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Hawaiian School Children Rekindle Passion for Native Language & Culture


Students at Anuenue Hawaiian Immersion School in Honolulu straddle 2 worlds. At home they speak English. In school -- from gym class to science lab -- they speak Hawaiian. They also learn Hawaiian chants and the ancient Hawaiian art of conflict resolution.

When VOA visited the school, a class of 6th graders was outdoors in the taro field. Taro -- the root crop brought here long ago by migrating Polynesians -- is a staple in Hawaii. According to Hawaiian tradition, it was the plant form of the great god Kane -- the giver of life.

Baba Yim, who learned Hawaiian as a second language in college, teaches the agrarian class. "Every week we take part of our morning to care for the taro patch and clean up the leaves that fall. And we make sure that the water is running," he says. "The students see the importance of taking care of the whole stream because we take water from a stream that comes from somewhere else. But when we return it back to the stream it is actually cleaner than when we got it."

Baba Yim says his work is more of a life than a job. "It is not just one child kiki who goes here," he says. "(We have) brothers, sisters and cousins -- big extended families throughout our school."

Students in the 6th grade English class feel the same way. Kanani, 13, says the corridors of her school are like her home. 'I came to this school because I wanted to learn more about who I really am and how I became a Hawaiian… and who are my ancestors," she says. "I've learned that my people stick up for themselves. They have a lot of (ethical) rules that all Hawaiians follow and it is like we are all a family."

Another students says she is learning that Hawaii was once a great nation. "They teach us things they mostly don't know at other schools," she says. "At other schools, they only talk about English (non-native) people. They don't talk about Hawaiian people," Kanani says, adding the school is making a difference in her life. "At least when we grow up we will know who we really are, not like some people who forget who they really are."

Only 1,000 native Hawaiians, less than 1% of the population, speak Hawaiian as their first language. Native monarchs ruled Hawaii until it was annexed by the United States in 1898. At that time English was named the official language for schools and government and Hawaiian was abandoned. The immersion school is part of a cultural renaissance, which began in the 1970s to revitalize Hawaiian traditions.

Today, 1,400 students are enrolled in 22 public school immersion programs in Hawaii. Some, like the Anuenue program, are conducted school-wide, while others operate as an intensive course within the school curriculum.

Anuenue Principal Charles Naumu says English is not taught as a separate subject in the immersion school until grade 5. "We are held to the same standards as a student who has had English for 5 years in a regular school setting," he says. "We feel that our students do as well as or better in test results as students in a comparable public school. This is unique. The students that come here, they are here by choice rather than by assignment or by geographic area where they live, and that is an advantage for the learning process."

Mr. Naumu says he has high expectations for immersion school graduates. "We are preparing them to remember who they are, to have a positive self-image and to be a contributing member of the society, whether it be here in Hawaii or any place else throughout the world."

Kalehua Grug from the University of Hawaii prepares new teachers to work in immersion programs. Watching the basketball game from a grassy hill overlooking the school playground, he says these students -- unlike those in Spanish or French immersion programs -- are helping to revive their own language. "The kids, without even knowing it, are giving back to our entire lahuii, our entire race of people."
Kalehua Grug hopes that their success builds bridges between cultures at home and elsewhere around the globe.
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