The island of Niihau has been privately owned since 1864 when Hawaiian monarchy records document the sale of all the government lands on the island to brothers James McHutcheson Sinclair and Francis Sinclair for the sum of $10,000. To this day, Niihau continues to be owned by the Robinsons, descendants of the Sinclair family who purchased it in 1864.
Niihau families who chose to remain on the island after the sale found work in the newly established ranching operation, and life continued while being generally insulated from the rapid changes affecting the rest of the Hawaiian Islands. They also continued to speak the Niihau language, passing on this knowledge from generation to generation.
By 1946, there remained only one school on Niihau serving approximately 60 students up to grade 5. Travel of residents between Niihau and Kauai, however, frequently resulted in Niihau children also being enrolled in public schools on Kauai when family and personal business necessitated a stay on the island.
Sadly, Niihau children were often taunted and ridiculed when they attended school on Kauai, mainly because they spoke English haltingly since their mother tongue was the Niihau language, but also because they retained the physical features of pure Hawaiians. This discrimination lasted for many decades and still lingers in the hearts of some Niihau people today. Understandably, Niihau children often simply refused to attend school while on Kauai.
Concerned about their children’s education and preservation of the Niihau language among the youth, in the early 1990s Niihau parents on Kauai lobbied to have a school where their children could be educated through their home language. The outcome of their lobbying was a program established at Kekaha Elementary School that eventually resulted in the founding of Ke Kula Niihau O Kekaha Learning Center.
Officially approved as a K-12 New Century Public Charter School by the Hawaii State Board of Education on May 17, 2001, the stated mission of the school was to strengthen and perpetuate the Niihau language (olelo Niihau) and to meet the special needs of the Niihau community. Later refinements included nurturing a life-long love of learning and preparing students to meet the rapidly changing demands of living in the twenty-first century.
Today, Ke Kula Niihau O Kekaha (KKNOK), which includes a non-charter preschool, envisions students who are proficient learners in both olelo Niihau and English by the time they graduate. Students become literate in their mother tongue by being taught exclusively in olelo Niihau in preschool and then having incremental increases in the percentage of English language learning added in later grades. When they reach high school, the goal is for instruction to be 50% in olelo Niihau and 50% in English.
Because teaching the Niihau language, especially in the lower grades, necessitates the availability of a range of books and other materials in the language, teachers began translating reading books—originally written in standard Hawaiian—into olelo Niihau. More recently, however, working in partnership with the Center for Global Environmental Education at Hamline University in Minnesota, emphasis has been on creating a variety of educational materials and new readers written in olelo Niihau.
By the summer of 2020, approximately 150 titles (including translated books) had already been published in olelo Niihau. Remarkably, most of the new books were actually written and illustrated—either with photos or original artwork—by KKNOK students from preschool through high school. This total also included a number of e-books.
Ke Kula Niihau O Kekaha is located in Kekaha, a rural community of West Kauai that once was home to a thriving sugar industry. Now diversified agriculture, shrimp farming, the Pacific Missile Range Facility, and tourism are the employment mainstays of the area.
KKNOK primarily serves students and families of the Niihau community who are living permanently on Kauai or who migrate between the two islands. Many of the families living on Kauai reside in one of the two subdivisions of Hawaiian Home Lands located nearby. Enrollment has climbed steadily from the mid-twenties in 2001 to 50 students in grades K-12 in 2020, plus 15 children in the preschool.