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Hawaiʻi first in U.S. to approve statewide Filipino history and culture course

By Jia H. Jung, California Local News Fellow 

Thanks to a student-led movement, the Hawai‘i Department of Education (HIDOE) has become the first in the United States to approve a statewide high school social studies course on Filipino history and culture.  

CHR 2300 Filipino History Culture will be piloted in Fall 2024 at Farrington High School and Waipahū High School in Honolulu County. The student populations at both schools are over 50% Filipino.

This moment in American education is the culmination of two years of effort by the Filipino Curriculum Project (FCP) to place more representative social studies content in Hawai‘i schools. The FCP, spearheaded by five students in 2021, has grown to a 17-strong network of high schoolers from private and public schools across O‘ahu.

One out of every four students in Hawai‘i is of Filipino descent. Yet, back in 2021, when FCP founder Marissa Halagao was a sophomore at Punahou High School in Honolulu, she noticed that the East Asian Studies course required for her spring 2021 semester mainly mentioned only Chinese and Japanese people.

Filipinos, an integral part of American history, have become pillars of the American and global healthcare system, service industry, and shipping sector, among other areas.

Filipinos are also the fastest-growing ethnic group in the Hawaiian islands. This past summer, 80 Filipino educators touched down in Hawai‘i to keep the educational system from collapsing from a 300-teacher vacancy.

Halagao’s quest to see her ethnic community’s significance acknowledged in her classes gave rise to a collaboration with Filipino-American, immigrant Filipino, and mixed-Filipino ethnicity students. Together, they changed Hawai‘i education law. 

The Hawai‘i State Capitol in Honolulu on May 12, 2022, seen from S. Beretania Street. Photo by Warren LeMay

On May 21, 2022, in the middle of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, the Hawai‘i House and Senate unanimously passed House Concurrent Resolution 56. Though carrying no mandate or funding, HCR 56 made space in the Hawai‘i DOE to accommodate the submission of a curriculum for an elective teaching Filipino history, culture, and identity. Furthermore, the legislation allowed that the eventual course would be eligible for credits fulfilling the state’s high school social studies requirements. 

For national context, HCR 56 passed days after U.S. Senator Mazie Hirono (D-HI) introduced the Teaching Asian Pacific American History Act on May 19, 2022, to promote the inclusion of Asian Pacific American history in K-12 classrooms. The bicameral bill in the Senate and House attempted to revive companion House resolutions H.R. 8519 and H.R. 2283, submitted by U.S. Rep Grace Meng (D-NY) on Oct. 2, 2020, and Mar. 29, 2021. Both submissions died in Congress without a vote.

After the passing of the resolution in Hawai‘i, numerous rounds of student-engineered curriculum design ensued. The FCP created a course plan in consultation with a Resolution and Educator Design Team composed of Sen. Hirono, DOE teachers and officials, community leaders, and experts such as Marissa Halagao’s mother Dr. Patricia Halagao, a professor of Multicultural Education and the chair of Curriculum Studies at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa.

This summer, Farrington High School, under the leadership of Principal Al Carganilla, sponsored the submission of a finalized Filipino curriculum to the complex area superintendent, who passed the plan on for review by the DOE social studies specialist before final consideration by the office of curriculum instruction and design. 

The DOE cleared the course for implementation in late July. 

Wallace Rider Farrington High School in the Kalihi-Palama district of Honolulu, which sponsored the submission of “CHR 2300 Filipino History Culture” to the Hawai‘i Department of Education. Photo by Warren LeMay

What remains now is to identify and train teachers for the course and get schools to offer the class. Each school requires a commitment by an administrator and a social studies chair in order to adopt the curriculum.

“What this is teaching us is we really lack Filipino teachers with a social studies license,” said Dr. Halagao, in ongoing conversations with AsAmNews. But the challenge of finding more is also an opportunity to show how student-led educational initiatives can help update American social studies in the rest of the country.

The FCP also submitted the course to the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) with replication in mind. NCSS, which has its annual convention this December, is a professional organization of social studies educators across the country.

Attempts to plant Asian Pacific American history overall in the country’s classrooms also persist. On May 11, U.S. Sen. Hirono and U.S. Rep. Meng reintroduced legislation to place Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) history in American schools. 

“Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander history IS American history,” declared Congresswoman Meng, also the First Vice Chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, in a press announcement at the time.

These proposed evolutions to American education are a counterpoint to post-pandemic truancy, mental health crises, gun violence, and the disruptive advent of A.I. rocking the nation’s schools. The achievements of the Filipino Curriculum Project also stand in sharp relief against politicized efforts in other areas of the country to block elements of Black or ethnic history, or excise discussions of identity, race, systemic inequalities, sexuality, and gender from American curricula.

CHR 2300 Filipino History Culture is the product not only of students exercising democracy but of a half-century of multicultural education advocacy preceding the FCP. 

“You’re kind of seeing the fruits of the generations taking the work we did, and now it’s about trying to institutionalize it,” said Dr. Halagao to AsAmNews, back when the course was still pending approval by the HIDOE. 

