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Keaohou: culturally-responsive Indigenous education

Kūlaniākea is decolonizing and reimagining Indigenous Education in order to address socio-economic disparities among Native Hawaiians.

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Explain your project idea (2,000 characters)

For many cultural and historical reasons, mainstream education hasn’t served Indigenous children and families well. The Western-style education and forced assimilation also resulted in the loss of Native Hawaiian language, culture, and, most importantly, traditional systems, that ensured thriving Native communities.

Kūlaniākea is building a holistic model, which honors every child, family, and community. Our culturally responsive, strength-based, and child-centered model of early childhood education ensures that infrastructure, workforce, pedagogical materials, and curricula meet unique needs of Native families, teachers, learners, and communities. Our bottom-up approach not only delivers culture-appropriate educational services to most vulnerable children, but also builds communities around them for a long-term success.

CHILDREN: Kūlnaiākea is creating and implementing a bilingual Hawaiian-English STEM program for children from 2 to 6 years old. Our approach bridges the Hawaiian and English languages and traditional and Western STEM.

PARENTS & FAMILIES: Integration of family is an underlying value of the Native Hawaiian education. Not every parent is language and STEM proficient. We provide our parents with tools and knowledge to become the best role models for their children.

TEACHERS: Kūlnaiākea provides professional development opportunities to teachers in order to address the unique needs of students within the context of Native Hawaiian culture, language, and traditions, Native and Western STEM, and bilingualism.

Who are the beneficiaries? (1,000 characters)

Our main beneficiaries are Native Hawaiian preschool-aged children and their families. Compared to other ethnic groups in Hawaii, they score lower on math and reading in 4th and 8th grades, are less likely to continue their education beyond high school, earn less than the state average, and are more likely to be unemployed, in poverty, or incarcerated. In what becomes a vicious cycle, parental income is a strong predictor of a child’s lifespan, health, and educational achievements.
Currently, our lab preschool serves 14 children, 2 to 6-year-old, and their parents/families. 80% of the children are Native Hawaiian, and 70% are from low-income families and the rest are from financially insecure households. Our families are representative of and typical for our district – they work full-time, long hours, and more than one job; some are single-parent households, and many of them take care of their elders and children at the same time (multigenerational households).

How is your idea unique? (1,000 characters)

One of the major issues for Native Hawaiians is the opposition between the traditional and Western education - Native Hawaiian science culture vs. modern STEM. Hawaii’s students historically study mainstream, textbook-based science, but do not learn about Native Hawaiian science practices – navigation by stars, building canoes and voyaging, Native Hawaiian agricultural and ethno-botanical practices, traditional medicine, solar and lunar calendars, and its relationship to ocean, winds, and stars. Such disconnects serve to perpetuate the under-representation of these students in the STEM pipeline.
Our approach is a result of the staff’s experience, and extensive academic and applied research on early education, literacy, bilingualism, and curriculum development. A rigorous STEM + literacy culture-based dual language curriculum is an innovative way to break silos between cultures and content areas. Currently no other school in Hawai’i is providing this option to Native families.

Idea Proposal Stage (choose one)

  • Pilot: I have started to implement the idea as a whole with a first set of real users.

Tell us more about your organization/company (1 sentence and website URL)

Kūlaniākea,, is a Native Hawaiian-serving and Native-managed non-profit organization, whose mission is to advance Indigenous education. Kūlaniākea serves Native Hawaiian communities through multi-generational dual language educational programs.

Expertise in sector

  • 7+ years

Organization Filing Status

  • Yes, we are a registered non-profit.

In 3-4 sentences, tell us the inspiration or story that encouraged you to start this project.

In the 1980s our Executive Director, Wailani Robins, had her daughter and realized that there was no culturally-responsive and academically-rigorous education for Native Hawaiian children. She left her accounting job and started working as a Teacher Assistant in a Hawaiian language immersion school. Since then, she became a highly respected educator and community leader. She has worked on different aspects of Kūlaniākea’s approach for over 25 years.

Please explain how your selected topic areas are influenced, in the local context of your project (1,000 characters).

