Kanu o ka Aina graduates take wing

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WAIMEA — Polani Kahakalau and Luana Zablan, two alumna of Kanu of ka Aina New Century Public Charter School, are 2017 graduates of UH-Hilo. The seeds of learning and wisdom planted several years ago continue to help young Hawaiians grow into contributing community members through the study and perpetuation of Hawaiian culture.

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WAIMEA — Polani Kahakalau and Luana Zablan, two alumna of Kanu of ka Aina New Century Public Charter School, are 2017 graduates of UH-Hilo. The seeds of learning and wisdom planted several years ago continue to help young Hawaiians grow into contributing community members through the study and perpetuation of Hawaiian culture.

The two graduates received their educational foundations at KANU and are the fruits of early efforts to create an educational system that answers the needs of indigenous children.

“KANU helps students recognize their gifts and talents, and explore them throughout their 13-year journey so after graduation they can pursue their passions as a way of life,” said founder Dr. Ku Kahakalau.

When she started teaching Hawaiian studies at Honokaa High School, Dr. Kahakalau noticed students were earning A’s in her class and struggling in their other classes.

“I realized that students need more than one class where they can work up to their potential,” she said.

As the focus of her subsequent doctoral studies, Dr. Kahakalau and her husband, Nalei, created Kano o ka Aina Academy, a school within a school at Honokaa High School.

Then in 1999, through the efforts of the Kahakalau’s and many other community members and organizations, funding was obtained to begin Kanu o ka Aina New Century Public Charter School.

“We believed that as Hawaiians we should design our own educational system,” she said. “Hawaiian children have a lot more capacity and potential than people give them credit for. KANU was designed for students to explore their gifts and talents, and become contributing members of the community.”

Graduates Polani Kahakalau and Luana Zablan are shining examples of this educational wisdom.

Polani was part of the first group of students who attended KANU from kindergarten through high school. Her passions are hula and performing arts, and on May 13 she graduated from UH-Hilo with honors and a bachelor’s degree in performing arts.

“KANU definitely helped me get to where I am. With KANU we’re always reminded who we are and where we come from, and I’ve been blessed to have wonderful parents that really, really encourage education,” said Polani.

At the heart of KANU is education with aloha.

“The teachers genuinely care about their students. They ask how you’re doing and make suggestions. They really get to know the students, and show us how to care for one another, to love and show empathy. I’m able to do things I thought I could never do,” she said.

This year, Polani created a hula drama for her 20 K-8 after-school hula students at Paauilo School, which was performed at the Paauilo Hongwanji.

“We were taught at KANU what our ancestors did. They would learn and from this knowledge, they would pass it on to the next generation,” she said.

Back at the beginning, Dr. Kahakalau saw the brilliancy in her Hawaiian students and predicted that they could build on the successes they had in Hawaiian studies to excel in other subjects.

“It’s created a stability within my life and made me be more open-minded. Being raised in the Hawaiian culture has created a wonderful foundation of being accepted, and being understanding of others and things taught to me,” said Polani.

In the fall, she plans to begin a master’s degree in organizational leadership at Argosy University, and has a long-range goal to open a culturally-focused theater company to educate people around the world about Hawaii’s culture, language and history.

“I have these beautiful two platforms (parents and KANU) back at home. I want to make them proud and make my community proud,” said Polani.

Similarly, Zablan’s KANU education has provided a solid foundation that has launched her out into the world. She graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor of arts in fine art. Among her many art accolades is the selection of her art for the cover of the spring 2015 issue of Hohonu, UH-Hilo’s journal of academic writing.

Upon graduation from KANU, Zablan was the first student there to receive the Dorrance Foundation Scholarship that enabled her to travel across the U.S. and to several European countries including Budapest, Hungary, working with Habitat for Humanity building and renovating small apartments. Zablan also visited the East Coast of the U.S. and participated in an entrepreneurship class in Tucson, Arizona.

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In 2015, she received the Audrey S. Furukawa Study Abroad Scholarship which enabled her to attend the Anglo-American University in the Czech Republic for a semester. After graduation, Zablan accepted a paid position with the Dorrance Program, and in the fall will be working as a study abroad mentor in Orvieto, Italy. She also plans to pursue a master’s degree in drawing and painting at UH-Manoa.

Zablan’s words of advice are, “Learn from the past, be active in the present and prepare for the future. Take it upon yourself to strive for excellence, focus on opportunities and give back to your communities.”

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