Kupu A'e: Rooting in the culture, cultivating the future!

What if Native Hawaiian children had access to the indigenous knowledge and education, which affirmed their Native identity and culture?

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Founding Story: Share a story about a key experience or spark that helps the network understand why this project got started or a story about how you became inspired about the potential for this project to succeed.

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 our children. We realized that if we pulled our skills, experiences, networks, and resources together, we can provide our children with a solution - quality education through a non-profit preschool Kūlaniākea, whose mission is to advance indigenous 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 the area and crystallized our mission, vision, and actions. Many educational organizations voiced their support as our scope will compliment their work, not compete with them for money, participants/children, and other resources. Kūlaniākea was also invited to share space with a Hawaiian-speaking church in the area, whose aging population is concerned about the disappearance of the Hawaiian language. The elders welcomed our children and staff on the campus. During these discussions, Kūlaniākea was offered many resources and formed partnerships.

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  • Self-identify race, ethnicity, or origin

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Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [State]

  • Hawaii

Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [City]


Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [State]

  • Hawaii

Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [City]

Kaneohe, Hawaii

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

A major issue for Native Hawaiians is an opposition between the Native and Western educations - they become literate in English and Western knowledge, but don’t learn about their history, culture, and language. As a result, Native Hawaiians are neither rooted in the Native culture, nor are they assimilated to the Western one. Loss of the native identity and language impacts overall well-being – lower educational attainment, lower life expectancy, and higher rates of poverty, addiction, chronic diseases, unemployment, incarceration, and homelessness. An achievement gap for Native Hawaiians starts at preschool and widens through middle school into higher education, employment, income, and health. Quality preschool can narrow the gaps and produces positive outcomes up to three decades later, including better health, higher cognitive skills, higher educational attainment and earnings.

            The Native Hawaiian culture is a culture of voyagers and pioneers. Our ancestors possessed a comprehensive body of scientific knowledge in agriculture, botany, zoology, marine biology, geology, medicine, astronomy, oceanography, meteorology, and engineering, which supported the discoveries of new island homes across the Pacific Ocean, and made successful survival possible in a harsh/limited resource environment. However, nowadays, most Native Hawaiians are not found in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) workforce; they work in the construction and tourism industries. The biggest failure of the currently available educational options is an inability to position Native Hawaiians in higher paying jobs, especially in STEM-related industries, which can break the cycle of poverty and its effects on children.

            As educational attainment is strongly correlated with a higher income and better quality of life, Kūlaniākea proposes the “Kupu A'e” project to close the existing gap in culturally-appropriate STEM education by implementing an innovative bilingual Hawaiian-English program (curriculum, methodology, and materials). The goal is to create a balanced framework and methodology of integrated Hawaiian and English literacy and STEM education.

            The program will focus on three areas/target population: teachers, students, and parents/community members.

TEACHERS: Overall early childhood education program’s quality and child developmental outcomes are positively linked with highly educated and trained teachers. The project will provide professional development opportunities to prepare teachers to address the unique needs of students within the context of Native Hawaiian culture, language, and traditions, Montessori methodology, and bilingualism. The teachers will undergo trainings in the Hawaiian language and culture, Montessori education, Parent Education and Curriculum development.

            The teachers will demonstrate their mastery of the content matter by developing a bilingual STEM curriculum and implementing it at school. The curriculum will cover English and Hawaiian languages (vocabulary, texts, songs, legends, traditions), geography (maps, compass, directions, continents, bodies of water, calculating distances), agriculture and botany/ethnobotany (identification of native and invasive plants, use of plants for food, health, clothing, ropes, food preservation), health and wellness (traditional and modern knowledge on diet and exercise, cultural healing traditions, e.g. lomi - massage), astronomy (identification of stars and constellations, ancient star navigation, lunar and solar phases, calendar), oceanography (identification of winds, ocean currents, swells, ocean conditions, ocean landmarks), meteorology (wind, precipitation, clouds, weather conditions and weather prediction), zoology (native and invasive species, identification of animals, migratory and sedentary patterns), and engineering and construction (choosing materials and tools, measurements, building a canoe). The curriculum will combine the traditional Hawaiian STEM content and modern mathematics, science, technology, and engineering notions, utilizing hands-on activities in the classroom and on actual canoes. The curriculum will incorporate the required literacy, common core and science standards and connect Native Hawaiian traditional activities with modern (Western) STEM content.

