Every Child Is Gifted

Ipo Torio-Kauhane treats every child as if they are her own, says Shelby Dabin regarding Kanuikapono Charter School’s executive director.

No child is left behind under her wings at the Anahola Hawaiian-focused public school.

“She’s trying to fight that conception, that Hawaiians can’t amount to anything,” says Dabin, a teacher at the school. “They can be anything and can do anything they want in this life.”

Torio-Kauhane believes every child has something to offer the world. She witnessed an older male relative suffer in the traditional classroom setting when they were growing up.

“My heart always went out to him,” she says. “I thought he was brilliant and had a native intelligence that was never honored. Every time I see a student who struggles, I think about him.”

If only someone had seen beyond his struggle and provided an environment that was conducive to his learning, he would have thrived, she says. That favorable learning environment is exactly what TorioKauhane says she has created at Kanuikapono.

“Here it’s about education with aloha,” she says.

Students are challenged in an atmosphere where they are given more freedom with their learning experiences.

“I like being here because I can be creative and teach out of the box. It’s not so structured and strict,” says Dabin.

Teaching about the life cycle of plants, for example, can start in the classroom one day and end the next at Waipa, where keiki can actually plant something and watch it grow.

There are no boundaries for learning and there is creative independence.

“The teachers, especially, have more freedoms,” says curriculum coordinator Sarah Schoenfeld.

Much of the curriculum immerses students in Hawaiian culture and instills native values.

“No child that is Hawaiian or calls Hawaii home should go without knowing and experiencing the Hawaiian culture and values,” says Torio-Kauhane. “They know how to enter the forest, they know how to enter the ocean, they know which is a good day for planting and when is a good time to fish.”

Aloha is always expressed in the classroom and keiki are especially taught to malama the aina. Learning how to compost and create soil is one of the many educational examples of living pono at Kanuikapono.

“It sets them up for these future connections as well, and because if we want to garden, we have to make our own soil,” says TorioKauhane.

Keiki also learn traditions such as lei-making and hula, and they are versed in the Hawaiian language.

Enrollment is open to keiki of all ethnicities, kindergarten through 12th grade. The school has about 125 students, and each class consists of about 12 to 14 children. And with 15 full-and part-time employees, students receive very personalized attention.

Torio-Kauhane credits much of her passion to perpetuate Hawaiiana to her Kaua’i upbringing. She grew up at the end of the plantation era in Kilauea.

“Which I loved,” she says. “Everybody was one big community.”

Her paternal grandmother was 100 percent Hawaiian and her paternal grandfather was an immigrant from the Philippines.

“She was this giant Hawaiian woman and my grandfather was this tiny Filipino man,” she laughs.

They each taught her what she refers to as a natural, more traditional style.

She also recalls her grandmother, Maggie Kapule, in her red robe telling stories about Pele or anything with a lesson attached to it every evening under the stars.

“And this is in Kilauea, after the plantation era – not too many people sitting with their grandmother and grandfather in their front yard with a fire blazing,” she says.

At 11 years old, TorioKauhane started attending Kamehameha Schools on Oahu.

“I was always missing home. I got thrown into city life,” she says.

After graduating in 1989, she immediately came back to Kaua’i to attend Kaua’i Community College before moving to Oahu to get a degree in Hawaiian studies and ultimately earn a Masters of Business Administration from Chaminade University.

When she returned to Kaua’i after college, TorioKauhane felt a tug at her heart to do something for the native people, and was called upon to use education as her way to raise awareness.

She was 25 when the conversation to start a public charter school on-island began in the 1990s.

Her first job back at home, while charter school seeds were still being planted, was at Na Pua No’eau, a gifted and talented program for native Hawaiians. Though it was a great experience, her belief that every child is gifted and talented did not resonate with the program. After making several connections with kupuna throughout the state, TorioKauhane was encouraged to become “head aunty” of Kanuikapono after it was selected in 2000 as one of 25 Hawaii charter schools approved for development.

“What are the chances?” asks Torio-Kauhane regarding the Anahola school being selected as one of the 25. “But, hey, we got a charter and we’re still here today. I was just really doing my duty, my responsibility because I knew I was here to serve. The support and quiet wisdom and leadership from a few kupuna are really what started that work.”

A couple of years later the state-funded school, which also receives financial assistance through fundraisers, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and Kamehameha Schools, had students lined up waiting to enroll.

“It was hard to say no, the people were already there; the word was already out before we could put it out,” she says. “People wanted this.”

The school is now in its 10th year.

“It’s been tremendous and difficult and challenging, but worth it every step of the way,” says TorioKauhane.

The school has changed locations eight times in the last nine years, from churches to tents around the island, but Torio-Kauhane is hopeful its current location in Anahola is a keeper.

“Each year we’ve gotten better and better, and I’m really proud and happy of where we are as a school,” she says.

Torio-Kauhane has a relentless passion for this place, says Schoenfeld.

“The amount of time that she spends and the amount of effort that she puts in is across the board,” she says.

With four sons who attend the school – Keaka, Maluhia, Pohaku and Kalalea – Torio-Kauhane, whose husband is Restore Kaua’i’s Kamahalo Kauhane, says it is easy for her to keep a good gauge on how things are going just at the dinner table.

“I’m really happy that all of my kids are here because they’re thriving,” says Torio-Kauhane, who likes to go into the forest and collect flowers to make lei when she isn’t working.

She feels most proud when she sees all of her children at Kanuikapono get together with keiki of other Hawaiian charter schools for events.

“It’s incredible to know how far we’ve grown,” she says. “Now there is a critical mass of Hawaiians who know what it means to be Hawaiian and practice being Hawaiians, and chant together and dance together and celebrate together, and that’s something I never had.”

Visit kanuikapono-charter-school.org for more information.

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