A Small School With a Big Vision

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Ke Kula ʻo Piʻilani is among Hawaiʻi’s newest, smallest schools; founded in 2015, its student body comprises just 45 keiki in grades kindergarten through 5. But what it lacks in size and longevity, it more than makes up for in heart, vision and innovation. The nonprofit, private immersion elementary school is committed to its mission: “Nurturing lifelong learners and passionate community leaders by cultivating an enriching environment of academic excellence grounded in Hawaiian culture and values.”

According to Kekai Robinson, the Poʻokula Kūikawā (Provisional Head of School), Ke Kula ʻo Piʻilani’s two-acre location in ʻĪao Valley on Maui is significant. “We’re blessed to be nourished by this beautiful place,” she said. “We’re able to orient ourselves in the world because of the strong foundation and connection we have to this land – the sacred, final resting place for Maui’s highest-ranking aliʻi. Being stewards of this ʻāina is a kuleana that we do not take lightly. We encourage our students to become the living manifestations of kuleana, aloha, and ʻimi ʻike.”

The school’s five teachers, two administrators, and seven to ten cultural practitioners all come from Nā Wai ʻEhā, the Central Maui district that encompasses ʻĪao Valley and four life-sustaining streams – Waikapū, Wailuku, Waiehu and Waiheʻe. They believe children learn best through hands-on experiences; to that end, lessons blend high-touch learning (kinesthetic, experiential, place-based) with high-tech learning (coding, game-based, and inquiry-based; the latter motivates them to conduct their own research, observations, and/or experiments rather than being told the answers or information).

Classes taught by the practitioners are viewed as enrichment courses at most schools, but they are an integral part of Ke Kula ʻo Piʻilani’s curriculum. Topics include Papa Mele (Hawaiian music), Papa Hula (Hawaiian dance), Papa Oli (Hawaiian chant), Papa Hoʻokele (non-instrument navigation), Papa Mahi ʻAi (subsistence agriculture) and Papa Kapa, Kaula and Kāpala (traditional textile and native Hawaiian fiber arts).

“As an independent school, we have the flexibility to adapt our curriculum to best meet our haumāna’s needs and maximize the talents of our teachers, who are rooted in the ʻāina and can help our keiki build a strong pilina or closeness and feeling of responsibility to it,” Robinson said. “Our practitioners invite students to view the world through the eyes of our Hawaiian ancestors. Our educational model integrates traditional ʻike with contemporary skills and knowledge; from the time they are in kindergarten, our students learn that the knowledge and values of our Hawaiian ancestors have relevance today.”

Each quarter of the school year focuses on a theme: Wai, Lani, ʻĀina or Kai. Mornings are devoted to Western academics (math, science, social studies and language arts), but lessons are planned in the context of Hawaiian language, history and cultural practices. For example, before the arrival of Westerners, Hawaiians’ counting system was based on four and multiples of four by 10 (e.g., 4, 40, 400, 4,000, etc.). Kāuna, the word for a unit of four, supposedly came about because people counted fish, coconuts, taro and other items by holding two in each hand or tying them in bundles of four. The number 12 would be ʻekolu kāuna or “three fours,” according to this traditional method, which is taught at Ke Kula ʻo Piʻilani along with regular math.

PHoto: Akemi Thayer (Grade 2), Uluokalā Thayer (Grade 4) and Hilinaʻi Kodani (Grade 3)
From front to back in this photo taken last school year, Akemi Thayer (Grade 2), Uluokalā Thayer (Grade 4) and Hilinaʻi Kodani (Grade 3) practice stamping before they use their stamps on the kapa piece that they have collaborated on.

During the afternoon, the children make kāhili, carve pahu, weave lauhala and more. Activities are age-appropriate; for example, for the segment on kapa, kindergarten, first and second graders learn how to grow and clean wauke while keiki in the third, fourth and fifth grades harvest wauke, prepare and pound it into kapa and make kīhei. On day-long field trips, haumāna do reef studies and work at a farm.

Last year, when lockdowns were mandated and online instruction was instituted to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Ke Kula ʻo Piʻilani’s staff saw it as an opportunity to hone their technological expertise and develop new digital resources. Students will be returning to campus when school starts this month, and even though restrictions have been relaxed, Robinson expects health and safety protocols to continue, including sanitary practices, social distancing, and the wearing of masks.

“Although we’re still navigating the challenges brought on by the pandemic, we’re looking forward to another fulling and productive school year,” she said. “Being a small school is beneficial because we normally operate in small bubbles; no class is larger than 10 children. Support from the community and our haumāna’s families has played a major role in our success, as has the acknowledgment that practicing Hawaiian culture is not an occasional thing. It’s an important part of our daily lives, and the wisdom of our kūpuna is applicable in the modern world.”


Ke Kula ʻo Piʻilani offers project-based beginning and intermediate Hawaiian language classes for adults. Classes run from September through May, and proceeds support the school’s programs. Interested community members may sign up by calling (808) 214-5006 or emailing admin@kekulaopiilani.com.