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Keaohou: culturally-responsive early childhood education

Kūlaniākea aims to close the early childhood achievement gap to address socio-economic disparities among Native Hawaiians in Kaneohe, Oahu.

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Updates: How has your idea changed or evolved throughout the Prize? What updates have you made to this submission? (1500 characters)

There were numerous conversations with both internal and external stakeholders. Through this process, it became clear that we need to communicate the specifics of Native Hawaiian Education more clearly. Specifically: 1. Native education is a part of the bigger civil and human rights movement. Article 14 of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples states: “Indigenous peoples have the right to establish and control their educational systems and institutions providing education in their own languages, in a manner appropriate to their cultural methods of teaching and learning”. 2. For Native children, neither English nor Hawaiian is a Second/Foreign Language. They grow up in a bilingual or trilingual environment, depending on their ethnic heritage. 3. Selling a culture-based curriculum and educational materials is not only about generating money and intellectual property protection. It is about perpetuating the culture. Before any material goes into commercial production, it is critical to address cultural and ethical considerations, protocols, and processes, which prevent cultural appropriation.

Name or Organization



Kāneʻohe, Oʻahu, Hawaiʻi

What is your stage of development?

  • Advanced Innovator with 3 to 10+ years of experience in ECD


  • Non-profit

What is the stage of your proposal?

  • Piloting: I have started to implement my solution as a whole with a first set of real users.

Describe how your solution could be a game-changer for your selected Opportunity Area (600 characters)

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 can ensure that infrastructure, workforce, pedagogical materials, and curricula meet unique needs of families, teachers, learners, and communities. Our bottom-up approach can be a game-changer not only for how we deliver educational services to most vulnerable children, but also how we build our communities around them for a long-term success.

Select an Innovation Target

  • System design: Solutions that target changing larger systems.

Tell us more about your innovation (1500 characters)

While educational research and practice shift from one Innovation of the Year to the next (STEM, 21st Century Skills, soft skills, Two-Gen, Socio-Emotional Learning), traditional cultures and practices have been addressing a whole child for centuries through child-centered strength-based methodologies. Traditionally children were raised within the context of families, extended families, geography, greater community - all of which provided for a deep grounding in their sense of identity, connections, and purpose. Children were provided, what we now know now through advances in brain science, with essential for healthy formation: social connections, resilience, familial and community support during crisis; social and emotional competence of themselves and the adults around them; and knowledge and skills that enabled to successfully face many new and unknown situations (e.g. Polynesian voyaging through the Pacific). The approach doesn’t break different knowledge and life areas into silos, categories, and priorities – health, education, socio-emotional development, etc. Instead, it looks at each child’s development holistically - mental, physical, spiritual, cultural, and environmental aspects together. Our innovation is applying centuries-old, tried and proven, cultural knowledge to the modern day problems.

What problem are you aiming to solve? (3 sentences)

Kūlaniākea aims to solve socio-economic disparities among Native Hawaiians. The mainstream education has resulted in a persistent and increasing gap in educational attainment of Native Hawaiian. The educational achievement gap translates into underemployment, lower income, and, in what becomes a vicious cycle, lower parental income is a strong predictor of a child’s educational achievement, income, health, and lifespan.

Explain your idea (5000 characters)

