[lg policy] Language, Identity and Community in Hawaiian Immersion Schools

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Thu May 28 14:38:44 UTC 2015


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I’ve written before about how languages serve not just as communication
tools, but as profound sources of unique meaning through which individuals
build and maintain their identities. It’s no accident that “communication
<http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=communication>” and “community
<http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=community>” have etymological
roots in common (along with the word “common
<http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=common&allowed_in_frame=0>,” for
that matter). To *communicate *in a *common *tongue is to truly participate
in a *common *world of understanding, a *community *of shared meaning.

Or, to take an example from one of my earlier posts
<http://www.edcentral.org/multilingualismmatters/>, “To be Welsh is an
experience. To both be and speak Welsh is a related, more robust
experience.”

Which is all prelude for thinking clearly about the Department of
Education’s recent event, “Protecting ‘Ōlelo Hawai’i: The Education
Revolution to Improve Student Success and Preserve the Hawaiian Language
<http://www.ncapaonline.org/nheducationbriefing>.” The event was hosted at
ED and co-sponsored by the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and
Pacific Islanders, ED’s Office of English Language Acquisition, ED’s Office
of Career, Technical, and Adult Education
<http://www.edcentral.org/edcyclopedia/adult-education/>, the Council for
Native Hawaiian Advancement, and Keaomālamalama.

Even if assessment policies can be adjusted to work for students being
educated in the Hawaiian *language*, there are a bevy of other complicated
policies that will need to be modified to support Hawaiian *communities* in
schools.

The event was equal parts information and celebration, in part because of
recent tensions between the Department of Education and Hawaiian language
educators in the state. ED recently granted the state a waiver
<http://www.hawaiipublicschools.org/DOE%20Forms/HLIP/HIAssessmentWaiver021215.pdf>
from some of No Child Left Behind
<http://www.edcentral.org/edcyclopedia/no-child-left-behind-overview/>’s
assessment rules—it allows students being educated in Hawaiian to take math
and language arts assessments in that language, rather than in English.

In that regard, the key participant was perhaps Ronn Nozoe, Deputy
Assistant Secretary for Policy and Programs in ED’s Office of Elementary
and Secondary Education. Until last month, Nozoe was Hawaii’s Chief
Academic Officer
<http://www.civilbeat.com/2015/03/nozoe-leaving-hawaii-doe-for-post-at-federal-level/>,
so he was introduced as “someone who knows us, who understands us in
Washington, D.C.”

Nozoe referred to the tensions several times: “We’ve had our struggles
about trying to do the right thing…[by] assessing students in their native
language…we can have differences, but at the end of the day, we’re going to
make it right.” He also explained that no one would “characterize this work
as easy or simple. But there’s something about the people in Hawaii…they
always try to do the right thing.”

Which is all a pretty standard narrative about federal assessment
requirements and accountability: the rules can be clumsy, and they don’t
always take students’ linguistic diversity into account. This is the nature
of education policy—of *all* public policy—it takes the organic course of
human behavior and tries to impose mechanistic rules. In search of
flexibility, policymakers try strategies like the aforementioned assessment
waiver. Sometimes these modifications work, sometimes they don’t, and
usually they cause a bevy of unintended consequences that muddle the basic
functions of the system they’re adjusting. Policies pile up
<http://www.edcentral.org/washingtons-waiver-woes-meet-ex-waiver-waiver/>
and the system gets correspondingly less coherent and effective. (Cf. “
kludgeocracy
<http://www.realclearpolicy.com/blog/2012/12/14/steven_teles_explains_kludgeocracy_378.html>
”)

But this analysis actually oversimplifies the dynamics in play. Because
building flexibility into federal—and state—assessment policies to
accommodate *languages* only touches one part of how multilingualism
manifests in schools.

The number of students in Hawaiian-immersion charter schools has more than
doubled from 4,960 to 10,540 in the last decade
<http://www.edcentral.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/IMG_2543.jpg>.