            As the teachers receive trainings and workshops, their knowledge of the content areas and teaching will improve, which will result in better instruction, quality interaction with children, and children’s increased performance. Professional development and positive teaching experience will increase the number of highly-trained Native Hawaiian teachers, providing quality educational experiences to Native Hawaiian children.

            The proposed curriculum will ensure a language-, culture-, and science-rich environment, which will support the student’s knowledge, interest in, and academic performance in the Hawaiian and English languages and STEM. As children’s academic performance increases, so will their ability and desire to pursue further STEM studies and careers, which provide steadier and higher income.

CHILDREN: The program includes practical life, sensorial, physical and motor skills, social and emotional development, language, mathematics, botany, geography, art, music, drama, and environmental studies. In a Montessori environment, students do not sit at desks all day; they actively participate in activities in and outside of the classroom and learn by observing, doing an activity, or helping their peers. This methodology is similar to a traditional apprenticeship model and mirrors a Native way of learning by doing. A Montessori environment also includes children of mixed age and ability groups, which mirrors the practices of a Hawaiian home. Children receive both individual and small-group lessons. The most impactful factors of our program is not just delivering culturally-based, academically-rigorous content, but delivering it in a Native way. Such methodology greatly adds to development of academic and soft/communication skills.

            Academic skills/school readiness - educational models, that combine STEM and literacy, show success in increasing knowledge and skills in science, vocabulary, writing, reading comprehension, and communication. Science and literacy share highly complementary and sometimes identical learning goals, cognitive processes, and discourse practices, as literacy activities support the acquisition of science concepts and inquiry skills, while inquiry science serves as a compelling context for literacy development. This approach combines literacy, Hawaiian culture, and STEM, as they won’t be taught as separate subjects. Incorporation of standards will ensure that the content is of high quality and aligned with state and national educational benchmarks and leads to educational gains. Early math skills in preschool are twice as strong a predictor of academic success as are reading skills. Children, who are exposed to STEM education very early, are more likely to excel academically and continue their studies in STEM. Bilingual education boosts academic performance in both languages and other subjects.

            Social-emotional development – Kūlaniākea places an emphasis on developing not only core academic subjects, but also on cultivating interests and talents, making connections with the world around them and communicating in various ways. Part of the school’s responsibility is nurturing the spiritual, cultural, intellectual, social, emotion and ethical development of our children. This is accomplished through the Native approach to instructional delivery and classroom management. Our teachers model the school’s values to the students – aloha (love), ‘ohana (family), malama (taking care), and kuleana (responsibility). The students receive lessons in grace and courtesy, polite behavior and interactions. Children are taught to identify feelings and needs, state problems, and propose solutions using ho’oponopono (nonviolent communication and peaceful conflict resolution process).

            Throughout the academic year, the children’s academic proficiency and school readiness are measured by the Hawaiian Language Proficiency Scale, a continuous qualitative observation assessment (Montessori-based) on the overall development, and the Hawai`i State School Readiness Assessment (HSSRA). These assessments, especially the qualitative daily observations and note-taking, give teachers and parents an understanding on how well a child is developing in his/her physical and social-emotional behaviors and skills – confidence in own skills, interaction with peers and adults, ability to handle difficult situations, articulate emotions and needs, and solve problem and conflict peacefully. At the end of the school year, students participate in a Ho'ike, a traditional graduation ceremony, during which each student demonstrates his/her practical application of the Hawaiian language, culture, and STEM to teachers, parents, and cultural practitioners.

