When the Department of Education piloted two Hawaiian language immersion kindergarten classrooms in 1987, the number of native Hawaiian speakers had dwindled to about 1,500. But three decades later, ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi has become the primary medium of instruction for more than 2,800 keiki a year.

While Ka Papahana Kaiapuni has been in the newly-created Office of Hawaian Education for two years, itis celebrating its 30th anniversary in DOE. That OHE was created shows the value the DOE now places on culture-based education, as well as Hawaiian language. Last year, the DOE introduced a new Seal of Biliteracy for students fluent in more than one language – for kaiapuni graduates, that means that fluency in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi – once banned in public schools – is now a distinction of honor.

“There’s definitely been a positive shift,” said ʻĀnela Iwane, educational specialist for Ka Papahana Kaiapuni, which now has programs in 23 schools on five islands. “I think one of the many accomplishments over 30 years was the movement away from translation into curriculum created in Hawaiian, and from a Hawaiian perspective. That’s huge.”

Immersion curriculum didn’t exist three decades ago. “In the early days, there were no books printed in Hawaiian so there were people that would translate books, then type it out, then we would have to cut it out and paste it over the English in the books,” recalled Mālia Melemai, a resource teacher who started her career in 1991 at Pāʻia Elementary, the state’s third kaiapuni site. As part of the 30th anniversary celebration, OHE will republish some of the first booksthe DOE had created specifically for the kaiapuni program, she said.

Instructional materials are still in short supply – particularly reading books for middle elementary students – but teachers are also becoming more creative at developing their own instead of relying on translations. And many lessons don’t come from books. “One thing that’s unique about immersion education is that we try to teach the kids Hawaiian perspective, which is different from English or Western perspective. So they do spend a lot of time outside of the classroom, for mālama ʻāina, or studying the environment. We call it kilo, to observe,” said Melemai.

That approach has produced successful graduates, including Kalani Peʻa, who gave kaiapuni education an international spotlight when he won a Grammy Award earlier this year. Other graduates are becoming academics and educators, activists and actors, fashion designers and filmmakers. “They’re very normal. They just speak Hawaiian,” said Melemai. “They’re everywhere,” she added, noting that kaiapuni students work at the mall or at other after school jobs. Some immersion graduates return to become kaiapuni teachers. There’s a statewide shortage of math and science teachers in general, and kaiapuni schools have the additional challenge of finding highly qualified subject area teachers who are also fluent in Hawaiian. Rather than relying on emergency hires and substitutes, OHE worked with teacher preparation programs at the University of Hawaiʻi’s Hilo and Mānoa campuses, Kamehameha Schools, the DOE’s Office of Human Resources and the Hawaiʻi Teacher Standards Board to create a Kaiaʻōlelo-Kaiapuni special permit with a different pathway to licensure that includes a 30-hour induction course, a language proficiency interview and a cultural growth and development plan. Participants are also given mentoring and other support as they work toward teaching credentials.

There’s still a long way to go before there’s a kaiapuni program in every community. Waiʻanae and Nānākuli middle and high schoolers have to bus to Ānuenue in Pālolo, Iwane said, raising the question of fair access. And it will take generations to normalize ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi to the point that you’ll find a Hawaiian speaker wherever you go. Yet, 30 years in, the kaiapuni movement is still gaining momentum, with kindergarten and first grade classes just added in Hāna. “It’s been a very grassroots effort,” from the beginning, said Kalae Akioka, a resource teacher who came to OHE from Pūʻōhala Elementary, the second immersion site on Oʻahu. “The parents all banded together, did marches, submitted testimonies, inundated the legislators with letters and every year fought to get more added on.”

The hierarchal public school system doesn’t always engage its stakeholders, said Akioka, but immersion proponents are making progress through ʻAha Kauleo, a statewide council that provides leadership, direction and advocacy for Papahana Kaiapuni Hawaiʻi. “I think it’s a huge accomplishment to be able to move as a community and grassroots organization within a system like this one.”

Check huiheluhelu.weebly.com, aokaiapuni.weebly.com and ahakauleo.org for more information about Ka Papahana Kaiapuni and upcoming anniversary events.


Kalamkūno‘eau Freitas

Kalamkūno‘eau Freitas

Response: ‘O kekahi wā i komo nui iho ai ka ha‘aheo i loko o‘u no ko‘u kula piha ‘ia ma ka kaiaupuni, ‘o ia ka wā pilikia ai ‘o Maunakea i ka ‘ohenānā 30 mika. Ma ia manawa nō au i mahalo nui ai i ka pa‘a o ka‘u ‘ōlelo a me ke kuana‘ike Hawai‘i ia‘u; nā mea e pa‘a pono ai ke kahua o ka Hawai‘i.

