6th-, 7th- and 8th-graders.

“Right now, the priority is finding someone, so we’re trying to get the word out,” Nakamura said. “We do support the community. This is Hawaii. We don’t want the culture or language to become extinct. . . . We want to be able to accommodate our own children instead of busing them across the island.”

Lahaina Intermediate started a Hawaiian immersion program in 2005, but it was discontinued after one year because of a lack of qualified secondary teachers, Nakamura said. The teacher allocation for Lahaina was eventually transferred to Kalama Intermediate School, which now has three Hawaiian immersion teachers.

In order for Lahaina Intermediate to acquire a Hawaiian language teacher, the school will need to reclaim its teacher allocation from Kalama. That means Kalama would lose one of its Hawaiian language teachers, according to a DOE education specialist.

“One of the positions that our office gives to Kalama will be moved to Lahaina Intermediate, that process has already started,” said Kaui Sang, who works for the department’s Hawaiian language immersion programs office. “There’s a staffing formula that we follow, and currently Kalama receives an additional position. We’re just reassigning it back to Lahaina.”

Sang said she had spoken with Kalama Intermediate School Principal John Costales previously, and “he understands the staffing formula.”

Attempts to reach Costales by phone and email were unsuccessful last week.

The staffing formula itself poses a number of additional challenges though, Nakamura said. Because Lahaina Intermediate would have only one Hawaiian language teacher certified in one core subject area, immersion students would be spending the majority of their class periods in English-speaking courses. In addition, that teacher would have to be to teach multiple grade levels, which can become extremely challenging for one person. Lastly, Nakamura said she was worried that most parents would still opt to bus their kids Upcountry because Kalama has an established program and more teachers, which would provide a more comprehensive immersion program.

Ueki said that, as a parent, she would keep her three children in the Lahaina complex district if the Hawaiian immersion programs were available, even if it means they “won’t be totally immersed.”

“Kalama is not a fully immersed school either,” Ueki said. “Our goal would be that students are taught in olelo (Hawaiian language) in all core subjects, but that doesn’t look like it’s going to happen.”

Others also supported bringing Hawaiian immersion to secondary schools in Lahaina.

“Lahainaluna High School was the original Hawaiian immersion school. To return that tradition of Hawaiian language education to Lahainaluna has been the greater goal,” said kumu Liko Rogers, a Hawaiian language kindergarten teacher.

“Moving forward, a pattern for expansion would be to work with parents, teachers and the community to help drive expansion to higher grade levels,” Department of Education spokesman Alex Da Silva said. “For West Maui, the hope is to have a full K-12 Hawaiian language immersion offering in the district.”

The next meeting is scheduled for 5 p.m. Jan. 6 at the Princess Nahienaena Elementary library. For more information about the open teaching position and qualifications, call Princess Nahienaena Elementary Principal Lynn Kaho’ohalahala at 662-4020.

* Eileen Chao can be reached at