Among the hundreds of students who earned their diplomas during the December 2013 commencement ceremony was a small group of veteran teachers. Kuuleimomi Kanahele, Leiala Kaohelaulii, Lulu Kelley, and Kaipolani Pahulehua successfully completed the requirements for a bachelor’s degree in education. This cohort of Niihau teachers was driven by a sense of purpose outside of professional gain.
Dean Donald B. Young said, “All of us in the college are proud to call these dedicated, hardworking, and passionate teachers alumni. The Niihau cohort’s graduation is a great example of the college’s outreach and distance programs and our efforts to serve Native Hawaiians. I am also grateful to our faculty who extended themselves to make this happen.”
In an effort to protect and preserve Niihau School under the No Child Left Behind Act, these teachers began their participation in a unique program five and a half years ago. Spearheaded by Hookulaiwi Center for Native Hawaiian and Indigenous Education in the College of Education (COE), the program gained the support of many government agencies, including the Hawaii State Legislature, Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA), Department of Education, Hawaii Teachers Standards Board, Sovereign Councils of the Hawaiian Homelands Assembly, and the University of Hawaii. Owners and families of Niihau also came together in support of these teachers and their school.
“My experience in the College of Education has been a great and life changing experience,” Kanahele said. “I have learned so much through the guidance of numerous UH Manoa faculty. Our last year in the program was also a success because of the COE’s financial support. There were so many obstacles, but it was worth it.”
Hookulaiwi secured grant funding from OHA to offset the costs of tuition and conducting classes on Niihau, Kauai, and Oahu. Instructors from Hawaiinuiakea and the College of Education worked with Niihau cohort coordinators, Kahea Faria and Jay Taniguchi, to hold classes during school breaks and holidays so there was no disruption in the children’s learning on Niihau.
Kelley added, “Earning a degree was a challenge for me, but the journey was worth the time. This gave me the opportunity to encourage our children to be proud of who they are and continue to seek knowledge.” Pahulehua continued by acknowledging OHA for their ongoing support.
During their heartfelt expressions of gratitude and celebration, the teachers paused to honor a fifth member of their cohort and former Niihau lead teacher, Jennifer Kahelani Kaohelaulii. “Ms. K,” as she was affectionately known, was instrumental in bringing this cohort to fruition and was a staunch supporter of the program until her untimely passing in December of 2011.
Faria concluded, “Because of the tireless efforts of these teachers and their supporters, the Niihau School will continue on, building off of the success of each generation of teachers from the past to the present and beyond.”