1. Quality early childhood program: Kūlnaiākea has created a program, which delivers both rich learning environment and highly-skilled teaching within the context of the Native education: CURRICULUM AND METHODOLOGY: Kūlnaiākea is creating and implementing a bilingual Hawaiian-English STEM program for children from 24 months to 6 years old. Our approach combines the Hawaiian and English languages and traditional and Western STEM. A rigorous STEM + literacy culture-based dual language curriculum is an innovative way to break silos between cultures and content areas, so that literacy, Hawaiian culture, and STEM aren't taught as separate subjects. 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. The teachers take educational courses through the Chaminade University of Honolulu and undergo multiple on-the-job trainings in the Hawaiian language and culture, Parent Education, and Curriculum Development throughout the year. 2. Supporting Parents and Families: Integration of family is an underlying value of the Native Hawaiian education. Not every parent is language and STEM proficient. Many parents indicated that, though they want to actively participate in a child’s language development, their Hawaiian language skills are either academic and formal or colloquial and informal, both are not geared toward child’s language skill development, especially bilingual. We provide our parents with tools and knowledge to become the best role models for their children. Kūlaniākea organizes school orientations, parent-teacher conferences, cultural and language workshops for families and community members, and semi-annual family events. Each month the teachers develop activities for parents to implement at home with their children. The activities are centered on the lives of children that occur daily or on a regular basis and provide adults in those situations with specific Hawaiian language tools, i.e., vocabulary, sentence patterns, examples of conversations, and explanations of such examples. Our parents also receive guidance on culturally-appropriate health practices, conflict resolution, and socio-emotional and relationship skills development of their children. All these activities support the development of a strong bond between a child and a parent and create a supportive network among our families. 3. Leveraging People and Places: Kūlaniākea incorporates outdoor environment into the educational program and takes children on community rides and excursions. The reality of a rural community preschool – there are no children-oriented establishments (museum, zoo, aquarium, etc.). However, the community has many culture-based organizations, canoe clubs, farms, cultural practitioners, adults, and elders, engaged in modern and traditional STEM activities, and easily available and accessible natural resources, such as stars, ocean, land, streams, beaches, dormant volcanoes, ocean, etc. Our students learn about history, science, weather, environmental practices, agriculture, and aquaculture. Kūlaniākea also exposes the students to the area's rich history of navigation and voyaging, which is not taught in the mainstream education. Outdoors hands-on learning activities are congruent with the traditional Native Hawaiian model of learning. Moreover, in a limited-resource/rural environment, it is critical to connect children to nature and teach them that outdoors are the original STEM classroom. Familiarity with the neighborhood instills connection and responsibility for their community and environment. Such level of connection to nature also allows our families to nurture children’s informal learning regardless of where they are – at a picnic, beach, farm, hiking in the mountains, or playing in a backyard. After a year of implementation, we see that the approach provides a culture, language, and science-rich learning environment necessary for a quality program, which improves early learning outcomes: 60% of the students show an increase in the development of beginning reading and literacy in the Hawaiian and English languages. We anticipate that during our assessment, May 2018, 90% of the children will show a significant increase in their reading and language development. Our families are forming a strong community and support each other outside of the school.

Who benefits? (1500 characters)

Our lab preschool currently serves 12 children, 2 to 6-year-old, and their parents/families. 80% of the children are Native Hawaiian, and 70% are from low-income families. It is a full-day preschool, with the school year from August to May. The summer school is in June and July. The students spend 8 hours in school daily, for a total of 182 instructional days a year. Kūlaniākea also organizes cultural workshops, camping, and outings for our children, their younger and older siblings, and adults on weekends. Overall, we interact with children and their families consistently all year around. Our children are showing an increase in their academic (Hawaiian and English languages, literacy, and STEM knowledge) and socio-emotional skills development. Our parents are more and more involved in the school, they are using more age-appropriate English and Hawaiian vocabulary and supporting their childrenʻs development.

What kind of impact will your idea have? (1500 characters)

By 2023 Kūlaniākea will establish a comprehensive model of Native Hawaiian education (curriculum, methodology, and materials) to provide a high-quality education for children, parents, and teachers. We will reach 60 children, about 120+ parents and members of the community, and 20 teachers directly. Through sharing our methodology with our partners, we will reach over 6,000 students across the state of Hawaii. Our teacher-training and consulting services will reach over 40,000 students and 3,000 teachers and librarians in the U.S. and other countries. Our numbers are based on historical numbers and projection of work for the next 5 years. Beyond qualitative goals, we aim to redefine the systems, narrative, and standards of children’s well-being. The challenges for Native Hawaiian education are not unique – institutionalized racism affects people of many ethnic backgrounds. As minority children and children of mixed ancestry are becoming the majority in the U.S., we need to recognize multilingual and multicultural approaches to education in order to support every child, every culture, and every identity. Such methodology can create a diverse teaching workforce, reflective of our student population; produce books and media with main characters of different ethnic backgrounds; and support each family's beliefs and personal growth.

How does or how could your idea impact low-income children? (1500 characters)

Compared to other ethnic groups in Hawaii, Native Hawaiians earn less than the state average. Kūlaniākea was created to support children, who due to the parental socio-economic situation, would otherwise not have an access to a high-quality program. 70% of our students are low or very low income. Other families make above the qualifying thresholds, which makes it even harder to afford all living expenses, especially childcare.

