Images by Brandon Smith

Three years ago, Earl Kawa‘a saw Department of Transportation contractors logging invasive albizia trees along the side of the highway on O‘ahu’s east side. Kawa‘a, whose surname roughly translates as “the canoe,” pulled his well-worn truck toward the embankment, and in the unpretentious way that he interacts with everyone—from third graders to federal court litigants—he began with a story.

Over the din of chainsaws, Kawa‘a explained how he could use the fallen logs for a canoe-making project. Albizia, a tree native to South America, has become pervasive in Hawaiian forests, and poses a danger to drivers, as it is brittle and sheds broken branches onto roads during storms. But to Kawa‘a, who is an esteemed traditional educator and cultural practitioner from Moloka‘i, it is also an excellent wood with which to make watercraft—buoyant, easy to carve, easy to fix. By the time Kawa‘a spoke to the roadside tree trimmers, he had already spent several years leading students and parents of Kamehameha Schools in the carving of papa ku‘i ‘ai, the traditional boards used to pound poi, which was a staple of the pre-Western Hawaiian diet. Kawa‘a had just become a cultural educator for a new program for public school students, and a canoe would be a far more ambitious project, but this newfound albizia had provided its main element.

The albizia logs from the roadside were transported to Castle High School in Kāne‘ohe, where Kawa‘a recruited unlikely young carvers from the school’s Po‘okela Academy, a program for tenth through twelfth graders struggling to learn in a classroom setting or deemed at-risk youth. Po‘okela Academy has adopted a local interpretation of this term, applying it to students who are “at-risk” of the cultural amnesia common to Pacific Islander youth, though many of them do suffer the same socioeconomic challenges associated with the traditional definition. The Castle High School principal allots four teachers to run the program of 60 students, while Kamehameha Schools funds four cultural advisors, including Kawa‘a. At least twice a week, Po‘okela students head outdoors to work with partners at Luluku Farms in Kāne‘ohe; Papahana Kuaola; a nonprofit in He‘eia; Pacific American Foundation, which preserves the Waikalua Loko Fishpond in Kāne‘ohe; Paepae ‘o He‘eia, caretakers of the He‘eia Fishpond; and the Hawai‘i Institute of Marine Biology at Coconut Island.

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The outdoor work is just one part of the program curriculum, which also includes a credit-recovery class, frequent testing, and constant checking in by Po‘okela Academy coordinator Donna Okita, who receives student recommendations for the program from teachers and counselors. Okita and a team of educators use the term “kolohe,” loosely translated as mischievous, to describe their students. Approximately 85 percent of the students are part Native Hawaiian, and statistically, have a low probability of high school graduation. Po‘okela’s success rate has been significant. In 2014, its first year, 11 of 14 students graduated, 16 of 19 within its second year, and 19 of 21 this year, with the two students who didn’t graduate returning to complete credits.

Last year, upon finishing the three canoes, students hand-carried one of them from Castle’s campus to Waikalua Loko I‘a in Kāne‘ohe for an inaugural paddle. It was the first time such an activity had taken place in that moku, or district, in over 200 years. “No words to describe it really,” says Sharae Freitas, a Po‘okela graduating senior, as she stands facing He‘eia Fishpond, to where, in April, the students sailed a canoe from Waikalua. Upon launch, it had begun to seep water, its albizia hull having expanded during the course of the year. “We used our gum, then when that filled the cracks, we put duct tape over it,” Freitas explains. “It took a few minutes, and we were all laughing while chewing as fast as we could, but we got it done and here on time.” Once patched and back on the water, the traditional design performed, catching the moderate trade winds, and allowing the four students to tack upwind to the lee of the rock wall, a journey which had been done countless times prior to Western contact via the same method.

Traditionally, the easiest and most enjoyable way to get around the island was via canoe. This mode of transportation has also proven to be a venerable and viable 21st century tool with which to educate. For centuries, young people in the Pacific were taught through labor and trial in and around canoes, learning the mechanisms, irritations, teamwork, and skills necessary to perpetuate cultural practices. By building its curriculum around traditional practices, Po‘okela Academy involves a holistic conception of all that it means to be in the Pacific.

Of course, this approach may not work for every school that has its own version of kolohe kids. Pounding steamed root vegetables with stones and sailing canoes works for the students of windward O‘ahu, but perhaps not for those in urban America or the high desert. The success of the academy’s unconventional methods does, however, validate the efficacy of indigenous models of learning.

“I have the pleasure of teaching these hardheads. For years we didn’t have any resources—we still don’t,” Kawa‘a says. “We had no truck or lift to move the log out of the forest.”

“How’d you do it?” a student asks.

“The power of words, of having a story to tell,” Kawa‘a responds.

For more information, follow Po‘okela Academy on Facebook.

This story is part of our School Spirit Issue.