Traditionally the Native Hawaiians operated within the context of families, geography, greater community - all of which provided for a deep grounding in the sense of identity, connections, and purpose (PEACE). People derived agricultural and aquacultural products, while ensuring environmental balance (PROSPERITY & PLANET).
Colonization and systematic racism broke down many systems, decimating the culture and resulting in generational poverty, fragmentation of families, and health disparities. Destroying the traditional way of living resulted in dependency on imported foods, great environmental damages to the Islands, and extinction of Native species.
Kūlaniākea is applying centuries-old, tried and proven, cultural knowledge to the modern day problems. It’s bridging the traditional and contemporary in order to strengthen our community in their culture, which carries the knowledge of PEACE, PROSPERITY, & PLANET, specific and relevant to the Hawaiian Islands and its people.

Who will work alongside your organization in the project idea? (1,000 characters)

Our main community - children and parents of the school. Our families are active contributors and participants in providing quality programming for all stakeholders. Kūlaniākea also actively collaborates with cultural practitioners, non-profits (Papahana Kuaola, Kanehunamoku), and educational organizations, from preschools to schools (immersion schools and Hawaii State DOE schools), to universities (University of Hawaii, Chaminade University of Honolulu), in our geographic area in order to create reciprocal learning communities and provide our children and their families with formal and informal opportunities (taro patch, fish pond, voyaging canoe, etc.). We share resources (lesson plans, materials), take our children on whole day excursion to taro patches and ocean, organize cultural workshops, led by Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners. As a member of the community we support other Native Hawaiian organizations in our district and include them into our events.

Please share some of the top strengths identified in the community which your project will serve (500 characters)

In 2015 families with children came together to discuss their challenges as Native parents, whose language and culture are at risk of disappearing. As a result, members of that conversation formed Kūlaniākea. Our organization has been formed and is operating bottom-up – the people, most affected by challenges, are the people implementing solutions. Because of it, our community found space for our preschool; they provide us with resources, attend our events, and fundraise.

Geographic Focus

Kaneohe, O'ahu, Hawai'i

How many months are required for the project idea? (500 characters)

36 months

Did you submit this idea to our 2017 BridgeBuilder Challenge? (Y/N)

  • No


Join the conversation:

Photo of Maija West

What a great project! I would love to hear more about the core values and procedures you have used to support the Native-managed culture of your organization. I am working in support of Native communities in California and New Mexico and we are working hard to build strong legal and procedural foundations for projects and organizations that are Native-led.

Photo of Kulaniakea

Maija, thank you for your message. I am slightly confused by the wording, but will try to respond to the best of my understanding of your message.

We are a Hawaiian culture-based organization, our core values are cultural values, which have been around for generations and you can probably find a lot to read about it. Our procedures come from implementing the traditional values. One of the foundational document for our organization is the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which can be a good primer for people, who haven’t worked or lived within a Native culture.

I do not know where you are in your work with the Native communities. I do not know about your level of knowledge of Native values, practices, and realities. Your message didn’t reveal much. However, it would be disrespectful of us to impose our stories onto theirs, without them asking us first. Tribal councils and organizations also have established legal and procedural foundations for governance and knowledge of what works for them. This body of knowledge is not something that needs to be built from scratch for Native communities. I believe Taos Pueblos have their own Tribal Council, so do many tribes in California.

We would be very happy to share and, most importantly, show you what it’s like to have a Native-managed and serving organization. However, you already have a Native community, you are working with. Reach out to Native colleges, CDFI, law firms, foundations, collectives, non-profits, and companies within close proximity to the community you are working with. You also have an access to Native healers, who have always been highly regarded. I would recommend spending time observing their work for a prolonged period of time. They are the carriers of values, and only they can tell you what exactly they need in terms of legal and procedural foundations. Even though Native cultures share values and believes, how things play out in each community is different. Also, there is no substitution for learning directly from the source (elders, healers, cultural practitioners). There is a reason why an apprenticeship under a cultural practitioner is highly valued. Let the Native communities in California and New Mexico lead your quest.
If I misread your message, I am sorry, let me know what exactly you are looking for.

Photo of Maija West

Kulaniakea, thank you so much for your thoughtful reply. I agree and appreciate your thoughts on local source learning in respective Native communities. My inquiry is more related to the legal structures and principles, in furtherance of this work. My day job is as an attorney, whose firm supports non-profit, social purpose businesses and tribal organizations. I am working on legal documents which protect sovereign principles and governing composition, while also complying with the applicable state laws. If you know of any resources connected to this inquiry, it would be much appreciated.

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