“Tack! Sail the jib now!”
I gripped the rope and heaved it backward with all my might, my whole body at an acute angle to the deck of Hikianalia while the turquoise sea off the coast of Sand Island roared below.
It was hour four of our day-long voyage, and the sun was beating down on the heaving crew. I expertly secured the rope to the deck with a knot I had only barely grasped in class.
The Voyaging Crew Member Training program I enrolled in as a member of Nā Kelamoku is part of a shift toward place-based, experiential education led by nonprofits, public-private partnerships, and public and private schools.
Nā Kelamoku is the youth leadership initiative of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, a Hawaii nonprofit established to research and perpetuate traditional Polynesian voyaging methods. Findings indicate that these programs have had a positive impact on student outcomes, especially for Native Hawaiians.
Aina-based education, as it is known, is broadly defined as “teaching and learning through ‘āina so our people, communities, and lands thrive,” Brandon Ledward writes in “Hūlili: Multidisciplinary Research on Hawaiian Well-Being” (Kamehameha Publishing, 2019).
“‘Āina refers to the land, sea, and air – all that feeds and sustains us,” Ledward explains.
My experience on Hikianalia led me to speak with a range of Hawaii’s aina-based educators to learn more about how it is inspiring students to steer Hawaii toward a sustainable future.
‘An Absolute Kuleana’
Many educators believe that it’s the responsibility of visitors and non-Hawaiian residents to engage in this work.
“If you’re going to teach here, if you’re going to work here, if you’re going to live in Hawaii, it’s an absolute kuleana (responsibility) to be connected to aina stewardship,” said Sandy Ward, a retired public school teacher with 37 years of experience in place-based teaching and executive director of Mālama Pu‘uloa, an Oahu nonprofit working to restore Pu‘uloa (Pearl Harbor).
This is not a new concept in Hawaii. Kupuna (ancestors) have for centuries used their experiences with the land to develop complex sustainable living systems long before Western contact.
Educators think Hawaii’s public school system is finally catching up.
Throughout the state, schools, complex areas, state offices and community-based organizations are modeling HĀ: Nā Hopena A‘o, a pilot program introduced by the Department of Education in 2016 that works with community-based organizations on a holistic approach to education. In their first year, 19 HĀ (breath) pilot schools and 21 community-based organizations participated in the program.
The DOE is working with Hawaii Green Growth, a public-private partnership committed to advancing economic, social and environmental goals, on the program.
The partnership is also challenging schools and communities to increase school-community partnerships for aina-based stewardship through 2030.
On Hawaii Island, Kehaulani Marshall watched Kanu O ka ‘Āina Charter School’s hands-on, culturally relevant approach transform special education students with physical and behavioral challenges.
“They would start working with us, and all that stuff just went away,” said Marshall, co-founder of the accredited public charter school. “They found a niche where they could be contributors.”
Marshall remembers working with a high school freshman who was barely reading at the third-grade level. But in just a year, the school got him reading at the middle school level.
“But the curriculum is nothing that we created,” she added. “It was simply bringing in the culture and connecting students to aina.”
When Kamehameha Schools caught wind of the school’s “Education with Aloha” curriculum, the first of its kind, they immediately jumped on it and tried to formalize it, Marshall recalls.
After conducting research led by Shawn Kanaiaupuni, the director of public education support at Kamehameha Schools at the time, the school proved that the framework is a valid method to integrate into education.
‘Relationship Building First’
At around the same time, the DOE prescribed rigor, relevance and relationships as the the key ingredients to the education formula for the K–12 system.
“Those are great components, but they had it backwards,” said Herb Lee Jr., executive director of the Pacific American Foundation. “You have to start with relationship building first — between people, between place, family, community.”
But the shift toward aina-based education is not limited to schools. There has also been an uptick in nonprofit organizations that prioritize place-based learning.
Kupu, for example, is an Oahu nonprofit with a twofold mission to preserve the land while empowering youth. Its goal is to get students to care about the community and the world around them, pursue higher education in a related area and develop their workforce potential.
“In addition to all its wonderful educational and vocational outcomes, aina-based education gives students purpose, which is so important for Hawaii’s growth and future,” said John Leong, CEO of Kupu.
Leong has seen Kupu alumni go on to start their own nonprofits or work for state and federal agencies that focus on engaging the next generation of malama (to care for) aina-based work. He has also visited aina-based organizations where Kupu alumni comprise 50% to 60% of their staff.
Lee, who has been executive director of the Pacific American Foundation since 2005, remembers the late 1990s when culture-based education — the term at the time — was viewed as less intellectually demanding.
But case study after case study proved otherwise. Over the past few decades, studies have emerged that examine the impact of culture-based education on student achievement and socio-emotional development.
Mahina Kaomea, a former participant of Kauluakalana, a Kailua nonprofit, learned to see the ahupuaa (land division) in a new way through the program’s commitment to aina education, cultural revitalization and identity reclamation.
“Through the moolelo (stories) that we learned, recalling place names, planting kalo and preparing traditional foods, the program really awakened an awareness in me that there is a place for Kanaka (Native Hawaiians) here in Kailua,” she said.
Now an educator in the program, Kaomea works to inspire her students to realize their own sense of belonging by remembering their stories and histories.
“I hope they will begin to see beneath the surface of Kailua, beneath the way that colonization likes to tell us that there’s no longer a place for indigenous culture, practices and plants here,” she added.
Feeding Our Future
Food security is another goal of aina-based education.
On an island chain that spends up to $3 billion a year importing more than 80% of its food, Lee stresses the importance of an education system that connects people with land as a means of increasing Hawaii’s food security.
“Reconnecting with the land will allow us to understand how we can feed ourselves again,” explained Lee, whose work has involved restoring one of Hawaii’s few remaining fishponds, the Waikalua Loko Iʻa in Kaneohe.
“My pond is now a bridge of opportunity for people to combine indigenous wisdom with science and technology, because we need all of it to solve the problem of food sustainability in the islands,” he said.
Lee hopes that Hawaii can increase its capacity to sustain itself to at least 50%.
The Polynesian Voyaging Society encapsulates the concept in a beautifully simple analogy: On a canoe, food, water and plants are in limited supply and thus tended to with great care. So too must we tend to our resources in Hawaii.
Aina-based education is the first step toward shaping leaders who embody this framework and can secure a sustainable future for the islands.