Young children need a solid foundation in order to be successful learners, especially as they approach the age of kindergarten. Families and the community as a whole must ensure that preschool children have a strong foundation for learning, a foundation that supports their social, emotional, linguistic, physical, and cognitive development.

While we have made gains as a state, there is much work to be done to prepare our youngest scholars. That is why it is important for the Legislature to pass Senate Bill 844 and its companion in the house, House Bill 820, which will provide a critical expansion to preschool programs already started.

Preschoolers at Seagull Schools.

Preschoolers at Seagull Schools

Alia Wong/Civil Beat

This school year, Hawaii began to provide public preschool through legislative funding of $3 million. The effort was initiated, in part, due to the change in the entry age for kindergarten. Children who reached the age of 5 by July 31, 2014, could start. Children who turned 5 on August 1 or later (many call them the Fall Fives) had to wait another year to enter public school. Those keiki who were not eligible to enter kindergarten were targeted for this new preschool program.

Unfortunately, funding only provided 21 classrooms across the state. With a maximum of 20 children per classroom, only a mere 420 children could attend, far short of the thousands of children who were eligible by the change in age requirement for kindergarten entry.

We must continue what we started. SB 844 and HB 820 will continue to implement the significant components of public preschool programs: positive teacher-child interactions; family engagement activities that support learning; instruction that aligns with Hawaii Early Learning and Development Standards and that addresses those key areas of social, emotional, linguistic, physical, and cognitive development.

It is imperative that Hawaii participates in the next round of federal grants, but this time the state Department of Education must be a key player in securing funding for a much larger number of public preschool classrooms. Federal grants require some matching state funds. Last December, Hawaii received $2.07 million federal dollars for additional preschool classrooms, but the funding was limited to establish preschool classrooms only in public charter schools.   Robust state funding will leverage federal dollars to maximize the impact of public preschool for a greater number of Hawaii’s keiki.

The investment in young children is a good one. A study of the impact of public preschool programs, led by Hirokazu Yoshikawa of New York University, found that large-scale public preschool programs provide benefit-cost estimates that range from $3 to $7 saved for every dollar spent.

In my 20-year experience as a public preschool teacher, I have seen this borne out countless times. The children I taught had many opportunities to gain experience in problem-solving, address social situations, learn to use language richly, and engage in project-based inquiry. They moved on to kindergarten as successful learners. They grew to be assets to the school and community. They made their families proud.

We must do more to build a strong foundation for our next generation. Public preschool for the children who need it is a step in the right direction. We must have both the political and social will to make that happen.

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