The Filipino Curriculum Project and allies meeting with U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) on Nov. 23, 2022.
Photo / Senator Mazie Hirono

In 1996, when Dr. Halagao was a student at the University of Washington, she and activist Timoteo Cordova established Pinoy Teach to address the lack of Filipino history and culture curricula in American schools. Decades later, Dr. Third Andresen, a participant in the early days of the program, developed the Filipino American history course enacted across Seattle Public Schools in Fall 2022. 

The FCP, too, is planning for the long haul.

The group navigated the first major change of hands in their leadership after mainstays like Marissa Halagao and Raymart Billote and other seniors graduated from high school and went on to college. 

Billote, an immigrant from the Philippines and member of Waipahu High’s Class of 2021, is now a junior at the University of Hawaiʻi – West Oʻahu and on his way to becoming a secondary educator. He remains active as a director of the FCP.

The FCP has also recruited young members like Leala Florendo, a Kalani High School freshman whose father, Leon Florendo, is an Associate Professor and  Counselor at Leeward Community College and serves on the board of the Sariling Gawa Youth Counsel. After this school year, she will have three more years to witness the FCP’s visions become reality.

On the other end of the spectrum of the new leadership is Samantha Joelle Bulos, a senior at Roosevelt High School and the daughter of Consul Grace Anne Bulos at the Philippine Consulate General in Honolulu. After an international childhood due to her parents’ diplomatic paths, Bulos will close out her high school career after making a mark on American education.

The FCP team’s priority right now is to recruit as much interest as possible for CHR 2300 Filipino History Culture among students at Farrington and Waipahū before course registration opens in late November and early December.

To promote their slogan “Student-Driven: Empowering Filipinos through Education,” the FCP used their technological abilities to produce an informational video to entice students of all backgrounds to take the new course.

FCP’s Filipino Culture History Interest Form submissions suggest that over 1,000 students at Farrington alone are excited about the course. CHR 2300 Filipino History Culture has six thematic units focusing on identity, Philippine history, culture, and connections, Filipinos in Hawaiʻi and in the United States, the Philippines in an interconnected world, and community engagement and civic action. The course culminates in a social justice project of the students’ choosing.

The FCP is also providing other students and their allies with instructions on how to call for the course at their own schools and has extended itself to neighboring islands. The leaders recently hosted a recycling drive for the benefit of Lāhaināluna High School in Maui, which burned down in the August wildfires. Last week, they met with the Kauaʻi Filipino Club via Zoom to encourage their peers in the garden isle to become the project’s first non-Oʻahu student collaborators.

The FCP is determined to connect with other ethnic groups in the islands and ensure that the course welcomes everyone and opens the doors for other underrepresented ethnic communities like Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders, and Koreans to demand curricula that see them. 

In many cases, this endeavor has also bridged gaps among the FCP leaders themselves and made them feel more whole with their identities. At the inaugural Filipino Cultural Summit at Leeward Community College in Kapolei last October, Marissa Halagao and Mariah Iris Ramo, both seniors at their respective high schools at the time, spoke at a panel about the chasms that can exist between American-born Filipinos and Filipinos who immigrated to the U.S. from the Philippines. 

Filipino Curriculum Project founder Marissa Halagao speaks as Mariah Iris Ramo looks on during a panel discussion at the inaugural Filipino Cultural Summit in Honolulu on Oct. 8, 2022. Photo by Jia H. Jung

Halagao shared how she felt ashamed and not Filipino enough when she was growing up because she could not speak Tagalog or Ilocano. Ramo, who came to Hawaiʻi from the Philippines as a toddler, recounted the bullying she underwent from the kids around her before she got a handle on the English language. 

This year, Ramo is in her first year as a Scholar of Distinction at Barnard College in New York City while still holding the title of Miss Teen Asia Hawaiʻi.

Marissa Halagao, settling into her freshman year at Yale University, stated in a HIDOE press release: “I’m so proud of our entire team for having fought for Filipino representation in the classroom. We did this for the sake of future Filipino students who have never seen their histories reflected positively in the curriculum.” 

Two days ago, the FCP’s @filipino_curriculum Instagram feed and @filipinocurriculum TikTok account celebrated the HIDOE’s announcement by re-posting a video by Filipino media company ABS-CBN, narrating what it took for the group to get to this stage.

@filipinocurriculum

IT’S OFFICIAL! CHR 2300 Filipino History Culture will be the FIRST Filipino course to be implemented in a statewide level in the US. We are honored for this feature @ABS-CBN

♬ original sound – Filipino Curriculum Project

In addition to preparing for the launch of CHR 2300, the FCP is also authoring children’s books to start infusing students with Filipino history and culture earlier on. This way, future generations of Filipino Americans might arrive faster to a place of pride and knowledge in regard to their roots, while all students grow up with a more complete and accurate education.

AsAmNews is published by the non-profit, Asian American Media Inc. We are supported in part by funding provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library in partnership with the California Department of Social Services and the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs as part of the Stop the Hate program. To report a hate incident or hate crime and get support, go to CA vs Hate.

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