Here’s what I mean: Hawaiian language educator and activist Namaka Rawlins
explained the history of language suppression in the islands. “At the time
of annexation, native Hawaiians had the highest literacy rate of…all ethnic
groups in Hawaii,” she said. But Hawaiian language schools were steadily
converted into English, which clipped the language’s utility and led to a
rapid decline in its use. Rawlins explained that the damage to the Hawaiian
language led to a loss of values encoded in the language, which weakened
social cohesion in Hawaiian communities. The challenge, then, is to find
sufficient policy space to preserve the Hawaiian language *and* the values
it carries within educational institutions and the global economic context.
Language, remember, is a proxy variable here—a way of creating and
participating in communities.

That is, even if assessment policies can be adjusted to work for students
being educated in the Hawaiian *language*, there are a bevy of other
complicated policies that will need to be modified to support Hawaiian
*communities* in schools. And these accommodations need to happen without
crippling the efficacy of the systemic policies they’re modifying.

In her remarks, native Hawaiian immersion school parent Wai’ale’ale Sarsona
offered an alternative to this gloomy picture. She explained how the
flexibility afforded public charter schools helped support the project of
revitalizing the language. Hawaiian parents are responding: the number of
students in Hawaiian-immersion charter schools has more than doubled from
4,960 to 10,540 in the last decade
<http://www.edcentral.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/IMG_2543.jpg>. Instead
of trying to accommodate Hawaiian language instruction by means of building
exceptions, waivers <http://www.edcentral.org/edcyclopedia/waivers/>, and
other special dispensations into existing systems of education, charter
schools promise broad flexibility around educational processes, so long as
they demonstrate strong academic outcomes. In other words, they begin from
a position of broad flexibility and then impose some limitations—precisely
the opposite of the approach in use with the assessment waiver.

Or rather, that’s the theory of how charters work best
<http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/08/27/what-charter-schools-are-getting-right-and-why-they-top-our-high-school-rankings.html>.
However, Sarsona noted that existing educational interests in the state
often threatened their work. After the event, she gave me an example from
her time as a principal in one of the Hawaiian-focused public charter
schools in that state’s Na Lei Naau’ao consortium. One of the key Hawaiian
values her school wanted to support was “*Mālama ʻāina*,” which she
described as “[caring] for our lands, which means taking personal
responsibility for cleaning up after ourselves [and] keeping our classrooms
neat.” Sarsona made it clear that she wanted this to be “true for
everyone—all staff, all students.” That is, this was an outgrowth of how
her school’s community viewed itself and the values embedded in the
language at the center of their instruction.

When Sarsona tried to build *Mālama ʻāina* into her school’s model, she
quickly ran afoul of Hawaii’s teachers union, which saw it as an effort to
avoid hiring a janitor. Hawaii’s charter schools are subject to the same
statewide collective bargaining agreement
<http://www.publiccharters.org/get-the-facts/law-database/states/HI/> as
other schools in the state’s single school district
<http://education.unlv.edu/centers/ceps/study/documents/Hawaii.pdf>.

Sarsona’s efforts to establish regular after-school programming to engage
families ran into similar problems: what she saw as a way to get families
and teachers from the community working together looked to the union like
an effort to force teachers to work extra minutes without extra pay. Her
teachers pushed for flexibility from the union, but to no avail. In the
end, Sarsona and her teachers agreed to push ahead with the program
anyway—on an informal basis outside the contract.
When the hiring of janitorial staff becomes an impediment to charters’
efforts to design their schools (and their budgets) to better support
linguistic and cultural diversity, that’s proof that a state’s charter
regulations are inflexible to the point of threatening schools’
effectiveness. Which is as good an illustration as any of the challenge of
finding enough flexibility in existing school, district, state, and federal
policies to support DLLs’ multilingualism *and* their communities—even when
using the charter model.

http://www.edcentral.org/hawaiicharters/
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