UPDATED 9/18/14 1 p.m.

Nora Yolles-Young enrolled her 5-year-old son Sam in a private school near Kaimuki this year that charges about $10,000 annually for tuition.

Yolles-Young, 42, and her husband receive financial aid that covers close to half the cost and are borrowing some money from a relative.

Still, the couple can hardly afford the remaining tuition expenses and other school-related fees with their $65,000 income, which has to support a family of four. And now the family is even more strapped for cash: Yolles-Young’s husband, Scott Young, recently got laid off from his job at the University of Hawaii.

Kindergarten age notice on office door at Ala Wai Elementary School on August 21, 2014

Kindergarten age notice on an office door at Ala Wai Elementary School on Aug. 21.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

“We don’t have a lot of extra nest-egg money to play with,” Yolles-Young said. “And that is just the way it is — we’re no different than a lot of people dealing with this funky economy.”

But when it comes to Sam’s schooling, the family doesn’t have much choice but to pony up.

Sam was born in the middle of August in 2009, meaning he missed the new kindergarten age cutoff by only a few weeks. A law that the Legislature passed in 2012 moving the cutoff from Dec. 31 to July 31 went into effect this year, barring Sam and another 5,800 or so kids from entering public-school kindergarten.

From now on, families with “late-born” children such as Sam have to resort to other options. And contrary to what advocates of the new kindergarten cutoff age pledged when justifying the change, those options are few.

For families of means, there’s costly private education or child care. The vast majority of Hawaii’s preschools are private, and preschool for a 4-year-old in Hawaii costs more than $8,000 a year on average.

For the poorest or at-risk families, there are options such as the federal Head Start program. But that program, which last year enrolled nearly 750 late-born children, has faced hefty budget cuts because of sequestration.

Alternatives are limited for the remaining families, particularly those like the Youngs that fall somewhere in between rich and poor.

“Even though we’re considered a middle-class family, that’s still doesn’t mean you’re making a living wage here,” Yolles-Young said, adding that her family wouldn’t qualify for low-income assistance.

‘No Contingency Plan’

Even efforts to ramp up early education programs earmarked for lower-income families — and offset the kindergarten fallout — have foundered.

UPDATED: The Legislature set aside $6 million last year to expand the existing Department of Human Services’ Preschool Open Doors subsidy program for low- and moderate-income residents — but that money is only enough to support tuition for 1,087 children, including 524 of the late-born kids, whose average family income is $32,800. (Last year, the program served 325 children with an average family income of $27,000, according to DHS data.)

That legislation was at best a modest victory for early learning advocates, considering Gov. Neil Abercrombie, whose cabinet spearheaded the state’s early learning initiative, had requested roughly $30 million to create a “school readiness” program to accommodate the gap children.

Meanwhile, the 2013 Legislature shelved a related bill that would have established a comprehensive early learning network incorporating public and private preschool providers — a model some say is key to ensuring universal preschool. The Legislature killed the measure after realizing that Hawaii’s constitution precludes the state from developing a public-private school system and decided instead to have voters weigh in on the issue.

proposed constitutional amendment will appear on this year’s ballot as Question No. 4. And as Civil Beat reported Monday, that amendment’s passage is far from guaranteed.

And, after a procedural mixup derailed a number of key bills this year, the only early education initiative that the 2014 Legislature funded was a one-year pilot program that establishes pre-kindergarten classrooms on public school campuses statewide.

Kindergarten class at Ala Wai Elementary School on August 21, 2014

The lucky ones: A kindergarten class at Ala Wai Elementary School on Aug. 21.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

That program got $3 million — just a fraction of the requested $5.2 million — which is only enough to cover free preschool seats at 18 public schools for 301 late-born children who are below 200 percent of the poverty line, according to DOE data. Abercrombie intended to serve 640 children at 30 public schools.

But even with Head Start, Preschool Open Doors and the DOE pre-K program, among other piecemeal offerings, there are likely thousands of families having to make sacrifices and tough decisions.

“There was no contingency plan for the group most affected,” said Wayne Watkins, a preschool educator who oversees the Children’s Center at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

A Well-Intentioned Policy?

Supporters of the new kindergarten policy touted it as a strategy that was designed to improve the quality of and access to early education opportunities in the state.

Extensive research points to the value of early learning opportunities in reducing achievement gaps and ensuring children are successful in school and later in life. In Hawaii, roughly four out of every 10 children enter kindergarten having never attended preschool.

The 2012 law made a number of key changes: namely, it repealed the state’s junior kindergarten program and established the Executive Office on Early Learning, charging that agency with developing a replacement program.

The junior kindergarten program was intended to serve children born in the second half of the school year with instruction customized to the learning needs of slightly younger kids. But the program, according to Education Committee Chairwoman Sen. Jill Tokuda and other early learning advocates, fell flat. Oftentimes late-born children were simply placed in regular kindergarten classrooms, for example.

