At the month-long “Mai Uka A I Kai” summer program at the Waipa Ahupua’a Learning Center, native Hawaiian students of all ages are actively participating in the preservation of Hawaiian culture and the stewardship of natural land and water resources – “From the Mountain to the Sea.”
Working closely with the Hawaiian Farmers of Hanalei, Inc., the non-profit Waipa Foundation has developed a pilot program to involve the community in the restoration of the Waipa watershed as a learning center for the perpetuation of traditional Hawaiian culture and values.
With an emphasis on environmental education and hands-on learning, the Waipa Foundation has provided the community with a center “to educate the kids so they are knowledgeable about their heritage and culture, and also able to articulate this knowledge,” said Ka’ipo Bailey-Walsh, a visiting English teacher and former Hanalei resident.
For many years, North Shore residents have been struggling to preserve the 1400+-acre Waipa ahupua’a as a cultural learning center, and in its second year, this emerging summer program denotes significant progress toward the realization of that goal.
Enrollment in this new summer program has increased from just six students in 2001, to forty-two students this year, and “we are striving to become a permanent alternative learning center,” said Mariah Martin, Developer and Coordinator of the Waipa Project.
Sponsored by the Kamehameha Schools, as well as other individuals and organizations, “Mai Uka A I Kai” accomodates native Hawaiian elementary and middle-school students at no cost to their parents. There is also a Learn & Earn program which employs high school kids to participate in the various restoration projects managed by the Waipa Foundation.
The students and faculty at Waipa greet every morning with a chant entitled “Oli Aloha,” a prayer, a hula, and a special haka, or war-like chant, developed especially for Waipa.
Each day in Waipa, the keiki attend math, reading, and Hawaiian language lessons, however, this seldomly takes place inside the classroom.
“We get get to go outside and learn by doing,” said 15 year-old Branson Osakoda from Wailua.
“Math is fun here because we get to do it in the garden and at the beach,” said 8 year-old Kawehi AhLoo of Princeville.
Among their many activities, the elementary and middle-school students have learned how to dance hula, play the ukulele, prepare poi, and make haupia in the traditional way.
They have also made their own implements to pound kapa, a cloth made from bark, planted Milo trees to assist the Waipa beach restoration, and regularly work in the native-species garden, take nature hikes, and occasionally enjoy a swim in the ocean at the end of the day.
The students involved in the Learn & Earn program constructed a hale ‘aina, a traditional hut, using only their hands as their ancestors did. They have also participated in reef monitoring, erosion control, and the testing of water quality.
A couple of college-level internship positions focus on the geological mapping of the Waipa ahupua’a for archaeological and cultural purposes.
At the elementary level, teachers do their best to incorporate math and science into every project, so each activity is not only cultural or traditional, but also educational.
Elementary Program Supervisor Ikena Hill said he appreciates this program because,”it gives the kids something productive to do during the summer; they are enhancing they’re math and reading skills while learning about Hawaiian traditions.”
“It is as much of a learning experience for me as it is for them…a lot of this stuff I’m doing for the first time too,” Hill said.
Bernie Enrique, a visiting teacher from the KCC Native Hawaiian Community-Based Education Program, explained, “these kids are learning about themselves through their genealogy and the cultural lifestyle of their ancestors; they are living a modern-day life style which is connected to an ancient style of living because Waipa is still an ahupua’a.”
Indeed, the concept and tradition of ahupua’a provides the foundation for this program, which is itself named after the land division, “Mai Uka A I Kai – From the Mountains to the Sea.”
Historically, ahupua ‘a communities relied entirely on the interdependence of the land and people, creating balance in the ecosystem and the utmost respect for the ‘aina. The founders of the Waipa Project have been working to revive these values, and embedded in Hawaiian culture is the fact that there is no greater teacher than the ‘aina.
“In all the research done on environmental education, it has been proven that this kind of learning can really facilitate learning in all other areas,” said Melinda Sandler, a volunteer coordinator for the Waipa Foundation.
