KAILUA — “There is no loss in choosing Kaiapuni,” exclaims Pahonu Coleman, a freshman at Kailua High School in Windward O‘ahu. “No loss, only opportunity."
This school year Kailua High joins 21 other public schools that host the Department’s Hawaiian Language Immersion Program, Ka Papahana Kaiapuni — or Kaiapuni for short. Students in Kaiapuni not only speak primarily in ‘ōlelo Hawaiʻi (Hawaiian language) when in school, but also study a reworked curriculum that aligns with a Hawaiian cultural perspective.
The new program is led by Kalae Akioka, a veteran teacher who worked at Windward Community College under a grant focused on Early College for Kaiapuni before responding to the Department's request to help lead the effort at Kailua High. She emphasizes the importance of striking a balance between teaching her students through the Hawaiian lens and preparing them for life after Kaiapuni.
“As [our students] get older, it’s important for them to have access to a diversity of perspectives and experiences to prepare them for their futures,” says Akioka. “Not only do they have to figure out how to navigate what is Hawaiian and what is Western in the world, but also in themselves. It’s a conversation we need to have.”
Students in Kailua's first Kaiapuni cohort express that, in less than a year, the program has helped them begin to heal generational traumas and challenge the narrative that ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i is not relevant in today’s society.
One of the many student-led projects that have come out of this program is a Hawaiian Word of the Week video series that can be found on the school’s Instagram page in honor of February being Hawaiian Language Month.
Closer to home
Establishing Kaiapuni in Kailua made the program significantly more available to interested students and families, especially on the Windward side. Before the addition of this campus, only two schools on O‘ahu offered Kaiapuni for high school grades — Kahuku High and Intermediate and Ke Kula Kaiapuni ‘o Ānuenue, a K-12 campus in Pālolo Valley — making the immersion option challenging to access for many students. There are approximately 2,200 HIDOE students enrolled in Kaiapuni programs statewide.
“I really wanted to go to a Kaiapuni high school but there were none, at least not close to where I live,” said Kailua High sophomore Kilinahe Naluai.
Naluai, who was enrolled in Kaiapuni from grades K-8, left HIDOE in her first year of high school. When she learned that Kailua High School was opening a Kaiapuni program, she immediately returned.
“It’s great to watch this program grow because, before, it was like we went to Kaiapuni all our lives and then in high school, it just stopped,” Naluai shared. “So when I heard they were making a Kaiapuni in Kailua, I was excited.”
The future of Kaiapuni
Akioka wears many hats when running Kailua’s Kaiapuni program. “This is the life of every immersion teacher. You have to teach all of these different subject areas,” she shares when discussing her numerous responsibilities.
In addition to teaching a variety of subjects, Akioka rebuilds all of her teaching materials or starts from scratch for each class so that they fit Kaiapuni standards. Her students recognize the time and effort she spends in order to keep their program running.
“We’re so thankful for Kumu Kalae,” Coleman says. “Because we’re the first [Kaiapuni class in Kailua], teachers have to be curriculum developers. On top of that, translating is more than just changing the words from English to Hawaiian — there’s perspective and other things to consider. She does a lot of hard work.”
In recognition of this effort, Hawaiian language immersion programs are a high-need area eligible for the Department's teacher pay differential.
Alongside her dedication, Akioka attributes the successful establishment of the new Kaiapuni program to Kailua High Principal Stacey Oshio, Deputy Superintendent Phyllis Unebasami, and the staff in the Office of Hawaiian Education (OHE) for the roles they played in gathering resources.
Advocates of Kaiapuni are always looking to grow the program and bring ‘ike (knowledge) to a wider population of students. Expanding to Kailua High was a step in the right direction, and there is a need for more qualified teachers.
If you or someone you know is interested in becoming a teacher and joining the Kaiapuni ‘ohana, consider applying by filling out an application.