            We see the results of our approach in both academic and social-emotional development of the children. As they are learning about roles and responsibilities, knowledge and skills, required to be a captain, navigator, cook, doctor, deck hand on a voyaging canoe, they also learn that each person needs to communicate and work together for a canoe to cross the ocean. As they learn about land and marine flora and fauna, they also learn about their responsibility to protect our unique island environment for generations to come and what they can do on a daily basis to take care of the Earth. As they learn about traditional foods (taro, coconut, banana, fish, etc.), they learn how to eat healthy and take care of themselves. As they meet cultural practitioners and Native Hawaiians in STEM jobs, they do not just glimpse into what knowledge and skills they need in the future; they learn that the traditional and modern STEM are interconnected, and it is possible to be a traditionally-grounded Native Hawaiian in the modern world. As they follow Hokulea’s voyage (a Hawaiian canoe, circumnavigating the world utilizing only traditional methods), they learn about other countries and their environmental problems, how to relate to other diverse cultures, and that the traditional Native knowledge is still relevant and valued today. Most importantly, the combination of Native and Western knowledge presents a more objective view of the history and culture and reflects the contribution of the Native Hawaiians to the world history. As children identify themselves with voyagers and explorers, they gain confidence in their ability to navigate any situation and learn as they go; it teaches them about many other Pacific cultures; it allows them to connect the past and the future and recognize their role and responsibilities to this land; and it instills pride in being a Native Hawaiian.

            We live in a nation, where English and mainstream STEM are educationally dominant and highly desirable for academic and social advancement and employment. Cultural knowledge and pride are important in all children’s cognitive and social development. The dual-language/multicultural approach prepares children to succeed in diverse cultural settings, regardless of whether they choose to pursue their education locally, nationally, or globally, while they maintain their identity, culture, language, and sense of place.

            PARENTS: Kūlaniākea recognizes the role of parents and family as first teachers, caregivers, and collaborators. Integration of family is an underlying value of 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 full child language skill development, especially bilingual.

            Kūlaniākea will organize school orientations, parent-teacher conferences, cultural and language workshops for families and community members, and semi-annual family events. These events will give the teachers an opportunity to observe parent-children interactions and provide additional support. Each month the teachers will develop activities for parents to implement at home with their children. The activities will be 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 patters, examples of conversations, and explanations of such examples. It will allow the parents to use Hawaiian comfortably, competently, and to a significant degree in those situations.

            These activities will support the lesson plans, being implemented at school at the same time. These activities will also support parents in navigating their own language/identity and communication needs. They will allow parents and children to bond together over seemingly small daily tasks. These activities will create consistency and continuity of the language and culture use at school, home, and in the community. By strengthening resources for in-home learning for both parents and children, Kūlaniākea will give young children the greatest chance at developing strong family relationship and communication skills.

            Our parents also experience educational and income inequalities. Providing a high- quality childcare can free adults’ time and significantly increase families’ employment rates and incomes; and, an increase in family income can improve children’s long-term outcomes.

Is your model focused on any of the following traditionally underserved communities?

  • Communities of color
  • Low-income communities

Does your model work within any of the following sectors?

  • Childcare
  • Community Development and Empowerment
  • Education

Year Founded


Project Stage

  • Start-Up (a pilot that has just started operating)

Example: Walk the network through a specific example of what happens when a person or group engages with your solution.

Last year Momi (5) was in the dual-language class. She learnt the names of marine animal and plants in both languages, and how ancient Hawaiians took care of the environment and what we can do today to protect the land and ocean. The teachers helped parents support her growth. Both parents didn’t speak Hawaiian and couldn’t afford college classes. Father came to the morning circle for 15 minutes every day to learn words and sentence patterns. The parents took our cultural workshops, after which they started preparing nutritious and culturally-appropriate food. Momi graduated, literate in English and Hawaiian, with strong science skills. Overall, it strengthened the family through language and culture.

Impact: What was the impact of your work last year? Please also describe the projected future impact for the coming years.

