Starting Early: Connecting Culture and Language to Student Success
During my recent visit to Ke Kula ‘o Nāwahīokalani‘ōpu‘u Iki Public Charter School on Hawaii Island, I had the wonderful opportunity to meet with students of all ages, teachers, parents and administrators. As is normally the custom, I was greeted by the students and teachers with a welcome protocol (chant and song). I have visited a few Hawaiian immersion and medium schools over the years, and I am always touched by this expression of “aloha.” The school’s entire program from infant and toddler through grade 12 is an integrated laboratory school program for the state’s Hawaiian language college in Hilo. The entire system and similar schools statewide grew out of the community-driven Punana Leo Hawaiian language preschools. Nawahi is a Hawaiian medium school and the students are taught in Hawaiian.
In March 2014, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visited Ka Waihona o ka Na’auao Public Charter School in Waianae on Oahu Island – his first trip to Hawaii as Secretary. He met with Native Hawaiian educators and learned about the incredible efforts to not only preserve the Hawaiian language, but also link language and culture to improving educational outcomes, including for Native Hawaiian students. Another important component for improving outcomes for Native Hawaiian students is investing in early education. Hawaii was awarded a $2 million Preschool Development Grant this year as part of their four-year $15 million planto develop a state preschool system and provide high-quality preschool for children from families at our below the 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Line. The preschool funding also targets unique preschool efforts that focus on Hawaiian language and culture, and Nawahi is one of the first sites utilizing this grant to draw more students into their current preschool Hawaiian medium program. The state has plans to provide high-quality preschool in 18 classrooms in high-need communities throughout the state for approximately 900 children from low-income families by the end of 2018, if funding is not cut by Congress.
Expanding access to high-quality preschool is critically important to ensuring that every child in America has the opportunity for lifelong success. Despite the evidence showing the importance of early learning, House and Senate committees have authored spending bills that eliminate Preschool Development Grants, a program that is in the middle of building and expanding high-quality preschool in over 200 high-need communities across 18 states that span the geographic and political spectrum.
Eliminating the Preschool Development Grants program would mean a loss of high-quality preschool for more than 720 children from low-income families in Hawaii over the next two years. In Keaau, and throughout Hawaii and our nation, there is still a huge unmet need for high-quality preschool for all our children. Our hope is that every child, regardless of circumstances, succeeds in school and in life. High-quality preschool programs, like the one I saw at Ke Kula ‘o Nāwahīokalani‘ōpu‘u Iki Public Charter School, provide the benefits of early education – proven to be an important first step in improving the life trajectory of a young person’s life.
Kiran Ahuja is Executive Director of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.