Only five grads but Ni'ihau is plenty proud
By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Kaua'i Bureau
Ni'ihau School graduated five seniors Thursday in the hot midday sun of dusty Pu'uwai Village.
The five boys, in their white caps and gowns, gave individual talks in English and Hawaiian to thank their teachers, their parents and their community.
The community gathered all around, crammed into the small cafeteria building and crowded outside at the windows and doors.
It was a community celebration, but in many ways it was also a family celebration, because nearly everybody on the island is related to everyone else. The graduates were Allan Kanahele, Stanley Kanahele, Wilson Kanahele, Melvin Pahulehua and Jeremiah Shintani.
"It was a great celebration for those kids," said Bill Arakaki, who serves as principal for the tiny school on Ni'ihau as well as Waimea High School on Kaua'i.
The privately owned island, which is operated as a cattle and sheep ranch, has just 200 or so residents, all living in Pu'uwai. All are Native Hawaiians who speak Hawaiian as their first language.
There are about 40 youngsters in the community's three-building classroom complex, from kindergarten through Grade 12.
But the numbers are misleading. Many families from Ni'ihau live on Kaua'i, where they go for medical care, for work or for school.
Ni'ihau children also attend public and private schools on Kaua'i. Arakaki said three Ni'ihau-born students were to graduate last night from Waimea High School. Their families have been living on Kaua'i during the past year or two.
The graduation had perhaps the biggest display of educational brass of any graduation ceremony in the state. The state superintendent of education, Pat Hamamoto, was there. Others in attendance were Clayton Fujie, Hamamoto's deputy; Daniel Hamada, Kaua'i Complex Area superintendent; Sherwood Hara, a member of the state Board of Education; and Principal Arakaki. All gave remarks.
Arakaki, whose duties take him to Ni'ihau about twice a year, said he let the graduates know "we were very proud of them" and hoped they would do well whether they stayed on Ni'ihau, moved to Kaua'i or Honolulu, or went to the Mainland.
A lot of them do stay, but some move on. A member of the two student 1990 Ni'ihau School graduating class, Kahea Kaohelaulii, has been awarded her master's degree in education and is teaching on Kaua'i.
Arakaki said Ni'ihau School has a unique curriculum, taught in both English and Hawaiian by the two teachers and three educational assistants. The students have computers, powered by solar photovoltaic cells and a Honda generator.
But there's no Internet connection, because there are no phone lines. Even cell phones don't work in the village, because it's on the far side of the island, separated from Kaua'i by the 17-mile Kaulakahi Channel and the island's central mountains.
Department of Education educational specialist Val Tsuchiya, who attended the commencement ceremony, said it also was unlike most graduations on other islands because there were few flower lei.
"There aren't many flowers on the island," Tsuchiya said. "It's so dry, and the animals eat whatever grows."
Instead, the graduates were piled with lei made of ribbons, paper money and other materials. Ni'ihau shell lei, for which the island is famous, were worn by the parents. The few flower lei were those brought to the island by the state education officials.