When it came time to find a public preschool for his 4-year-old son this school year, James Peck was one of the luckier parents.

His son, Leo, is one of 15 kids enrolled in the inaugural preschool program at Kamalani Academy, a new Hawaiian-focused arts integration charter school in Wahiawa that serves pre-kindergarten through grade 8.

“As everybody knows, pre-K is ridiculously hard to find —  free public free-K,” Peck said as he accompanied his son on the first day of preschool. “I’m going to presume this is going to be really hard to get into later on when people find out about it.”

Teacher Lisa Jeffers-Fabro reading to preschoolers at Kamalani Academy, a public charter school. Suevon Lee/Civil Beat

Finding affordable preschool for children remains a challenge for families in Hawaii. A private preschool in Hawaii can cost hundreds of dollars a month or even exceed $1,000 for families, depending on the program and age level it serves.

The $11,232 average annual price tag of center-based child care for a 4-year-old in Hawaii is highest in the nation as a percentage of median income for married couples, according to Child Care Aware of America.

And Hawaii ranks at the bottom of states when it comes to access to public preschool, according to a 2016 report by the National Institute for Early Education Research. Only 2 percent of all 4-year-old children in the state were enrolled in state-funded public pre-K in the 2015-16 school year, compared with the national average of 32 percent.

While the Hawaii Department of Education no longer tracks statewide the percentage of students who attended preschool prior to enrolling in kindergarten, the most recent data from the 2013-14 school year show the rate is about 50 percent. There were 13,427 kindergarteners at the start of the 2017-18 school year, according to the latest state Department of Education enrollment numbers.

Compared with other states, “Hawaii has been moving really, really slow” when it comes to access to early childhood care and public preschool, said Deborah Zysman, executive director of Hawaii Children’s Action Network.

This graphic from National Institute for Early Education Research shows levels of state-funded preschool enrollment nationwide. National Institute for Early Education Research
This graphic from National Institute for Early Education Research shows levels of state-funded preschool enrollment in Hawaii. National Institute for Early Education Research

But there have been incremental changes over the last year, including increased funding from the Legislature that will add five new pre-K classrooms in the 2018-19 school year and more authority to an early education advisory board.

“I think it’s going to add some sense of strength and permanency to the idea of ‘yes, we are working towards … universal pre-K,’ because it’s a really small universe right now,” said Jonathan Gillentine, a retired early childhood and special education teacher in Hawaii, of the new governing board.

Small Steps

Kamalani, which as a public charter school is tuition-free, is one of 18 public charter pre-K classrooms across 13 schools in Hawaii funded through a four-year $14.7 million preschool development grant issued under the Obama administration.

Statewide, the grant has the capacity to serve 360 4-year-olds. But enrollment is first-come, first-serve and limited to families whose income falls at or below 200 percent of the current federal poverty guidelines.

Preschoolers draw with chalk outside their classroom at Kamalani Academy Suevon Lee/Civil Beat

It comes as a relief to parents like Bryan Hemric, whose daughter is a preschooler at Kamalani. “There are a lot of (private) pre-K programs, but the waiting lists are huge, they’re very expensive, so it’s almost not practical (to enroll),” he said. “That’s a huge benefit of this. It’s free.”

With $3 million in legislative funding that was authorized in 2014, Hawaii’s Executive Office on Early Learning — an office established under former Gov. Neil Abercrombie — launched 20 preschool classrooms in 18 public schools statewide. Nine alone are located on Hawaii Island.

Additional funding this past session will help bring five new pre-K classes next year into schools that were selected based on factors such as existing availability of preschools in the area, Title I status since there are income requirements for eligibility and buy-in from school administrators.

“The most important factor was principal interest and commitment to the program,” said Lauren Moriguchi, executive director of EOEL.

The five new preschool classrooms that will open in 2018 are at Kohala Elementary on Hawaii Island, Kula Elementary on Maui, Kilohana Elementary on Molokai, and Kailua Elementary and Kalihi Uka Elementary on Oahu.

By 2018-19, the 23 public preschool classrooms will have the capacity to serve 520 kids.

Priority is reserved for children in special education, English language learners and for families who earn at or less than 250 percent of the federal poverty guidelines. For a family of four that means earning no more than $70,725 per year for a child to be eligible.

Importance of Preschool

Early child education experts say that preschool is a crucial and fundamental step to preparing kids for kindergarten. They learn how to play and socialize with their peers, strengthen fine motor skills by using their hands and fingers and learn basic rules like how to share and wait their turn.

There are other routes to free preschool in Hawaii, including federally funded programs like Head Start, and through state subsidy programs administered by the state Department of Human Services, such as Preschool Open Doors and Child Care Connection Hawaii, both of which have income requirements.

