Gov. Neil Abercrombie and his cadre of early education advocates unveiled their plan today to open up 32 pre-kindergarten classrooms at 30 existing public schools throughout the state. The classrooms would serve about 640 children, all of whom would attend free of charge.

The program, for which Abercrombie is requesting $4.5 million in his supplemental budget proposal, would be part of a large-scale initiative to create a public preschool system for all of Hawaii’s 4-year-olds. Abercrombie is requesting another $2.5 million to continue expanding the Department of Human Services’ Preschool Open Doors program, supplementing the roughly $6 million granted by the Legislature for the same purpose last year. His supplemental plan also has a $1 million request for “family-child interaction learning” providers. 

Some legislators, however, have said the full-scale initiative is immature considering voters haven’t yet approved an amendment allowing the state to use taxpayer money for private preschools. Abercrombie’s pre-k proposal wouldn’t need the amendment.

The 30 elementary schools, 15 of which are on Oahu and 10 of which are on the Big Island, were selected based on a set of criteria, including Title I status, access to preschool, available space and the willingness of the school’s administration. Among the schools: Kahaluu Elementary (Oahu), Hana High & Elementary (Maui), Lanai High & Elementary, Kaunakakai Elementary (Molokai), Konawaena Elementary (Big Island) and Naalehu Elementary (Big Island). 

Many of the schools serve high-poverty populations in communities that lack alternative preschool options. Rodney Moriwake, principal of Kalihi’s Kaiulani Elementary, one of the schools selected for the proposed pre-k program, explained at a press conference on his campus today that the schools would shift around resources and classroom space to accommodate the new children. 

The pre-k program would mark a collaboration between the Department of Education and Abercrombie’s Executive Office on Early Learning and employ high-quality teachers trained in preschool education. Officials say they would bring on some of the kindergarten teachers who are losing their jobs next school year because the state is going to be eliminating junior kindergarten, forcing 5,000 or so children to find alternatives because the entry age is being changed. From now on, children must be 5-years-old by the time they enroll in kindergarten. 

But even if lawmakers agree to all of the funding being requested — an outcome that’s uncertain at best — the money wouldn’t be nearly enough to create seats for all of the state’s 18,000 or so 4-year-olds, let alone the 5,000 children who’ll need preschool options because of the kindergarten change. So far, Abercrombie has only secured enough money to open up about 900 seats through Preschool Open Doors. 

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Photo: Preschoolers at Seagull Schools when Abercrombie first unveiled his plan a year ago. (Alia Wong/Civil Beat)

— Alia Wong