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In 1896 education through the Hawaiian language in both public and private schools was outlawed on the model of U.S. policy towards the use of American Indian languages in education. Teachers are told that speaking Hawaiian with children will result in termination of employment. Children are harshly punished for speaking Hawaiian in school. By 1984 the community of fluent speakers had dwindled to a few elders and a tiny geographically isolated population on the island of Ni‘ihau. Hawaiian language speaking children under the age of 18 numbered less than fifty. The demise of Hawaiian language was imminent.

In January 1982, a group of Hawaiian language educators met to discuss strategies to perpetuate the language. From speaking with elders, they knew that raising children in an environment where Hawaiian was the ordinary language of interaction was central to survival of the language. The key would be to re-establish Hawaiian Medium Education schools that existed during the Monarchical Period. They focused their efforts to nurture a new generation of speakers that would be able to describe the world through the lens of their language and culture, as well as master English and other languages using methods that had proven effective in Europe. Thus began the Pūnana Leo preschool and a reemergence of a Hawaiian philosophy of education, now known as the Kumu Honua Mauli Ola.

Pūnana Leo means “nest of voices” and depicts the dominant learning method in these centers as students are “fed” solely their native language and culture much like the way young birds are cared for in their own nests. The first of these preschools was established in Kekaha, Kaua‘i in August 1984. The following year, schools were established in Hilo, Hawai‘i and Honolulu, O‘ahu and continued to spread to other islands thereafter.

‘Aha Pūnana Leo is closely tied to the Māori Kōhanga Reo movement in New Zealand. Indeed, the name Pūnana Leo, which is equivalent to the Māori term Kōhanga Reo, honors those connections and the inspiration provided by the Kōhanga Reo. 

Today, a complete preschool through doctoral-level system of education in the state of Hawai‘i is taught entirely through Hawaiian.