Passers-by will not hear the blare of a school bell shatter the morning stillness at Kanuikapono Public Charter School in Anahola. Instead, an oli greets each school day as students and teachers gather to piko.
“Piko is the core,” said the school’s director Kamahalo Ka‘uhane. “Everyone is connected to the piko — it’s a way of communicating.”
Joining hands in a circle, teachers and students set their goals and intentions for the day ahead in both song and statement. This small school of 50 students from kindergarten through eighth grade is described as a “school without walls.” Earlier this week that term took on new meaning when two tents utilized as classrooms were blown down by wind and rain.
The following day, as a light rain fell, teachers and students gathered beneath a tent. Two students stood at opposite ends of the group to greet the four directions by blowing into a conch shell.
“We open the day with the pu (conch shell),” he said. “We bring the voice out through the breath.”
Teachers and a handful of students wear T-shirts with the school’s motto written across the chest: “Native education and community renewal.”
Teachers follow the blowing of the pu with an oli.
“To oli is to ask permission or to mahalo something,” said Ka‘uhane. “The teachers welcome the students into a learning space with an oli.”
Every school day opens and closes with this ritual.
“This is hands-on experiential learning,” Ka‘uhane said. “Where 50 percent of the learning happens outside and 50 percent in the classroom.”
After an eight-year process of planning and permitting, Ka‘uhane’s vision for a permanent dwelling will be realized in the near future when the school moves across the street to the unbuilt campus.
“Permitting just finalized the building,” he said.
Ka‘uhane dreams of the day when Anahola children will ride their bikes to school and there will be a place for kupuna to add their wisdom and storytelling to the curriculum. It is in this culturally authentic and experiential environment that three Kanuikapono students developed their love of learning and were recently honored with the privilege of attending the Junior National Leadership Conference.
Last month two eighth-graders, Kalalea Ka‘uhane and Serene Hope, joined by seventh-grader Bryson Kiilau-Pezario, went to Washington, D.C., for a five-day whirlwind tour of the capital.
With 200 other seventh- and eighth-graders, the three visited not only the White House, but also the Library of Congress, Holocaust Museum, ESPN Zone, Maryland Science Center and Harpers Ferry for a Civil War reenactment. They saw their first IMAX film, wreckage from a 911 plane in the Newseum and for Kiilau-Pezario’s inaugural trip to the Mainland, this was his first experience with squirrels.
“They’re like chickens here,” he said. “They’re everywhere — that really tripped me out.”
Squirrels aside, the three were stunned by the sheer magnitude of buildings and adventures on D.C.’s subway system, the Metro. Ultimately though, it was a memory of connecting with peers that stood out for Kalalea Ka‘uhane.
“One of my favorite moments was playing my ‘ukulele on the steps of the 4-H Center,” he said.
Kalalea Ka‘uhane was the only participant to bring an instrument on the trip. While passing time strumming his ‘ukulele, he looked up to discover he was surrounded by an audience of students singing along as he played “I’m Yours” by Jason Mraz.
Other defining moments included a slumber party inside the Maryland Science Center, seeing chunks of the Berlin Wall and a visit to Hard Rock Cafe where the teens witnessed teachers joining the cafe staff to dance on the bar.
One glimpse into the reality of government came the day the group stood outside the White House.
“You aren’t allowed on the road,” Hope said. “You have to stand on the curb across the street and there’s security guards in front of the fence. A motorcade went through the gates and there were guns sticking out of the windows.”
Kalalea Ka‘uhane, Grace and Kiilau-Pezario were recommended by teachers for the program because of their involvement in student government. Both Hope and Kalalea Ka‘uhane share a seat on the charter’s school board.
“We want students to share in the responsibility of governing the school,” Kamahalo Ka‘uhane said. “Every charter school has a local school board and there’s a seat for students on it.”
Kanuikapono Charter School’s philosophy is to cultivate the 21st Century ahupua‘a — the Hawaiian word for the region that encompasses an ecosystem running mauka to makai.
“We are choosing different regions in our ahupua‘a to teach the kids about the land, streams and reef,” Kamahalo Ka‘uhane said. “There’s a shift happening in education — indigenous people are getting to know the importance of their community.”