Hawaiian immersion preschool celebrating 20 years

Inside a Kealakekua classroom, Kilipohi Faanunu-Soares uses no English while forming short sentences about herself. Quietly, but confidently, the preschooler reveals her name, age, who her parents are, and where she’s from. Her introduction is in Hawaiian, the language she and her 10 classmates at Punana Leo o Kona are taught in.


Inside a Kealakekua classroom, Kilipohi Faanunu-Soares uses no English while forming short sentences about herself. Quietly, but confidently, the preschooler reveals her name, age, who her parents are, and where she’s from. Her introduction is in Hawaiian, the language she and her 10 classmates at Punana Leo o Kona are taught in.

From 7:45 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. weekdays, these students are immersed in Hawaiian as they learn developmentally appropriate curriculum. Many, if not all, are fully fluent in the language within three to four months. Besides being kindergarten ready, the children, ages 3 to 5, are culturally grounded, taught to be global citizens and end up with a second language, said Director Kawaiola Johnson.

Located on Christ Church Episcopal’s grounds, this preschool creates a stimulating, supportive environment where students and their families develop the ability to communicate effectively in Hawaiian. Here, Hawaiian is a living language and becomes a way of life for the participants, who are gaining a greater understanding and appreciation of Hawaii’s culture, values, stories and history.

Since its inception in 1994, Punana Leo o Kona has helped prove the importance of language and how it’s more than a means of expression.

Kahookahi Kanuha, Punana Leo o Kona lead teacher, explained how language is an embodiment of people, Hawaii and its future. He said it is the foundation of Hawaii’s unique identity and knowledge base, as well as illuminates and explains its history, culture and traditions; thus, adding depth and enrichment to the benefit of all. Not only does it connect us to the past, but Hawaiian makes the present richer and helps us prepare for the future, he added.

Kanuha was in Punana Leo o Kona’s first class and his parents were among families involved in the grassroots effort to bring the preschool to West Hawaii. Punana Leo o Kona is among 11 preschools statewide operated by Aha Punana Leo Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to re-establishing Hawaiian as the first and main language of the home. This organization is “a model for education in an endangered and indigenous language revitalization movement.”

For 90 years, it was illegal to teach in public school through the medium of Hawaiian language. In 1983, fewer than 50 children younger than 18 were fluent in Hawaiian. Aha Punana Leo led the movement to remove the ban, done through legislation passed in 1986. This nonprofit has also been a leader in the development of education through Hawaiian from preschool to the doctorate level with its programs.

Its preschools were recently awarded the world’s first accreditation of an early education program conducted through an endangered and indigenous language from the World Indigenous Nations Higher Education Consortium. According to Aha Punana Leo, its self-study highlighted the academic advantages of early education through Hawaiian, such as early mastery of reading and the cognitive benefits of high bilingualism. The review team, consisting of international educators from countries with records of high academic achievement in multiple languages, were particularly impressed by the use of Hawaiian spelling and how it provides a two-year advantage in early literacy development of its preschoolers over their English-language peers.

In the beginning, Punana Leo o Kona was located at a two-story house in Holualoa. When the owner decided to sell the home, the preschool moved to Christ Church Episcopal, where it has been for about five to seven years. Its location is close to Ke Kula o Ehunuikaimalino, a kindergarten through 12th grade Hawaiian immersion school, Johnson said.

“Our greatest accomplishment over the past 20 years are the numerous children who have graduated from our program and become successful individuals who are contributing in their communities. They’re speaking Hawaiian, perpetuating it, and creating a presence,” she said. “Another asset are the families, supporters and staff which are like one big family. All are passionate, committed to and united in a love of our language.”

More than 200 families have enrolled at Punana Leo o Kona over the years, according to Aha Punana Leo. Johnson said all children, not just those of Native Hawaiian ancestry, are accepted. In the current class, only two of the 10 families came with language foundation and were fluent enough to do the interview in Hawaiian. The only requirements, she added, are that participants must meet the age criteria and be potty trained.

Enrollment happens every January, and because of space, only 15 students are accepted. Families can apply year-round if slots are available. Tuition costs $7,425 a year, which includes breakfast, lunch and snack.

A major challenge Punana Leo o Kona faces is low enrollment, caused by a lack of awareness about the preschool, its operating hours not being ideal for all parents, and its location is far from Kona’s growing population, Johnson said. To increase its presence, the preschool has upped its participation in community events and held more of its own.

Punana Leo o Kona embraces a family-based education model, meaning participating families do in-kind service, including maintenance of the classroom, bathrooms, kitchen and yards. They also participate in community engagement activities and fundraisers. They’re given opportunities to have a voice in their children’s education and learn beside them while also strengthening their own language use. Their involvement creates a sense of ownership and pride while also helps keep the tuition down, Johnson said.

In celebration of its 20th anniversary, Punana Leo o Kona is holding a fundraiser banquet from 5 to 9 p.m. Saturday at Hulihee Palace with the Daughters of Hawaii. This event celebrates the milestone and the preschool’s accomplishments while also giving the public an opportunity to contribute toward efforts that are revitalizing and perpetuating Hawaiian in West Hawaii. Attendees will be treated to a luau, silent auction, hula, gift baskets and performances by Kainani Kahaunaele, Brother Noland and Punana Leo o Kona students. Tickets cost $75 in advance and $100 at the door. Tables, which seat eight, are $1,000.


Proceeds will be split between Punana Leo o Kona and the Daughters of Hawaii. Kanuha said the preschool hopes to gain at least $13,000, which would help pay operating expenses like rent, provide tuition assistance, and fund excursions for students. A long-term goal is to own a piece of land to build its preschool and have a garden, Johnson added.

Items for the silent auction and donations are needed. Punana Leo o Kona relies on the support and generosity of the community to ensure its success, officials said. To purchase tickets, donate or for more information, call 323-8052.

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