KEKAHA — All the seniors at Ke Kula Niihau O Kekaha Public Charter School know each other by first and last names and speak to each other every day.
After all, it’s not difficult to know your entire class when there are only four students, who have all grown up together.
“We’re so small that it feels like a home. It makes us feel as if we are on Niihau, we’re a family. It keeps us together,” said senior Kalei Kanahele.
The Kekaha school only has 50 students and five teachers, three of whom teach at the preschool level. Unlike most high schools, the curriculum is different. Most of the classes are spoken in Hawaiian; more specifically, the Niihau dialect.
The charter school is founded upon the principles and culture of Niihau. For such a small school, there is a lot of pride.
“I’ve gone to other public schools, but I’ve always came back here. The people, the amount of people and the connection is so different from other schools,” Kanahele said. “I love learning about my culture. I’d pick mine of anybody else’s. I technically didn’t have a choice at first, I was brought here as a baby and just never left.”
This experience is not uncommon for most students at the charter school, who felt discriminated against for being a native of Niihau trying to gain an education.
“Niihau parents wanted a separate school for their kids because most of the children that come out of Niihau go to public school and get treated differently,” said instructor Kalei Shintani Jr.
“In public school, they focus more on the students who are advanced. There’s a lot of stereotyping about Hawaiians, saying they’re slow learners, so they push them to the side. But here, since we get less students, they get more opportunities to learn.”
Shintani moved to Kauai in 1995 after being sent away from Niihau when his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. She later died from it. Shintani didn’t even know his mother had cancer when he moved.
The Waimea High graduate got a “surprise” call to help at the charter school since he is from Niihau. He helps students learn about his home and appreciate a culture that is slowly disappearing.
“I predict maybe 10 years down the line, it will be lost. So we have to catch them now before that happens,” he said.
For most students, like senior Kelly Kahokuloa, the school is the only education they know. And she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“There’s not as much love at other schools as here,” Kahokuloa said. “We grow a pretty strong bond because we’re all family, cousins, siblings, aunties or uncles.”
Students learn their native Niihau dialect, which is similar to standardized Hawaiian, except that the letter “K” is replaced with the letter “T” in spoken and written form.
Saving the Niihau culture through education begins and ends with educating the youth, said Mapuana Deniamia, a Niihau native and teacher at the charter school.
“We’re focused on learning the native language of Niihau. I teach mostly in Olelo, except language arts,which is in English,” she said. “We balance the two together so that the students can be more balanced with two languages and graduate with both languages. That’s our main focus.”