06/13/2014 09:42 am ET Updated Aug 13, 2014

To Educate a Nation (VIDEO)

We first visited Hālau Lōkahi Public Charter School three years ago as part of a PBS documentary film project with ITVS and Pacific Islanders in Communications.

The school is not much to look at from the outside. Located in an industrial area of Honolulu, just off the busy Nimitz highway in the workaday Kalihi neighborhood, there is no fancy gym or chapel, cultural classes are held in a warehouse, and the young students must be escorted by teachers to avoid the many trucks and forklifts traversing the area.

But inside was a different matter. The students were intent, animated, and genuinely excited about learning in a way we've never seen in the many different schools that we've filmed in across the continental United States. And not only were they pursuing the usual reading, writing and arithmetic in English, they were simultaneously learning about their own culture through the time-consuming, painstaking acquisition of lengthy oli and moʻolelo in the Hawaiian language.

Over the course of making our documentary, which focuses on the work of the schoolʻs cultural director, Kumu Hina, we gradually realized what makes Hālau Lōkahi unique: its insistence that the students understand who they are not just as individuals, but as part of a people and a community with deep roots in the traditions, culture, principles and values of Hawaiʻi.

How do you do that, especially when students are in an environment in which they are continually exposed to all the outside distractions of modern life? Watch the above excerpt from the completed documentary KUMU HINA, in which Principal Laara Allbrett addresses the students after some of them have upset their teacher through inattention, and youʻll get the idea.

Despite its many successes, Hālau Lōkahi has recently run into serious economic difficulties. This is no surprise: the school receives only $6000 per pupil from the state as compared to $12,000 per pupil for DOE schools, and furthermore they are responsible for the considerable expense of renting space since DOE provides no physical facilities. Itʻs almost as if the State Charter School Commission wants Hawaiian charter schools to fail -- which perhaps should be no surprise given the sort of independent thinking espoused by visionary educators such as Principal Allbrett.

Fortunately, there is a potential solution to the commissionʻs demand that the school work with stakeholders to develop a viable financial plan. When Bernice Pauahi Bishop, a direct descendant of Kamehameha the Great, passed away in 1884, her will established a trust specifically dedicated to the education of Hawaiian children. That trust, now known as Kamehameha Schools, currently has a value of over $10 billion, the income from which could easily make-up for the discrepancy between charter and DOE funding for every Hawaiian student in the state. Furthermore the trust owns the land on which Hālau Lōkahi sits, so it could solve the problem of lease payments immediately.

Nobody doubts the important and empowering role that Kamehameha Schools have played in Hawaiian education; in fact both Principal Allbrett and Kumu Hina are graduates. But because they are selective private schools with limited enrollment, access is limited. Perhaps this is an opportune moment for Kamehameha Schools to expand its role and fully accomplish Bernice Bishopʻs vision by more extensive support of Hawaiian public charter schools.

With the national PBS broadcast of KUMU HINA, people across the country will learn, many for the first time, about what makes Hawaiʻi unique, and how culture-based education empowers students to be all they can be by understanding where they come from. Itʻs important that Hālau Lōkahi still be there to receive the attention it deserves.