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UH-Hilo College of Hawaiian Language hosting symposium

January 10, 2014 - 10:13pm

Hawaii’s P-20 Program

The state’s Hawaiian language P-20 educational immersion system includes:

11 Punana Leo laboratory school sites statewide:

• Punana Leo O Hilo

• Punana Leo O Kona

• Punana Leo O Waimea

• Punana Leo O Maui

• Punana Leo O Molokai

• Punana Leo O Manoa

• Punana Leo O Honolulu

• Punana Leo O Koolau Poko

• Punana Leo O Koolau Loa

• Punana Leo O Waianae

• Punana Leo O Kauai

It also includes:

• One K-12 site at Keaau, Puna Ke Kula O Nawahiokalaniopuu located on a single campus with a Punana Leo and having K-8 programming operated as a charter school and 9-12 programming operated as an off-campus site of Hilo High School.

• Two small satellite sites of the charter at Nawahi, one in Waimea, Hawaii and the other at Waianae, Oahu.

• One P-12 site on Oahu: Ke Kula O Samuel M. Kamakau (a charter)

• Two K-12 sites on Kauai: Ke Kula Niihau O Kekaha (both charters)

Next week, the University of Hawaii at Hilo’s College of Hawaiian Language will welcome indigenous language scholars from around the world as it showcases its highly successful program aimed at preserving the Hawaiian language and culture.

The 21st Stabilizing Indigenous Languages Symposium, which opens Monday, focuses on bringing together educators, researchers, delegates and tribes representing Native American and other indigenous languages in North America.

The goal of the conference, according to Professor William “Pila” Wilson, Academics Division chairman at the college, is for educators to share research and other information that can help further their efforts to preserve endangered languages.

UH-Hilo’s Hawaiian language studies program serves as a piece of a larger “P-20” immersion program currently serving about 1,500 students in the state, which has experienced remarkable growth and success, he said. It aims to provide an integrated educational track for students from preschool through doctorate level using the Hawaiian language. It is the only one of its kind in the nation. Indigenous immersion schools elsewhere in the U.S. and Canada end at the elementary level, or, rarely, at middle school. Therefore, Wilson said, it serves as a model for the smaller indigenous language programs that are looking to grow and prosper.

In Hawaii, Wilson said, there are more than 2,000 children enrolled in preschool to high school who are being taught in Hawaiian. That number represents more than half of all children who attend school taught in all other Native American languages in the U.S.

The recent resurgence of the Hawaiian language is especially successful considering it was illegal to teach students in Hawaiian from 1896 until about 1986:

“This was in alignment with U.S. policy and practice regarding American Indian languages in schooling, and through the efforts of Sen. (Daniel) Inouye and others the U.S. policy was changed under the Native American Languages Act of 1990. The Punana Leo preschools which began in 1985 were the first modern schools taught entirely through a Native American language. Other groups have followed the Punana Leo, especially since passage of NALA,” Wilson said.

“The goal of these groups, as with us, is to revitalize and maintain their ancestral indigenous languages as living languages. They want to keep the languages from going extinct. Our college and its laboratory school program has been very successful in revitalizing Hawaiian, first as a fluent language of young college students, then as a fluent language of schooling, and now as the home language that graduates of our program are using as a first language with their children.

“Nowhere in the United States has such progress been made in revitalizing a nearly extinct language,” he said.

There are now approximately 175 surviving Native American languages, out of about 300 that existed when Columbus first reached the New World, he said. Of those 175, only about 20 have children who currently speak them.

The common opinion within the general public had long been that it would be impossible to operate schools using Native American languages, and if it were attempted, those children would be denied a quality academic education and would be unable to read and write English. But that assertion has been shown to be in error, Wilson said.

“Native American students who attend schooling through their own languages have actually done better academically than their Native American peers in standard English medium schools, and all have graduated speaking English,” he said.

Keaau’s preschool through 12th grade program at Puna Ke Kula O Nawahiokalaniopuu, also known as Nawahi, has proved to be a perfect example, he added, with students exhibiting a 100 percent high school graduation rate and 80 percent college attendance rate since its first high school graduation in 1999.

One of the barriers to education using Native American languages, however, has been testing. Assessing academic learning at the state and federal levels has proved difficult because the government does not have experts in producing standardized tests in the languages. In Nawahi’s case, the school had to produce its own Hawaiian language medium tests in concert with university experts, Wilson said.

These and other barriers are regularly addressed at SILS conferences, he said, and now that the College of Hawaiian Language has its new building, Hilo worked out to be the perfect place to hold the symposium this year.

In addition to presentations of scholarly papers and research, the 300 attendees will have opportunities to participate in hands-on learning experiences involving Hawaiian practices and culture.

Hailing from 25 U.S. states, eight Canadian provinces and territories, and nine other nations, the symposium delegates will spend much of their time visiting classrooms and laboratories in East Hawaii’s P-20 system, as well as taking time to interact with area families involved in language revitalization. The conference runs through Jan. 19.

Email Colin M. Stewart at

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