Innovation: What makes your concept innovative? (5000 characters)

In 1896 English become the only medium of instruction throughout Hawaiʻi; the use of the Hawaiian language in schools was prohibited. Over several decades, colonial educational policies made the Hawaiian language endangered. Only in 1986 the State established the Hawaiian language education program allowing the Hawaiian language as an instruction medium in public schools. In order to preserve and maintain the language and culture, Native Hawaiian educators established Hawaiian immersion schools in the 1980s. As of today, these are two main forms of education – English or Hawaiian-immersion. The two main educational options present a tricky dichotomy for Native families. They recognize that English is needed for academic and social advancement and employment. They also want their children to grow up strongly rooted in their own language and culture. The current demographics also show that Native families are more multiethnic and multicultural today. Kūlaniākea offers a new alternative for families, who wish to have the best of the both worlds for their children without compromising their values. We are broadening the scope of the Native Hawaiian education, especially early education, and creating a balanced Hawaiian-English approach, in which Hawaiian and English are not set as opposition languages and cultures, but as tools of communication. Kūlaniākea’s goal is to educate Hawaii children in both languages to succeed in diverse cultural settings, regardless whether they choose to pursue their education locally, nationally, or globally, while they maintain their identity, culture, language, and sense of place.

Scale: Describe how your idea could reach a significant number of end-users. (1500 characters)

Our immediate market size is 109,000 children under age of 6 in Hawaii without any consistent quality care (no state universal preschool). Kūlaniākea is currently training public school educators in integrated curriculum development and native methodology (Contract with the Hawaiʻi State Department of Education). Our model is scalable and adaptable to children of different ages. When the state of Hawaii implements the universal preschool, Hawaii DOE will be well-equipped to provide culturally-appropriate education for preschool children. We also share our curriculum with local non-profits, who annually reach over 2,000 Hawaiian children. Since the model can be adapted to different geographic areas and traditional cultures, Kūlaniākea is working with educators from other countries directly (Tahiti, New Zealand) and through the Chaminade University Teacher Training Summer Institute (India, Japan, European countries, etc.) Our barriers to scaling: Native education has been consistently underfunded. There is a lack of acceptance from funders that Native communities can solve complex problems, inflicted on them, themselves through culturally-congruent approaches and traditional knowledge. Our plans for long-term sustainability: strong partnerships with educators, local and international, in order to provide them with our methodology and developing our own educational materials for sale, which will create a sustainable and non-restricted source of funding for our project

Feasibility: Where are you with understanding the feasibility of your idea? Describe what you’ve done so far and your plans. (3000 characters)

The organization has been operational since January 2017. Kūlaniākea is a 501(c)(3) organization and a licensed childcare facility, which meets all state and federal regulations. We are also in the process of receiving the National Early Childhood Program Accreditation. We have 4 full-time staff, and are looking for a part-time teacher assistant. We are highly qualified professionals, who are dedicated to advancing our mission and vision. We bring over four decades of experience in culture-based education, early childhood education, and organizational management. Our combined expertise allowed us to provide a high-quality program from the beginning. We have established internal management, HR, fiscal, and programmatic policies and procedures. After one year of operating the preschool, we are confident that our idea is possible, feasible, and achievable from technical and operational perspective. Since December 2016 Kūlaniākea has received financial support from Harold L.K. Castle Foundation, Kamehameha Schools, and U.S. Department of Education/Native Hawaiian Education Program. Besides being recognized as a high-quality and innovative Native Hawaiian program by our funders, we are also supported by our community. Even though they can’t provide us with sizeable financial contributions, they volunteer their time for cultural events and camps, fundraising, and other school-related activities.

Business Viability: How viable is your business model? (5000 characters)

Our organization functions within the standard non-profit financial model. We derive our funding from tuition, state subsidies for low-income families, scholarships from outside sources, fundraising, and private and federal funding. Our partnerships and community support are our biggest asset. We connect to our community and we share our knowledge with our partners. It has nothing do with any stream of income. However, we wonʻt be able to operate and succeed without their knowledge and support. Since we have been in operations for at least a year, we are confident that our business model can succeed. Our barriers are a lack of funding to implement a high-quality educational model. Funders appreciate our comprehensive approach, however, they only wish to pay for certain portions of it. You canʻt deliver high-quality outcomes through a substandard or fragmented process. We are currently developing a line of educational products, which we can produce and sell to support our work. We are also developing a consulting arm of our organizations. The products and consulting income will allow us to depend less on private and federal grants and become self-sufficient.