“We’ve taken away something from children and parents without putting something we hope to be better in place.” — Deborah Zysman, Good Beginnings Alliance

The idea was to repeal the program and replace it with something more effective: a comprehensive early learning system that would ensure quality and universal access to preschool opportunities.

The change would help galvanize support for the preschool initiative, supporters said.

“The sunsetting of junior kindergarten was really the reason why we had to have this plan in place,” Tokuda told Civil Beat in January 2013. “It was that catalyst for change — that was the wall that was going to prevent us from kicking the can down the road any further.”

But critics, including educators who agreed that junior kindergarten wasn’t doing its job, say the change is having unintended consequences.

Even supporters of the new policy acknowledge its flaws.

“Our position has always been that we’re in support of the junior-kindergarten age change while investing in developmentally appropriate early learning for those 4-year-olds,” said Deborah Zysman, executive director of the children’s advocacy group Good Beginnings Alliance. “But we’ve taken away something from children and parents without putting something we hope to be better in place.”

Good Beginnings Alliance supported the kindergarten change on the grounds that those gap children would be served.

So did the Hee Coalition, another advocacy group, which wrote: “we prefer that Junior Kindergarten (JK) not be terminated without a guarantee in law that all ‘late-born’ impacted students will have a state-funded early learning program as a replacement to meet their educational needs.”

But Zysman said the kindergarten change was “still the right thing to do” and cited the proposed public-private preschool system — and the constitutional amendment needed to enable it — as the best strategy to fill the gap.

“We’re trying to be realists about it with the model we’re proposing,” Zysman said. “We can develop and build where it makes sense, and where there is infrastructure, (we can) build on that and can start serving our children more quickly and more cheaply.”

“If we had to build it all within the DOE … we’ll miss a whole other generation.”

Ripple Effects

The policy affects more than just the children and their families.

Just 10,860 children enrolled in kindergarten at Hawaii public schools this year (and, thanks to a law passed this year, kindergarten is now mandatory). Last year, the number of kindergartners in public schools was 16,676.

The reduced enrollment numbers means that dozens of kindergarten teachers have been reassigned, while a number have resigned or retired, according to DOE data.

The change affected 95 teachers, according to the DOE.

Meanwhile, preschool providers have had to overhaul their programming and rejigger their enrollment policies to accommodate kids who would otherwise be in kindergarten — children with learning needs not typically supported in a preschool setting.

Zysman, whose own son is in this year’s late-born limbo, said she’s heard that early learning providers have been flooded with applications because of the extra children needing preschool.

Kindergarten student going over days of the week at Ala Wai Elementary School on August 21, 2014

A kindergarten student going over days of the week at Ala Wai Elementary School on August 21.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Watkins said the UH preschool, which primarily serves student parents and charges tuition based on a sliding scale, has had to deny enrollment to those with younger children.

The center has also had to expand its curriculum to accommodate and “challenge” the 35 or so children who would’ve otherwise enrolled in kindergarten. The preschool serves 145 children.

This year there are a lot fewer kindergarten students. Next year there will be a lot fewer first-graders — probably meaning more shifting around of teachers.

Watkins questioned whether the DOE will be able to reconcile the learning needs of children who’ve had no prior education and children like those at the Children’s Center who’ve essentially been doing kindergarten work for an extra year.

“All (the change) did was kick the can down the road a bit,” Watkins said. “How they’re planning to address that I’m not real confident.”

And it’s only the beginning. These shifts will continue to reshape the state’s public education system as the new kindergarten cohorts work their way through the pipeline, Watkins said. This year there are a lot fewer kindergarten students. Next year there will be a lot fewer first-graders — probably meaning more shifting around of teachers.

Yolles-Young echoed Watkins’ concerns. The kindergarten change, she said, is more than just an inconvenient, costly expense — it’s a setback.

Sam, who turned 5 last month, has been attending early learning programs for much of his life. In fact, when it was time for her to contemplate where to send her son during the gap year, Yolles-Young said she was advised by a teacher not to keep him at the preschool he had been attending.

“The toddlers and babies go all the way up through preschool, and now these preschools are being asked to take care of kids who are ready for an academic setting,” Yolles-Young said.

“Kids like him who are ready for kindergarten end up causing trouble,” she continued. “It puts an unnecessary stress on teachers who are already underpaid as it is. Not only are they having to potty train, but they’re also having to entertain poor kindergartners.”

As it happens, the days of paying for Sam’s education will soon come to an end. Realizing they’d be unable to make ends meet here, the Youngs recently decided that they’re moving to Texas, where job prospects are brighter and school for Sam is free.

Sam’s schooling is one of many expenses the Youngs simply can’t afford anymore.

In Texas, children must turn five by September 1 of the school year — a month or so later than Hawaii’s new cutoff date. Yolles-Young says she’ll be enrolling Sam in public-school kindergarten as soon as they arrive.

About the Author