Viewpoint: Let the Hawaiian language live

Recently, on a damp and blessed morning in front of Paia School, I stood amongst fellow supporters of the Hawaiian language immersion program. Many of those present have lives that overlap. Indeed, our community is full of active, talented, educated, passionate and loving people. We are a dynamic community of Hawaiians and non-Hawaiians alike, with a common belief that the children of Hawaii have the right to be educated in ka ‘olelo ‘oiwi, or the native language of this land.

The concept of employing a lottery to determine who will be allowed into an immersion school is oppressive in nature. Most recently, the single-handed decision of a school principal to lottery 40 spots among 53 applicants to Paia School has impacts far beyond the 13 children who would be denied. Although, the immediate goal is to stop the lottery, we believe systematic change is needed to ensure the Hawaii Department of Education is not allowed to gamble with our children’s education.

Should the state allow a lottery, it is choosing indifference in a time that requires due diligence, recognition and thoughtful consideration of state responsibilities to na kupa o ka ‘aina, or natives of this land. Commit ongoing support to revitalize Hawaiian language because we are in the midst of actual progress and growth. It is not acceptable to hold us down by refusing support an equal opportunity for education on Maui.

Learning our language is a right, not a privilege.

This right was legally banned from 1896 to 1978, and public education helped to implement this ban. As a result, a generational gap occurred in the usage and what would have been the natural evolution of our mother tongue. In fact, by the 1980s, Hawaiian language was near extinct.

A generation later, against amazing odds, our language lives. We actually celebrate that as many as 53 children, not including additional families who missed the March 1 deadline to apply for a geographic exception, are knocking on the door.

That said, the process requiring families intent on accessing immersion education to petition for a geographic exception is inappropriate. Paia School is our central elementary home school because there is no other immersion school on this side of the island. Likewise, Princess Nahienaena Elementary serves West Maui for the same purpose.

Even so, families seeking immersion education have complied to deadlines and processes that have not been imposed upon English programs in the same way, not only at Paia School but across the state. For example, applications for geographic exceptions shall be received at times when unforeseen circumstances arise (e.g., student relocates). However, it is fact that families who have moved to Maui whose children have only known Hawaiian language immersion education have been turned away from Paia School due to imposed space restrictions and deadlines.

Finally, our language is as vital as the food we eat, carrying with it ancestral knowledge and universal wisdom that help many of us find our way in the current landscape. At this time, a call for change in policy is warranted to protect immersion education and ensure the continued revitalization of the language, culture and people of Hawaii.

Rather than lottery, let’s work together to find solutions for fair and equal access to education for all. E ola ka ‘olelo Hawai’i.

* Kalele Kekauoha-Schultz is a parent of children in the Hawaiian language immersion program, an educator and a Hawaiian cultural practitioner with a bachelor’s degree in Hawaiian studies and a Master of Science in counseling psychology degree.