Meet our new Upper School principal

Ka‘ai Spencer Named Po‘o Kumu

Ka‘ai Spencer
Ka‘ai Spencer

“Kumu Coach” is a title, albeit informal, that Ka‘ai Spencer has worn with pride as both the kumu ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi (Hawaiian language teacher) and an athletic coach. Now, he steps into a new role and a new title as poʻo kumu (principal) of HPA’s Upper School.

Spencer holds a B.A. in Hawaiian language, a B.S. in health and exercise science, and a master’s in education—all from UH Mānoa. He has spent nearly a decade at HPA, serving at various times as strength and conditioning coach, Hawaiian language teacher, and Perry-Fiske dorm parent. He brings a broad perspective and high ambitions to his new role as po‘o kumu.

Ka‘ai Spencer led the faculty in a lei piko activity, creating one continuous lei from the offerings of each person

“There’s a phrase that’s been in my head for the last few years,” Spencer says. “Ka ʻelele o ka Pākīpika. It means ‘ambassador of the Pacific.’” As a boarding school in Hawai‘i, HPA holds what can sometimes be a delicate balance: both honoring and respecting the land and the people of Hawai`i, and also inviting others from all over the world to live and teach and learn in Hawai‘i. Spencer sees this as a great opportunity. “We can bring people to HPA from various reaches of the world and teach them what aloha really is. Then, they will be able to share that essence out in the world.” In turn, the HPA community itself is vastly enriched by the diversity of cultures, traditions, ideas, and perspectives represented on campus. “Our students, when empowered, have ideas that matter,” Spencer says. “Sometimes, providing a platform for students to shine is all they need.”

Most immediately, though, Spencer is focusing on rebuilding faculty morale in the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. “People have been asked to do so much more than the normal load,” he says. And the need for firm physical boundaries has also led to a sense of separation. To help address this, at the beginning of the year, Spencer led the faculty in a lei piko activity, creating one continuous lei from the offerings of each person. “Each plant we used has its own significance,” he explains. “The kupukupu fern represents sprouting, or giving life to something, while other plants represent protection, fulfillment, or exploration.” Each person chose a plant that spoke to them, and added it to the lei, while also sharing a bit of themselves with their fellow faculty members. “It felt like a good way to start the year,” he says.

And even though his official title has changed to po‘o kumu, he’ll still answer when his students call him Kumu Coach. For Spencer, it was important to continue coaching even with his new responsibilities. “Coaching definitely helps me maintain a sense of personal balance,” he says, “and I wanted to keep a thread with the students. I find a lot of joy in doing it.”