Punana Leo O Waimea: educating our keiki
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Ten pre-schoolers dressed in red T-shirts reading “Punana Leo o Waimea” sang an oli at the entrance to Waimea’s KTA store. On their huaka‘i (field trip), they were touring the town of Waimea to learn about “places we live.”
KTA manager Colin Miura and assistant manager John Nyce met the children at the door and gave them a big welcome, saying they were going to show them produce from local famers and how KTA readies the produce for customers.
“Aloha ‘Anakala (Uncle) Colin, Aloha ‘Anakala John!” the kids answered in unison.
KTA has posted new signs throughout the store which displays the Hawaiian name of a product and the English translation beside it. Created by the Punana Leo home office and their on-line Hawaiian language learning program, the signs are meant to educate the public as well as make familiar the Hawaiian names of common items. There is also a QR code in the corner of each sign, which if scanned by a cell phone, brings up the item’s pronunciation in both Hawaiian and English sentences.
“Mai‘a!” the children called out when Nyce held up a banana. “I‘a!” they responded when Nyce took them through the meat department and passed out samples of poke. They also went through the receiving area of the store where they toured the behind-the-scenes recycling department, trash compactor, went into the 10-degree freezer and watched a huge elevator.
Maluhia O’Donnell, Punana Leo’s kahu/site coordinator said rather than use the term “Hawaiian Immersion,” the Hawaiian speaking school is now referred to as Hawaiian Medium Education.
“Immersion seems like it’s just dipping in,” O’Donnell said. “With the word medium, it is more that the children are being educated the entire day in Hawaiian ‘olelo.”
Punana Leo o Waimea opened in 1995 and currently there are 12 pre-schoolers, although the school has a capacity for 24 children in the 3- to 4-year-old age division. Three years ago, a kindergarten class was opened so children could continue to learn in the Hawaiian language, and this year, second and third grade level classes have been added. Eight children are now in the kindergarten class, one child in the first grade, and seven children are in the second and third grades.
“We are expanding so our students may continue to learn in ‘olelo,” O’Donnell said. “We don’t have a Hawaiian language program at Waimea Elementary School any longer, so we are making it available here.”
In the baking section at KTA, kids watched fascinated as one of the bakery workers decorated a Halloween cake. Nyce said he takes at least 10-12 school groups a year through KTA, showing them how meat is packaged, pointing out local farmers they may know, and teaching them the basics of how a grocery store works.
Auhea Ha‘o is a teacher at Punana Leo and speaks Hawaiian fluently as she cares for and teaches her charges. Instilling in the children a sense of who they are, Ha‘o explained that they incorporate pule (prayer), oli (chant) and mele (music) into their daily lives so they can be proud of who they are, as well as where the area and district they are from.
“Ho‘i ka piko … I’ve come back to my piko,” Ha‘o said, who started as a teacher at the school when it first opened. Leaving for six years to teach at another school, Ha‘o said she has been back at Punana Leo for her third year. “I love kids, and I love ‘olelo kanaka (the Hawaiian language), so I’m doing what I love.”
Another teacher at the school is Kahea Tanimoto, who said she loves the age group at Punana Leo, and that children’s minds are open to everything.
“It is a great experience to see them learn, and to watch as their eyes light up when they get it,” Tanimoto said. “When kids are fluent in two or more languages, they build stronger connections in their brains.”
Tanimoto believes that language cannot be separated from identity, and that language is a key to finding one’s roots.
“We have two official languages in the state of Hawaii; Hawaiian and English,” said Tanimoto. “This is a wonderful opportunity to educate our keiki.”
Punana Leo is truly an ‘ohana as all families participate in their children’s education. They take part in everything from fundraising to cleaning the school and grounds. Families do not have to speak Hawaiian at home for their children to attend Punana Leo, although there is a weekly Hawaiian language class on Thursday evenings where Hawaiian is taught, mele and oli are learned, and beginning ukulele classes are held. Open to the public, the class teaches basic Hawaiian from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.
“People think that having their children attend Punana Leo is more work, but what better way is there than to spend time with the family?” O’Donnell asked. “It’s not as much as a commitment as it is important for our families, our community and perpetuating our Hawaiian language.”