Celebrating Success of Hawaiian Immersion Schools

by Staff on June 9, 2011

Keiki dancing the hula

The Importance of Native Culture and Language-Based Education and the Need for Federal Support

While the 2011 Diplomas Count report has once again ranked Hawaii in the bottom third of states with students who graduate with a diploma, other educators across the nation are looking to Hawaii’s unique culture-based education as a model for success.

The U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs recently held a hearing, entitled, “In Our Way: Expanding the Success of Native Language & Culture-Based Education” to better understand the trends and achievements related to educational programs that have foundations in Native culture and language, and to share ideas of how to best apply the strategies that lead to success for Native students.

Several Native Hawaiian educators were among those invited to share testimony on their own experience with culture-based education.  Hawaii’s marked success in revitalizing the Native language – a language defined as “endangered” just 30 years ago – is an important and encouraging example to other Native communities who face the challenges of language and cultural loss.

In his opening remarks, Senator David K. Akaka noted the difficulty he had as a young student learning to read at a time when Native culture and language were not a significant part of the school curriculum.  He gave an example of a simple word – “snow” – that he could not readily relate to as a child.  And while the example seems humorous now, his point was well taken: Students are less likely to succeed if they feel disconnected from what they are learning.  And on the other hand, when they are given the opportunity to be taught by teachers and through a curriculum that celebrates and incorporates their Native culture and language, they are much more likely to succeed.  Akaka explained, “I believe that one way to get to these young people is through their culture.”

Namaka Rawlins, past executive director of ‘Aha Punana Leo and liaison from UH Hilo College of Hawaiian Language, supported this notion with striking statistics.  Rawlins cited the successes of the P-20 vertical alignment Native immersion education, including a 100 percent graduation rate and 80 percent college enrollment.  In order to facilitate a sharing of this academic model with other Native communities, Rawlins urged the committee to consider allowing the consortium in Hilo to serve parallel to the state education agency for the U.S. Department of Education (DOE), as a “federally mandated center for excellence for any school that meets the definition of a Native American language nest or Native American survival school”.

Native Hawaiian educators will have another chance to be heard in Washington, D.C. and celebrate successes with other Native educators and advocates.  On June 21, 2011, non-profit Cultural Survival will host a free, public event, entitled “Celebrating Native American Language Revitalization in Film”.  Several documentary films highlighting the struggles and successes of Native language revitalization projects will be screened, and Native language advocates and community members will be on hand for Q&A sessions.

The following day, June 22, 2011, Cultural Survival and the National Alliance to Save Native Languages have organized a Language Rights Advocacy Day on Capitol Hill, through which advocates and volunteers for Native American, Native Alaskan, and Native Hawaiian languages will bring a positive message to Congress about this growing Indigenous language revitalization movement, that is currently operating at maximum capacity with limited federal support and funding.

If you will be in the D.C. area on June 21-22 and would like to participate in these events in support of Native Hawaiian and other Native language and culture-based education, you may visit Cultural Survival’s website for more information, register here, or contact Program Officer, Jennifer Weston by email at jweston@cs.org.

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