Pre-K teacher Cherie Yamashiroya with Head Start preschoolers at Linapuni Elementary Suevon Lee

In the 2015-16 school year, Head Start, which serves 3- and 4-year-olds, served 2,440 kids in Hawaii, according to the NIEER report. There are 120 Head Start classrooms statewide, plus 18 “Early Head Start” classrooms, which serves infants to children age two.

Preschool Open Doors last year reached approximately 1,201 children, according to a 2016 DHS Annual Report. Funding for the program was also raised from $6 million to $10 million in 2016.

“Access to high-quality early care and education is essential to children’s readiness for school and success in life,” EOEL’s Moriguchi said. “A growing body of evidence suggests this is particularly true for children from low-income families, who may face obstacles related to poverty, geographic and social isolation, insufficient home resources and instability.”

One school that’s trying to address that is Linapuni Elementary, a school in Kalihi that serves only pre-K and first-graders from the nearby public housing projects. It has three preschool classes, including one operated through Head Start. More than half the student body consists of English language learners, with many students from Micronesia or the Marshall Islands who speak only Chuukese or Marshallese.

This graphic from the National Institute for Early Education Research shows the percentage of kids enrolled in state- and federally-funded preschool in Hawaii. National Institute for Early Education Research

The preschool classrooms are separated into play areas that contain wooden blocks, Legos or Play-Doh and stations set up for finger-painting or using the water table.

On a recent morning at Linapuni, Head Start teacher Cherie Yamashiroya was seated in a circle among her preschoolers, leading them in a song.

“We do a lot with the families. I had to learn that my way isn’t the only way to teach,” Yamashiroya said of her inclusion class, referring to working with families from various cultural backgrounds.

Her teacher’s aide, Yukie Esah, speaks Chuukese, so she’s able to communicate with students from Micronesia that don’t speak English.

A couple classrooms away, veteran pre-K teacher Colleen Uejo sat with a student who was concentrating on molding Play-Doh into various shapes. Uejo, whose class includes special education inclusion students, says one of the most important aspects of teaching 4-year-olds is talking to them.

“For the kids in this district, they really need the opportunity to build, create and think,” she said. “A lot of the kids from the housing, they’re very quiet, they just look at you. We do a lot of talking to them.”

Preschoolers build with Legos at their Linapuni Elementary School pre-K classroom in Kalihi. Suevon Lee/Civil Beat/2017

“This is the year they grow the most, learning how to stand in line, wait their turn,” she added. “If you’re just at home, and watching TV, playing on the iPad, no one’s talking to you.”

Research shows that 92 percent of a child’s brain development occurs by age 5, the age typically when a child enters kindergarten. A high-quality pre-K program, experts say, is crucial to developing skills such as learning rules, socializing with peers and being in a structured environment.

For kids without any preschool experience, “they kind of get slammed in kindergarten,” said Gillentine, the retired teacher and early education specialist. “They come in with no school experience, they don’t really understand the culture of what school is. They’re kind of left standing in the dust, and quite often the teachers are stuck.”

Parents who have gone through the experience agree.

“You can see the difference between the kids who went through pre-K and the kids who haven’t gone through pre-K. It’s night and day,” said Peck, who also has a daughter in the fourth grade who attended pre-K at Leeward Community College Children’s Center. “She went into kindergarten running instead of crawling.”

Akeyo Garcia, a pre-K teacher at Kamalani Academy who previously taught kindergarteners at Ewa Elementary School, says she noticed immediately which of her students had attended preschool and which had not.

“As a former kindergarten teacher, what we struggled with most is that children don’t have self-regulations when they come in: they don’t know how to share, they don’t know how to listen, they don’t know how to take turns — basically, all the skills they need to start learning,” she said.

Kamalani Academy pre-K teacher Akeyo Garcia greets a preschool student on the first day of school. Suevon Lee/Civil Beat

The preschool development grant is able to fund things like free meals for Kamalani’s preschoolers, but expires after the 2018-19 school year, leaving the long-term future of the program in question. Garcia calls the funds “kick-start money.”

“Many of us are fighting with the state or city or anyone that listens for funds for publicly funded pre-K in the state,” she said.

Hawaii’s constitution bars the use of state funds to support private educational institutions. A ballot initiative in the November 2014 election to amend the state constitution to allow for a public-private preschool delivery system was defeated by voters.

The state’s inability to use public funds for private provider contracts — like the model adopted in New York City – puts the state in a bit of a vise, said Zysman, of Children’s Action Network. But the issue goes beyond just funding to more deep-seated challenges.

“Even if someone said, we can put a billion dollars into this (effort), we don’t have teachers ready to go or workforce development, we don’t have sites,” she noted. “There needs to be a whole ramp-up.”

The Executive Office on Early Learning has received in-kind support from the Omidyar Group and Collaborative Leaders Network, another Omidyar organization. Pierre Omidyar is the CEO and publisher of Civil Beat.

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