Faithful to the ahupua’a tradition, “we are teaching them how to utilize waste products to enhance the soil because recycling waste is an important concept when teaching about land use,” said Sandler.
The children are also actively involved in the re-establishment of native plants and the Waipa garden is currently the home to 65 native plant species and 7 different varieties of kalo.
Linda Sproat, an elementary school teacher for over 30 years, and the reading instructor at Waipa, shared her personal philosophy regarding the education of native Hawaiian children.
“These Hawaiian children are from an oral background and culture, and this is, for a large part, why they have a hard time operating in traditionally-structured schools… a lot of aboriginal cultures have the same learning problems,” she said.
“There is a need to encourage more native Hawaiians to stay in school and get into positions where there is little native Hawaiian representation,” said Ka’ipo Bailey-Walsh.
The perpetuation of the Hawaiian culture depends on the knowledge and communication skills of the keiki; “if we want the world to know about the native Hawaiian culture, and be able to express our feelings and concerns, we need the skills to communicate; we need more native Hawaiians in leadership positions, in all areas and at all levels,” Bailey-Walsh said.
Statistically, Hawai’i trails behind the rest of the nation when it comes to education, and according to Linda Sproat, this is not due to a lack of intelligence or skill by any particular ethnic group, but rather the result of cultural differences.
“Hawaiian kids learn in a different way, and if we can meet these needs, we can help them advance in the system,” said Linda Sproat.
“Not all kids learn in the same way,” said Coordinator Mariah Martin, citing several studies on educational formatting which indicate that individuals are uniquely more receptive to either audio, visual, or kinetic stimuli when learning.
“In every learning situation we encourage them to use all their senses,” said Martin, “and when you do something with your hands, you use all your senses; I have found that many kids learn quicker and better in an outside environment.”
“More people need to be aware that there is an alternative approach to learning: the hands-on approach is how they learn at home, it ties learning into real-life situations, and it makes math and reading more meaningful,” Linda Sproat said.
Executive Director of the Waipa Foundation, Stacy Sproat, said she hesitates to call their environmentally-based, hands-on learning program an ‘alternative’ approach. “This is how our ancestors have learned for thousands of years,” she said, “this is the ‘original’ approach to learning.”
According to Elementary Program Supervisor Emma Palumbo, “one of the most impressive aspects about this program is the utilization of Hawaiian values and the emphasis on positive reinforcement of each child’s unique personality and skills.”
This positive approach to learning is reflected in the discipline system instituted at Waipa, which promotes the Hawaiian values.
The values cherished by the Hawaiian culture are embodied in the word aloha but more explicitly include such concepts as ohana, family; kokua, being helpful; malama aina and malama kekahi i kekahi, caring for the land and caring for each other; laulima, many hands working together in cooperation and unity.
“Instead of telling them what they can not do, we teach them what they should strive to do,” Palumbo said. “This creates a positive environment and instills integrity and responsibilty for one’s own actions.”
The supervisors at Waipa are not only trying to teach these Hawaiian values, they are encouraging the use of them in everyday life.
“These are the values which the kupuna lived by and which are being lost; hopefully, these keiki will be able to revitalize these valuable traditions,” said Palumbo..
Judy Gardner, a teacher and consultant who instructs math at Waipa, said she admires this program because, “the location is culturally and historically Hawaiian and the objective of this school is to reinstate that Hawaiian tradition based on being outside and getting to know the ‘aina; it’s all hands-on because that’s how the Hawaiians taught, and it’s the natural way to learn.”
As effective as outdoor learning may be there are many daily challenges, and Gardner said that the children are not used to being so free and learning outside of a classroom. “It can be difficult to maintain structure within so much freedom,” she said.
“As a traditional school teacher, I hope this program succeeds,” said Gardner. “It is especially important for Hawaiian children because they can really relate to this environment.”
Beginning in the Fall, Waipa will be open to public schools and student groups for outdoor educational excursions.
“Waipa is opening to the community,” said Mariah Martin, “and we’re hoping for more community involvement.”