Last year the pilot program with a different organization produced the following results: 180 parents and 10 teachers participated in cultural workshops and camps. 5 teachers completed their studies in teaching and Hawaiian language and culture. 80 students showed an increase in their development and growth by 50% on the Hawaii State School Readiness Assessment, which measures Approaches to Learning, Academic Literacy and Math, School Behaviors and Skills, Social-Emotional Behaviors, and Physical Well-being. Our graduates were prepared for elementary school with a strong academic and socio-emotional foundation. Our long-term impact would be to become a University internship site for teacher training, sustain the annual growth, partner with more organizations, and become an academic, social, and cultural hub for our families and community.

Organization Type

  • nonprofit/NGO/citizen sector

Annual Budget

  • $250k - $500k

Financial Sustainability Plan: What is your solution’s plan to ensure financial sustainability?

Financial sustainability will be achieved through leveraging resources with partners in the community, tuition, preschool subsidies, and seeking additional federal and private funding to support the program. The Executive Director and Chief Operational Officer raised over $17 mil. in federal and private awards for the Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders’ community initiatives since 2010.

Unique Value Proposition: How else is this problem being addressed? Are there other organizations working in the same field, and how does your project differ from these other approaches?

Kūlaniākea is currently the only bilingual Hawaiian-English STEM preschool. There are other culture-appropriate STEM programs (Native American/Alaska Native, Aboriginal, First Nations, Native Hawaiian). However, they focus on the language preservation and survival and children in middle and high school. None of them combine all necessary elements - culture and language, English language, and Native and modern STEM. Kūlaniākea focuses not only on the language and culture preservation and survival, but also on providing an academically-rigorous program.

Reflect on the Field and its Future: Stepping outside of your project, what do you see as the most important or promising shifts that can advance children’s wellbeing?

As minority children and children of mixed ancestry are becoming majority in the U.S., we need to recognize multilingual and multicultural approaches to education in order to support every child and every identity. We can't afford to teach languages and cultures in opposition of each other. A multilingual/multicultural approach can create an environment, which is reflective of complex and rich cultures in the U.S. and connects our history and modern day reality in an honest and reflective way.

Source: How did you hear about the Children’s Wellbeing Challenge? (the answer will not be public)

  • Email

Program Design Clarity

Kūlaniākea operates a full-day culture-based Montessori preschool in Kaneohe, Hawaii. The school year has two semesters (August to December and January to May), which equals 182 instructional days a year, and summer school (June to July) ever year. Kūlaniākea provides continous culturally-appropriate professional development to teachers, language and culture workshops and camps to parents and community, and daily academically rigorous culture-based education to children.

Community Leadership

Kūlaniākea partnered with community and educational organizations (Head Start, charter and Department of Education schools, after school programs, etc.) in order to deliver quality programs, share resources, and support the community cohesively (e.g. various resources for children and parents, etc.). By sharing resources we create a feedback and accountability loop and build each other’s internal capacity to serve our community better.

Age of Children Impacted

  • 1.5 -3
  • 3 - 5
  • 6 - 12

Spread Strategies

Kūlaniākea established partnerships with Native Hawaiian serving organizations, who will provide content feedback and implement the curriculum with students of different ages. Our partners reach over 5,000 children annually, which will ensure broad implementation of the program and benefits to children beyond our organization. Kūlaniākea will work on bringing in more participants, cultural practitioners, and partnerships during the project.

Reflect on how your work helps children to thrive. How are you cultivating children’s sense of self, belonging, and purpose through your model?

Our work helps instill pride and self-worth, which are important in all children’s cognitive and social development. When a school uses the Native language and culture, it increases students’ self-esteem and self-efficacy, key factors that support academic engagement and success in life. Learning more than one language enhances cognitive development, social growth, and promotes understanding among diverse people and cultures.

Leadership Story

Aloha, I am Wailani Robins. When I was a child, my grandparents didn’t want us to speak Hawaiian. I was too young to know the reasons why, growing in a traditional household, I spoke and studied only English. Life changed when my daughter was born. As a single working mom, I sought every opportunity to educate my daughter and myself. Today, she is a teacher, fluent in Hawaiian with a strong Native identity. I understand every family that comes to our school – their desire for the best education for children, their lack of resources, and their own educational needs.

