Before the foreigners arrived, Hawaiians had a vocational learning system, where everyone was taught a certain skill by the kahuna. Skills taught included canoe builder, medicine men, genealogists, navigators, farmers, house builders and priests.
The arrival of the first company of American missionaries in Hawaiʻi in 1820 marked the beginning of Hawaiʻiʻi’s phenomenal rise to literacy. The chiefs became proponents for education and edicts were enacted by the King and the council of chiefs to stimulate the people to reading and writing.
By 1831, in just eleven years from the first arrival of the missionaries, Hawaiians had built 1,103 schoolhouses. This covered every district throughout the eight major islands and serviced an estimated 52,882 students. (Laimana)
The proliferation of schoolhouses was augmented by the printing of 140,000 copies of the pīʻāpā (elementary Hawaiian spelling book) by 1829 and the staffing of the schools with 1,000-plus Hawaiian teachers. (Laimana)
The word pīʻāpā is said to have been derived from the method of teaching Hawaiians to begin the alphabet “b, a, ba.” The Hawaiians pronounced “b” like “p” and said “pī ʻā pā.” (Pukui)
In 1831, Lahainaluna Seminary, started by missionary Lorrin Andrews, was created in Maui to be a school for teachers and preachers so that they could teach on the islands. The islands’ first newspaper, Ka Lama Hawaii, was printed at this school.
Hilo Boarding School opened in 1836, built by missionary David Lyman, a missionary. Eight boys lived there the first year. This school was so successful a girls’ boarding school was created in 1838.
Oʻahu’s first school was called the Chiefs’ Children’s School (Royal School.) The cornerstone of the original school was laid on June 28, 1839 in the area of the old barracks of ʻIolani Palace (at about the site of the present State Capitol of Hawaiʻi.)
The school was created by King Kamehameha III, and at his request was run by missionaries Mr. and Mrs. Amos S. Cooke; the main goal of this school was to groom the next generation of the highest ranking chief’s children of the realm and secure their positions for Hawaiʻi’s Kingdom.
The Chiefs’ Children’s School was unique because for the first time Aliʻi children were brought together in a group to be taught, ostensibly, about the ways of governance. The School also acted as another important unifying force among the ruling elite, instilling in their children common principles, attitudes and values, as well as a shared vision.
Kamehameha III called for a highly-organized educational system; the Constitution of 1840 helped Hawaiʻi public schools become reorganized.
William Richards, a missionary, help start the reorganization, and was later replaced by missionary Richard Armstrong. Richard Armstrong is known as the “the father of American education in Hawaiʻi.”
“Statute for the Regulation of Schools” passed by the King and chiefs on October 15, 1840. Its preamble stated, “The basis on which the Kingdom rests is wisdom and knowledge. Peace and prosperity cannot prevail in the land, unless the people are taught in letters and in that which constitutes prosperity. If the children are not taught, ignorance must be perpetual, and children of the chiefs cannot prosper, nor any other children”.
The creation of the Common Schools (where the 3 Rs were taught) marks the beginning of the government’s involvement in education in Hawaiʻi. At first, the schools were no more than grass huts.
Armstrong helped bring better textbooks, qualified teachers and better school buildings. Students were taught in Hawaiian how to read, write, math, geography, singing and to be “God-fearing” citizens. (By 1863, three years after Armstrong’s death, the missionaries stopped being a part of Hawaiʻi’s education system.)
The 1840 educational law mandated compulsory attendance for children ages four to fourteen. Any village that had fifteen or more school-age children was required to provide a school for their students.
Oʻahu College, later named Punahou School, was founded in 1841 on land given to missionary Hiram Bingham by Boki (at the request of Kaʻahumanu.) Bingham gave the land to the mission for the school.
By 1832, the literacy rate of Hawaiians (at the time was 78 percent) had surpassed that of Americans on the continent. The literacy rate of the adult Hawaiian population skyrocketed from near zero in 1820 to a conservative estimate of 91 percent – and perhaps as high as 95 percent – by 1834. (Laimana)
From 1820 to 1832, in which Hawaiian literacy grew by 91 percent, the literacy rate on the US continent grew by only 6 percent and did not exceed the 90 percent level until 1902 – three hundred years after the first settlers landed in Jamestown. By way of comparison, it is significant that overall European literacy rates in 1850 had not risen much above 50 percent. (Laimana)
The government-sponsored education system in Hawaiʻi is the longest running public school system west of the Mississippi River. To this day, Hawaiʻi is the only state to have a completely-centralized State public school system.