HCD: How have you used human centered design to build or refine your concept? (5000 characters)

Native projects thrive only when they come from within the community. Our organization is formed and managed by end users, directly affected by educational and socio-economic disparities – Native Hawaiians. In 2015 a group of Native parents, educators, and community members came together to discuss their children’s education and daily challenges of parenting. Discussions soon focused on poverty, underemployment/need to work multiple jobs, loss of cultural identity and language, and how it impacts children. We realized that if we pulled our skills, experiences, networks, and resources together, we could provide our children with quality education. However, before inception, we went out to our community – elders, cultural practitioners, leaders, Native Hawaiian serving organizations, educators, and parents. It was important to know whether our organization would be needed and welcomed by our own community. Those conversations identified a gap in early childhood educational, opportunities in our geographic area, and crystallized our mission, vision, and plans. Many educational organizations voiced their support as our scope complimented their work and didn’t compete with them for money, participants/children, and other resources. Kūlaniākea’s Board of Directors represents Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners (hula, traditional agriculture, voyaging, and navigation), Hawaiian language speakers, Native rights activists, cultural specialists, and leaders in the Native Hawaiian education. Kūlaniākea continues its community input process through individual and community meetings, continuous collaborations with partners and funders. Most importantly, we now have a 2-year long waiting list. We anticipate even greater demand for space availability within the next few years, as children under age of 5 are the fastest growing segment of the state population.

Tell us more about you (3000 characters)

Our program didn’t come just from community conversations. The roots are in the social justice movement and Hawaiian Cultural Renaissance of the 1960s. The current language nets movement was started by Māori language kindergartens in New Zealand in the 1980s. The movement spread among Native/Indigenous population in the Pacific and Americas. The inspiration also came from a real and acute personal need – 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. You had to patch together many different schools, models, resources, and people together. 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 leader. She has worked on different aspects of Kūlaniākea’s approach for over 25 years. As a result, she has taught many children in Hawaii, who are now successful adults and ready to bring their own children to her. Her own daughter is a preschool teacher, who is strongly rooted in her identity, culture, and language. Kūlaniākea also continuously incorporates Native-centered insights and latest development in the field of the mainstream and Indigenous Education with the purpose of using the best practices from researchers and educators around the world. The combination of collaboration with the community, century-established cultural practices, and evidence-based educational research provides a solid foundation for a responsive and relevant program. What really excites us about working in the early childhood space is that it provides the biggest return on investment at both individual and community level. This is the time when children form their identity and worldview. It is also the moment, when the socio-economic gap begins. We have a great opportunity and responsibility to mitigate many negative and costly outcomes. A high-quality academic preschool program translates into school preparedness and produces positive outcomes up to three decades later, including better health, higher cognitive skills, school achievement and performance, higher educational attainment, and higher earnings capacity.

Do you have the people and partners you need to do what you’ve described? (600 characters)

Even though Kūlaniākea is young, the experienced staff brought with them their professional relationships and partnerships. The organization actively collaborates with cultural practitioners and educational organizations, from preschools to universities. Kūlaniākea works with its partners in our geographic area to create reciprocal learning communities to provide our children and their families with formal and informal opportunities (taro patch, fish pond, voyaging canoe, etc.) and to create educational pathways from early childhood into adulthood.

As you consider your next steps, what kinds of help could you use? Is there a type of expertise that would be most helpful? (1800 characters)

We are currently working on creating: • Bilingual educational materials and books, and • Culturally-appropriate prenatal program. We welcome partnerships and collaborations.

Would you like mentoring support?

  • Yes

If so, what type of mentoring support do you think you need? (1200 characters)

In the 19th century, sugar cane plantation owners brought mongooses to eradicate rats in Hawaii. However, mongooses hunt during the day and sleep at night. Rats are nocturnal creatures: sleep during the day and hunt at night. This idea, which somehow worked perfectly in Jamaica, resulted in a rapid extinction of Native birds. The history of Hawaii is rich with brilliant ideas, forced into the islands by people, who neither knew nor understood the unique ecosystem and local culture. We would prefer a mentor, who comes from the Native/Indigenous worldview; someone with shared life and professional experiences.

Are you willing to share your email contact information submitted on OpenIDEO with Gary Community Investments?

  • Yes, share my contact information

[Optional] Biography: Upload your biography. Please include links to relevant information (portfolio, LinkedIn profile, organization website, etc).

Mentorship: How was your idea supported? (5000 characters)

The conversation with the mentor did and didn’t inform the concept. It became apparent how little my mentor knew or understood about bilingual and Native/Indigenous education. In a way, it was the best feedback – how do we communicate the core idea to a person, who is supposed to be a good match, but only knows about the mainstream education? She did make suggestions about current projects our organization was already working. However, I learned more when I asked her about her work, which supported mostly my professional and personal interests, not our organization. We probably were not well matched at all. I do appreciate the time she spent with me. I would have appreciated a mentor, who is also working in a similar space – Native/Indigenous education and social justice.


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