Kupuna reclassified to meet school rules
By Mike Gordon
Advertiser Staff Writer
State schools superintendent Pat Hamamoto has exempted the 250 kupuna who teach Hawaiian culture from federal guidelines that threatened their continued involvement in elementary school education.
Without the exemption, those elders would have had to obtain a two-year college degree or pass a rigorous test and training under the No Child Left Behind Act. The federal act, signed in January 2002 by President Bush, established strict provisions for preparing, training and recruiting qualified teachers, paraprofessionals and administrators.
"The consequences of keeping kupunas, Hawai'i's cultural treasures, out of the classroom would do irreparable harm to native Hawaiian students as well as the cultural foundations of the state as an international melting pot and national model for harmony in cultural diversity," Hamamoto wrote in a memo sent to educators Wednesday.
Hamamoto made her decision after waiting for nearly a year for U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige to exempt the kupuna or provide guidance. None of her questions was ever answered, so Hamamoto decided to classify the kupuna as "cultural personnel resource to the department."
"Kupunas themselves represent an effort to reverse the decline of the Hawaiian language, culture and sense of history of the people native to the state," she said. "They must be a part of the education of our public school students."
The department's Kupuna Program has been in existence for more than 20 years, placing seniors in classrooms to work with children from the kindergarten through Grade 6 level. Students and kupuna love it.
"They have a lot to offer the kids and the kids have a lot to offer them," said Claudia Chun, an assistant superintendent in charge of human resources.
Puanani Wilhelm, administrator for the department's Hawaiian Studies and Language Section, said the kupuna "are greatly relieved" by Hamamoto's decision.
"It is not because they are not willing to get additional training," Wilhelm said. "Kupuna are like the most enthusiastic educators you will find. They are always willing to learn new things. But insisting that 60- and 70-year-olds go back to college is not a realistic thing."
Access to college courses and tuition, especially for retirees on fixed incomes, would have been a serious issue, Wilhelm said, and the kupuna did not want to jump through "those academic hoops."
It made them sad, because they love what they do, she said.
"Some would have really tried to meet the requirements but some would not have felt that was an effort they wanted to do," Wilhelm said.