Michael Yasak and Kili Namau‘u. - Photo: Courtesy Kili Namau‘u

When Gov. David Ige handpicked Kili Namauʻu to replace Grant Chun on the Maui County seat for the State Board of Education, he chose a leader deeply entrenched in Native Hawaiian culture both personally and professionally.

Namauʻu and her husband of 31 years, Michael Yasak, have three children who grew up attending public school in the Hawaiian language immersion program (HLIP). All graduated from King Kekaulike High School and have gone on to receive bachelor’s degrees in college.

Their daughter, Kiani Yasak, 29, teaches at Kalama Intermediate School in HLIP, while Kālia Yasak, 26, is a preschool kumu and helped open the Pūnana Leo o Lāhaina School in August 2016. Their son Kūākea Yasak, 23, graduated last year from the Institute of American Indian Arts. Namauʻu’s professional ties run just as deep. Since 1993 she’s been the director of the Hawaiian language immersion preschool Pūnana Leo o Maui and in 2009 she was named Educator of the Year by the Native Hawaiian Education Association.

“Hawaiian Language Immersion Program schools are producing bright, caring, world-view young adults who are secure in their identity and are self confident as they express themselves in at least two languages.”
– Kili Namau‘u, Board of Education

Namauʻu’s term on the Maui County seat runs through June 30, 2020. Her appointment means all Board of Education seats have now been filled by Ige appointees. She gave a quick Q&A to Ka Wai Ola to introduce herself to our readers.

Q: As a longtime educator, what do you see today as the biggest challenge facing the DOE when it comes to Native Hawaiian education?

A: In my opinion, one of the greatest challenges facing the DOE is applicable to the entire statewide system and not just Native Hawaiian education, and this is the lack of adequate funding of resources so that we may provide the best educational opportunities for students.

“The Office of Hawaiian Education (OHE) has been established in the DOE and has made great strides in recent years. We now have an appropriate assessment policy and Hawaiian Language Arts Standards were recently adopted by the BOE. However, the popularity and growth of Native Hawaiian education is outpacing resources such as finding and then retaining certified ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi kumu (Hawaiian language teachers) and facilities to house classrooms. While I am most familiar with the Hawaiian immersion schools on Maui, it has always been a struggle to maintain enough kumu statewide. Also, classroom space is needed, especially at Pāʻia and Princess Nahiʻenaʻena Elementary Schools.

Q: Should traditional schools incorporate some of the Hawaiian-focused and Hawaiian language immersion programs offered by charter schools?

A: First, I want to clarify that some of our Hawaiian immersion programs are housed in traditional school settings, as well as in some charter schools. I believe that our culturally based education programs have a lot to offer traditional schools. I am thrilled and encouraged that the BOE and DOE joint strategic plan for our public schools has adopted Nā Hopena Aʻo or HĀ. HĀ is a cultural framework that is providing a foundation in Hawaiian values, language and history to public school students. Our ancestors provided this strong foundation for all of us to learn beyond the classroom on how to be resourceful, responsible and kind people. I couldn’t be prouder of the graduates from our immersion programs. HLIP schools are producing bright, caring, world-view young adults who are secure in their identity and are self confident as they express themselves in at least two languages. Cultural-based education positively affects the students as well as the entire ʻohana. Engaged families in traditional school settings can make significant impacts on a child’s education.

Q: You’re also the owner of Ke Kihapai Bed & Breakfast in Kula. That must give you some interesting insight as to what visitors perceive about Hawaiʻi and Native Hawaiians. Are there any common perceptions you’d like to change or build on?

A: I strive to enhance the experiences of our guests. I am fascinated by their backgrounds and curious as to why they chose Hawaiʻi to spend their precious vacation time. While exchanging manaʻo and ideas, it allows me the opportunity to share our rich culture. A small example is our property has native plants throughout and I am able to explain food sources, medicinal uses and lei making. Often our guests are not aware of the history of Hawaiʻi. We can have great discussions about political history and the overthrow of the monarchy and sovereignty. My passion is the revitalization of ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi (the Hawaiian of our language and the efforts over the last 30+ years to educate and create new generations of speakers.

Q: What would you most like to accomplish during your term?

A: I hope to foster a better understanding for those who are unaware or wary of Hawaiian immersion education and cultural based learning. I am a very hands-on person and I would like to be a BOE member who has direct interactions with administrators, teachers, parents and students. I am interested in exploring the fluidity of the public school system. I hope to help eliminate the layers of bureaucracy. It may take longer than the three years that I am charged with, but I have faith that I will be able to contribute to some forward momentum.