Ke Kula ‘o Pi’ilani: A One-of-a-Kind Hawaiian Immersion School

On the island of Maui, Hawaiʹi, there exists a school like no other: Ke Kula ‘o Pi’ilani, the only private, independent, and nonprofit Hawaiian language and culture immersion school in the world.

The school, seen here at twilight, was built in the lush, green ‘Īao Valley in Maui, where Hawaiian kings are buried.

It is surrounded by the rising, lush-green cliffs of the ‘Īao Valley, where Hawaiian kings are buried. Behind the school is a powerful river that flows through the entire island out to the sea. It is the perfect setting for a curriculum focused on the four themes of fresh water, heavens, land, and ocean.

“It is the most appropriate place for our children to be educated because it will empower them when they go out into the world to know that they belong to this majestic space, worthy of respect,” says Head of School (Po’okula) Kekai Robinson.

Ke Kula ‘o Pi’ilani was founded in 2016 by three couples in the Maui community looking for a private school for immersion learning different from what public schools had offered on the island for 30 years. “A collective of activated parents decided to reclaim Native Hawaiian education for their children and teach them Hawaiian traditions that have succeeded in these lands for thousands of years,” explains Robinson.

Head of School Kekai Robinson taught the Hawaiian language for over 30 years and is a gifted Hawaiian singer and musician.

Language immersion schools are not uncommon in Hawaii. According to the Hawaii State Department of Education, 21 public schools on five islands – Oahu, Maui, Lanai, Molokai, and Hawaii – host the Hawaiian Language Immersion Program it created.

But Robinson says her school serves a different niche of islanders who don’t want English curriculum translated into Hawaiian, but rather, the other way around.

“We start with Hawaiian concepts and perspectives and make those fit into Western academics where we can.”

In the last six years, Ke Kula ‘o Pi’ilani has grown from six students, grades K-1 ─ taking classes in a large tent ─ to 50 students, grades K-5, attending classes on a real campus for 35 hours a week fully immersed in Hawaiian language, culture, and values.

Founded in 2016, the school started with six students, K-5, and now has grown to 50.

This year, the Ke Kula ‘o Pi’ilani school was one of six grantees to receive a 2022 grant from First Nations through the Native Language Immersion Initiative. First Nations awarded $45,800 to help the school further develop curriculum themes and create a head teacher (Po’o Kumu) position.

Robinson says it’s a challenge to find qualified teachers, let alone a head teacher, who speak fluent Hawaiian and are willing to blaze a trail at an independent immersion school that demands a high degree of creativity, flexibility, and experimentation.

Leimana Puʻu, who has taught at the school for almost two years, was recently promoted to head teacher.

But the right Po’o Kumu was there the whole time. Leimana Puʻu, who has taught at the school for almost two years, was recently promoted into this new role. “The most rewarding part of my job is teaching keiki (students) from my hometown and community the language of our ancestors in one of the most beautiful and breathtaking places on Maui,” shares Pu’u.

What children learn at this one-of-a-kind immersion school

At Ke Kula ‘o Pi’ilani, the environment is the most important teacher. “It is the clouds, the wind, the way the river flows,” they are the true teachers, says Robinson. Students engage in experiential learning, spending about 80% of the school day in the river, on the rocks, in the dirt, in the forest, and sometimes at the beach ─ nature’s classroom, as one parent calls it.

The school curriculum has been adapted from Hawaiian Common Core and was developed by the school’s board of directors. It encompasses the four thematic units of Wai, Lani, ‘Āina and Kai (water, heavens, land, and ocean). Core subjects include Hawaiian language, math, science, social studies, traditional Hawaiian arts, and technology.

Students participate in a traditional hula dance ceremony.

Every day, students are immersed in Hawaiian language, culture, and traditional values by engaging in hands-on activities led by cultural practitioners. “I bring in a lot of community folks who have specialized traditional skills, like hula, wood carving, farming, lei-making, chanting, and art to help bridge the gap between contemporary academics and traditional ways of learning,” Robinson tells First Nations.

It costs $8,000 a year per child to attend Ke Kula ‘o Pi’ilani. Most parents, however, never pay that much. Nearly 80% of students receive financial aid ─ between $2,000 and $4,500 per year, per family.

Students happily learn the fine art of making leis.

The school also provides books and supplies, and subsidizes uniforms. Parents pay just $5 for polo shirts. Students can wear whatever bottoms and shoes they want. “But shoes in Hawaii are not a requirement,” laughs Robinson.

Because Ke Kula ‘o Pi’ilani is a new school, only five students have graduated from the program so far. “But 100% of them have tested successfully into the Maui private school of their choice,” says the very proud Po’okula.

What do parents think?

Kimberly Thayer is one of the founders of Ke Kula ‘o Pi’ilani. Her daughter is going into fourth grade and her 11-year-old son is one of the school’s first graduates.

