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Parents Petition for Removal of Principal at Kona’s Hawaiian Immersion School

By Tiffany DeMasters
March 25, 2021, 5:23 PM HST
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Courtesy of Kawehi Zoller

Frustration over poor leadership and communication is driving teachers and staff out of West Hawai‘i’s sole Hawaiian immersion school.

The Hawai‘i State Teachers Association (HSTA) has filed two grievances against Ke Kula ‘O ‘Ehunuikaimalino’s recently-hired principal Makala Pa’akaula, for creating a hostile work environment after months of reported bullying, harassment and intimidation of kumu (teachers).

One is a class grievance filed in November on behalf of all the teachers at the school and the second is an individual grievance filed earlier this month on behalf of one teacher, Kawehi Zoller.

“We’ve already had five teachers who’ve officially said they are not coming back,” Zoller told Big Island Now, adding there are seven other kumu waiting to hear how the Hawai‘i Department of Education’s Complex Area Superintendent Janet FL Snelling will address the problem.

Zoller said Snelling will let kumu and mākua (parents) know by April 5 whether or not the DOE will keep Pa’akaula, terminate her or launch a further investigation into the reported claims of workplace hostility, which could take up to a year to complete.

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If the DOE doesn’t address concerns laid out by kumu and mākua, Zoller said, they will have completely failed Hawaiian immersion education.

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Mākua are also voicing their frustration. They created a petition on Change.org that urges the DOE to remove Pa’akaula as principal. The petition has garnered more than 1,500 signatures after its posting a week ago. Additionally, parents and students held sign wavings to show support and draw attention to their concerns, with their next event planned for Friday, March 26, along Queen Ka‘ahumanu Highway from 5 to 6 p.m.

“There’s been an overwhelming cry from our kumu,” said Tiare Hewlen president of Ahui Mākua, the school’s parent group. “The DOE doesn’t move fast enough to resolve these issues.”

Hewlen said Hawaiian immersion could disappear if kumu leave.

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“We will always stand by our kumu — they make our school, besides our keiki,” Hewlen added.

Zoller, who’s been teaching at ‘Ehunuikaimalino for the past four years,  said it’s important to demand better treatment of Hawaiian immersion schools.

“We’re a hard-to-staff school — we have teachers who drive three hours a day to teach these kids,” the first-grade teacher said, explaining it’s difficult to find educators who are also proficient in the Hawaiian language.

Courtesy of Kawehi Zoller

While Zoller is tenured at the school, it hasn’t shielded her from being bullied by the principal. The kumu said the attacks against her started when she spoke out about an unclear email the principal sent to employees.

“She’ll belittle you, roll your eyes and treat you like you’re stupid,” Zoller said of Pa’akaula.

Zoller said Pa’akaula came into her classroom and tried to get her to sign a document without letting her read it first.

“She said, ‘sign it now or I will write you up for insubordination,'” Zoller recalled.

This interaction occurred in front of her students. Additionally, Zoller said Pa’akaula has created pages of documents falsifying meetings they’ve had together to make the kumu look like a liar.

“She’s trying to make me look bad,” Zoller said. “I’ve had to start recording all my meetings with her.”

Helemano Ishibashi was one of the founding kumu at ‘Ehunuikaimalino more than 20 years ago. He currently teaches fifth grade. The vision, he said, was to have a full-functioning Hawaiian immersion school.

With approximately 15 kumu and 175 keiki with grades K-12, Ishibashi said the school has progressed the way he hoped it would, until this year.

“We’ve got alumni who’ve come back and become teachers at our school — it’s building a broader community of Hawaiian language speakers,” Ishibashi said. “But what we’ve experienced this year, it feels like we’re going backward. The very fabric of ‘Ehunuikaimalino is being torn apart and the ground is being eroded away.”

So far, four staff members have quit as a result of Pa’akaula’s treatment of people, Ishibashi said. Teachers are under constant threat of termination or retaliation.

“Communication with this principal is very poor,” Ishibashi explained. “We try to clarify emails, but it’s arduous and everyone is just tired.”

After more than 20 years, Ishibashi also has had thoughts of leaving the school.

Courtesy of Kawehi Zoller

“It has affected me physically,” he said. “I get headaches, I can’t sleep and mentally it takes its toll. I can’t really concentrate on teaching because there are issues that pop up daily.”

Despite the physical and mental toll, Ishibashi will fight to get Pa’akaula removed as principal.

“If I leave, then she wins,” Ishibashi said. “Over my dead body is she going to ruin our school.”

Mākua are afraid if kumu leave, Hawaiian immersion will disappear at the school.

Hewlen has three children who attend ‘Ehunuikaimalino in grades third, second and first. Next year, she will have a kindergartner.

“If (the) harassment continues it trickles down to the keiki,” Hewlen said. “Kumu can’t worry about good content if they’re worried about losing their jobs.”

If Pa’akaula remains an administrator, kumu say, she’d have to make emergency hires to fill the vacancies of teachers who have quit. As a result, Ishibashi said, these teachers likely won’t be highly qualified, certified educators and probably won’t be proficient in the Hawaiian language.

“Parents will pull their keiki out because they don’t want their kids to learn from someone who doesn’t know the language,” Ishibashi said. “If students leave, we won’t have a school.”

Parents aren’t immune from Pa’akaula’s reported bullying. 

The school is in the process of looking to acquire land to expand its campus. Mākua say the administration has not been involved in the process and hasn’t prioritized the issue. Hewlen said she was also publically shamed via email by Pa’akaula after she sent an email to parents updating them on the acquisition.

Hewlen said there have been four interventions with the principal and parents, but the communication issues continue to be unresolved. 

“We’ve had more mākua disengagement than ever,” Hewlen said.

On March 23, Snelling sent out a letter to parents to inform them their concerns about the leadership at the school is being taken seriously and a process to formally look into matters has been initiated.

“Although I am not able to discuss the details of this confidential matter, I do understand the urgency of the concerns that have been received and can assure you that formal steps have been taken,” the letter stated. “I respectfully ask for your assistance and patience as we expeditiously work through the process.”

Hewlen said mākua will deliver their petition Hawai‘i Island’s representative on the Board of Education.

Big Island Now’s attempts to reach Pa’akaula for comment on this story were unsuccessful.

Tiffany DeMasters
Tiffany DeMasters is a reporter for Big Island Now. Tiffany worked as the cops and courts reporter for West Hawaii Today from 2017 to 2019. She also contributed stories to Ke Ola Magazine and Honolulu Civil Beat.
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