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The Hawaiian Charter School Movement

Growing up on the big island of Hawaii, Alima Catellacci had firsthand experience in the way Hawaiian culture had been swallowed up by an Americanized worldview. Though efforts had been made since the 1970s to reclaim the native language and traditions, it remains a challenge that a number of educators on the islands are committed to.

“I saw a disconnect between education and life in Hawaii, and I got interested in the charter schools that were a hybrid educational model started in 2000,” she says.

Kanu O Ka ‘Aina, in Catellacci’s hometown of Kamuela, was the first of those schools. Catellacci spent several months working both there and at the charter school Kua O Ka La in the town of Pahoa about two hours away as part of her Division III project research. On the Kanu website, it’s noted that their mission is “laying the groundwork for a culturally-driven, family-oriented and community-based parallel system of education first advocated by the Native Hawaiian Education Council in 1997.”

“There’s an emphasis on applied learning,” says Catellacci. “Kids at an early age articulate a connection to their home as well as to a broader worldview. And seeing kids speak in Hawaiian was incredible.”

Catellacci’s Div III project, “(De)Colonizing Education in Hawai’i”, looks at the history of  education in Hawaii and the impact of the charter schools in efforts to reintroduce Hawaiian students to their language and cultural heritage. At Hampshire, she initially studied environmental science before focusing on political science, history, and colonialism, and she was deeply involved with a variety of activist causes on campus. It’s that activist-oriented, self-directed ethic that drew Catellacci to transfer to Hampshire from Barnard College, and a similar spirit draws her to the Hawaiian charter school movement as a potential remedy to some of the ills of the mainstream school system.

“The charter schools are small, but I think the impact is growing. It’s not only about preserving culture, but about an intimate knowledge of place,” she says.

Surprisingly, Catellacci hadn’t thought of teaching until her Div III experience working in the charter schools. Now, she plans to return to Kanu to complete the certification program needed to teach in the Hawaiian charter schools.

“I realized how much I want to work with the kids in the community I lived in,” she says.

Catellacci’s Div III faculty committee was chaired by sociology and American studies professor Wilson Valentín-Escobar.  Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in African Politics and Society Susan Thomson was her other committee member.

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