Kimberly Thayer (right) and her husband are founders of Ke Kula ‘O Pi’ilani. Her daughter is going into fourth grade and her 11-year-old son is one of the school’s first graduates.

As a professional conservationist, Thayer values the experiential education her children have received. “They’ve learned traditional farming, food preparation, oli, hula, mele (song), weaving, lei-making … and are familiar with key species of native birds, plants and trees that are keystones of the natural landscape.” She says most people do not have the familiarity and understanding of the environment that students at Ke Kula ‘o Pi’ilani do.

Mikiala PoePoe has three children, and only her youngest son attends Ke Kula ‘o Pi’ilani as a first grader. She says he thinks of the school and his classmates as his “second family.” She and her husband enjoy getting involved in family activities with their son as part of the immersion program.

They attend Hawaiian language classes and have pulled and cleaned taro at a nearby farm. “I really admire that they offer many opportunities to get more involved and you feel like you are part of the school,” she says.

A leader with a gift for language and music

Mikiala PoePoe’s son, Keakanui (center), is in first grade at Ke Kula ‘o Pi’ilani. He calls the school his “second home.”

It is no surprise that Robinson is running a Hawaiian language and cultural immersion school. She has spent her entire 47 years steeped in both.

Robinson, whose first name “Kekai” means “ocean,” is a mix of Hawaiian, Portuguese, and Norwegian. She grew up speaking Hawaiian in her family home. “It was a priority for our family; a point of pride.”

Her parents, grandparents and great-grandparents passed on many cultural traditions to her, including a love for Hawaiian music, lei-making, woodworking, weaving, and ocean-diving. Her grandfather, who was Maui’s first archeologist, would fish with her father every day. “We would eat lobster, crab, and any kind of fish they brought home.” She says she did not appreciate the richness of her traditional upbringing until later in life. “As a kid, I would beg my parents to go to Kentucky Fried Chicken. I would think, ‘I don’t want lobster. I want a Happy Meal!’”

Robinson has been teaching the Hawaiian language since 1991, “back when it wasn’t a cool thing to do.” She says everybody wanted to do American things, in American ways. She “fell” into teaching to help pass on Hawaiian traditions that she feels blessed to have grown up with. “We Hawaiians have lost a lot of ourselves over time, and we need to rescue our identity.” The Native Hawaiian says that is why she is doing her best to share what she knows with other islanders. “If that means being a teacher, then that is what I am.”

Robinson has three grown sons and raises miniature pit bulls with her husband. She says jokingly, “They are the only babies in our house.”

She continues to share her love of music. The singer/songwriter and bass guitarist plays in several Hawaiian bands. She is also a backup singer for Hawaiian music legend Kealiʻi Reichel and Grammy Award-winning artist Kalani Pe’a.

First Nations has helped make the ‘impossible, possible’

Ke Kula ‘o Pi’ilani  has received two other grants from First Nations through the Native Language Immersion Initiative and the Native Youth and Culture Fund. The first grant for $19,100 helped the school provide traditional food preparation instruments for families. The second grant for $90,000 funded professional development for teachers and practitioners, a tutoring program, cultural workshops, and digital storytelling products.

Students learn traditional farming, grow their own kalo, and pound it into poi to feed themselves and their families.

“It’s been incredible working with First Nations,” says Robinson, who credits the organization for giving them the confidence to move forward with their work. “For five years, I’ve been doing what I call my impossible tasks. We’ve been told what we are doing with this immersion school is ‘impossible.’ But First Nations believed we could do it and we did!”

She also appreciates the networking opportunities First Nations has helped facilitate with other Native organizations. “The most empowering thing about First Nations is that we have been able to meet other Indigenous, non-Hawaiian educators across America and work with them trying to do impossible things like us. And it doesn’t feel so impossible anymore.”

Next steps?

“Currently, we are trying to commit ourselves to being the land stewards for this sacred space,” responds Robinson.

Since its founding more than six years ago, Ke Kula ‘o Pi’ilani has increased enrollment nearly tenfold. The overall goal is to grow the student body to the full capacity of 60 students.

“In the next 10 years, I would also like to start offering earlier education ─ pre-school and pre-pre-school.” Robinson explains that immersing children in Hawaiian language and culture early on at the age of 3 will help propel the elementary school program forward.

She also has her sights set on doing more community outreach. In 2018, the Ka Piko Kaiao program was created to teach the Hawaiian language and culture to parents, siblings, and members of the surrounding community. “I hope to continue to expand our immersion programs to the local community, our melting pot of folks, and to uplift Native Hawaiians who have not been uplifted for at least 300 years.”

Using the Ke Kula ‘o Pi’ilani model, Robinson wants the Maui community to learn how to access space as sacred and important as the natural environment her students learn in. “I think the community is starting to see that we can heal from our cultural trauma. Hawaiians are strong people. But we must first value what it is to be Hawaiian.”