One of my proudest moments as an immersion graduate was when the struggle atop Maunkea came to a head over the 30-meter telescope. I truly realized how blessed I am to have this grounding in my Hawaiian language and perspective; the tenets of a solid Hawaiian foundation.

High school alma mater: Ke Kula ‘o ‘Ehunuikaimalino (Kailua-Kona, Hawai‘i)
Year graduated: 2013
Grades attended Kaiapuni: Mālaa‘o – Papa ‘Umikūmālua (K-12)
Current occupation: Kaiapuni Teacher

Leahi Hall

Leahu Hall

Response: Ma muli o ka hana a aloha nui o nā kūpuna, nā mākua a me nā kumu, uaulu ehuehu a pa‘a hina ‘ole kēia polokalamu ho‘oulu i ka pilina kaiapuni Hawai‘i. Mohala nāpua mai ia kahua ku‘una a kūpa‘a i ke ko‘iko‘i o ka pilina i ka mauli ola. Ke ulu nei nō ka lālā i ke kumu.

A labor of love by kūpuna, parents and teachers, birthed this thriving program preserving the value of relationships to Hawaiians. Its graduates, grounded in an understanding of relationships to wellbeing, are the branches that grow from the solid trunk of those who came before.

High school alma mater: Kula Kaiapuni o Maui ma Kekaulike
Year graduated: 2001
Grades attended Kaiapuni: Pu¯nana Leo o Maui – Papa ‘Umikūmālua (P-12)
Current occupation: Community Engagement, Discovery Land Company; Doctoral Student, Pepperdine University

Lāiana Kanoa-Wong

Lāiana Kanoa-Wong

Response: I ka mālama ‘ana i nā kuleana ‘aha ‘awa no Hōkūle‘a. Mahalo nui wau i nā kumu, nā mākua a me nā alaka‘i o nā kula kaiapuni. U a ho‘opa‘a pono ke kula kaiapuni i ko‘u kahua Hawai‘i, i hiki ke kūkulu a ‘auamo pono i nā kuleana like ‘ole no ko kākou lāhui.

…as I took on the kuleana for various ‘awa ceremonies for Hōkūle‘a’s Worldwide Voyage. I have a great mahalo for the teachers, parents, and leadership of the immersion schools. They set a solid foundation that I could build upon to assume various kuleana for our lāhui.

High school alma mater: Ke Kula Kaiapuni ‘o Ānuenue
Year graduated: 2002
Grades attended Kaiapuni: PŪnana Leo o Honolulu – Papa ‘Umikūmālua (P-12)
Current occupation: Hawaiian Cultural Specialist, Kamehameha Schools

Punahelekeli‘inuikeolamailokahi Oana

Punahelekeli‘inuikeolamailokahi Oana

Response: Iā mākou ko Manaola e hālā wai a ho‘omākaukau ana no ka Pule Kaila Nūioka 2017, ua nui ka ho‘ohana ‘ia o ka ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i. U a nui ka ha‘aheo! ‘A‘ole nō kā mākou e hana ana ma ia pō‘aiapili ma NYC wale nō, akā, no ka pā o ka mākou hana i ka ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i kekahi!

As our Manaola team prepared for NYC Fashion Week 2017, it dawned on me how much Hawaiian we were using in our meetings. I felt so proud, not only because of what we were doing and where we were, but because I knew our ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i had a place in that process.

High school alma mater:
Ke Kula ‘o Samuel M. Kamakau (also former Ke Kula Kaiapuni o Anuenue student)
Year graduated: 2012
Grades attended Kaiapuni: Mālaa‘o – Papa ‘Umikūmālua (K-12)
Current occupation: Inventory Manager, Manaola Hawai‘i

Keli‘i Wilson

Keli‘i Wilson

Response: Ua hū a‘e ka ha‘aheo ma ko‘u wā i hiki ai ke kū‘ai i ka‘u kamepiula Mac hou a ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i me ka limahana o laila! Hau‘oli loa au i ko‘u kama‘a¯ina ‘ole i nā kānaka a pau i hiki ke ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i ma kēia wā o ko‘u ola. Ke ola nei nō ka ‘ōlelo a he mahalo nui ko‘u i ko ka papahana!

I was stoked when I bought my Mac computer from an employee that could speak Hawaiian! I ’m just happy to be at a place in my life where I actually don’t know all the people that can speak Hawaiian. Our language is living and it’s due in no small part to our immersion program!

High school alma mater: Ke Kula ‘o Nāwahīokalani‘ōpu‘u
Year graduated: 2001
Grades attended Kaiapuni: Pūnana Leo o Hilo – Papa ‘Umikūmālua (P-12)
Current occupation: Entrepreneur