Organization’s Facebook Page (URL)


Leader's LinkedIn Profile (URL)


Evaluation results

3 evaluations so far

1. Relevance: Does this project seem to help children (ages 0 to 12 years) develop a strong sense of self, belonging, and purpose?

5 - Yes, this is great! The project lays out a strong, compelling case for how its model nurtures children’s wellbeing. - 66.7%

4 - It seems like a good fit, and the model talks explicitly about children’s wellbeing. - 0%

3 - I think so. The project seems related to children’s wellbeing, but the logic is vague. - 33.3%

2 - Not sure. The project doesn’t have much to do with wellbeing, or it doesn’t give enough information. - 0%

1 - Nope, this project definitely doesn’t fit the challenge brief (e.g., It doesn’t help kids younger than 12, isn’t in the U.S., etc.) - 0%

2. Innovation: Does this project tackle children’s wellbeing from a new angle?

5 - I loved this! The project describes a novel model that addresses important cultural or systemic barriers. - 33.3%

4 - This is pretty cool. The project is addressing an important problem in a new or compelling way. - 66.7%

3 - I feel like there’s something there, but I want more details about what makes it distinctive. - 0%

2 - It’s a good project, but I’ve seen others like it before. - 0%

1 - It was confusing or hard to tell what it made it different. - 0%

3. Social Impact: What is this project’s potential for creating positive social impact?

5 - Lots of potential. This project is achieving impressive results, and it’s growing quickly. It could absolutely inspire changes in the ways we approach caring for kids nationally, across sectors (e.g. childcare, healthcare, education). - 33.3%

4 - Pretty good potential. This project demonstrates significant positive impact so far, and it could scale regionally or nationally one day and fundamentally change how a system operates (e.g. childcare, healthcare, education). - 0%

3 - Budding potential. This project is creating local impact, but it would take a few adjustments before it could scale. - 33.3%

2 - Some potential. This project demonstrates some initial positive impact, but it would require major changes before it could scale. - 33.3%

1 - Limited potential. This project has great intentions, but it looks like it does not include key drivers of a shift towards children’s wellbeing. - 0%

4. Overall, how do you feel about this idea?

5 - This idea rocked my world. It’s awesome! - 33.3%

4 - This idea seems really exciting. With a little more polishing, it’d be among my favorites. - 33.3%

3 - I think the idea is great, but it needs some work before it moves onto the next round. - 33.3%

2 - I liked it fine but preferred others. - 0%

1 - It didn’t make my heart beat faster. Needs significant revisions. - 0%

5. Offer some feedback. Where should this participant spend some time revising?

DEFINING THE PROBLEM. Make sure to articulate the root causes or main barriers of the social issue your project addresses. (Founding Story, Problem, Solution). - 0%

CLARITY OF MODEL. Make sure to mention (a.) the beneficiary, b) the main activities, and c) how those activities drive social impact. Keep it streamlined! - 100%

MARKETPLACE. Make sure to research other players in this space and articulate how this project is different. I didn’t get a complete sense of how this project compares to others. - 0%

IMPACT POTENTIAL. Make sure to use specific numbers to describe what your project has achieved so far! And consider how you might scale the model or its insights, through partnerships, trainings, or franchising. - 50%

WRITING STYLE. Try to stay concise and make it vivid. Avoid jargon. - 0%

Nothing stands out! I thought it was great. - 0%


Join the conversation:

Photo of Brittany Lothe

Gauhar Nguyen - I agree with Karla Mitchell - Innovative concept. I really liked the clarity you outlined in your problem statement. I would love to read more about Kūlaniākea's model and plans for impact as the preschool grows. BTW, One education program I really think highly of on the mainland is KIPP (www.kipp.org). Their growth model focuses on amazing school leaders and teachers as well as committed kids and parents/guardians. Their growth model focuses on adding a grade each year - now Pre-K to high school. Good luck and congrats on the funding round. WOW! 

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