When it comes to the business of cultivating young minds, we need to get it right the first time — there are no do-overs. This rings especially true for infants and toddlers; a massive 85 percent of their brains are formed by age 5. That’s why doing early-childhood education well — before a child enters kindergarten — is officially a high priority in Hawaii.

That’s also why the Executive Office on Early Learning — the lead state agency overseeing the development of a statewide early-childhood learning system including the state-funded prekindergarten program established by the Legislature and governor in 2012 — is committed to doing it thoughtfully.

EOEL’s establishment of an early-education system takes a broad, detailed approach to produce high-quality, student-centered and family-oriented programs. We are accomplishing this by focusing on three main areas.

First, EOEL is conscientiously planning to open more publicly funded, prekindergarten classrooms as soon as possible while ensuring that this system stands on a strong foundation. Increasing access for children is critical but only with a solid base can an educational system produce the best results.

Such programs that are intentionally designed for children, based in the science of child development, and that meet and exceed widely accepted early-education standards throughout the U.S. consistently offer ideal experiences for keiki. These expertly planned classroom interactions set them on course for finding joy in learning and success in life.

Research shows that this is a toddler’s future “on” a high-quality early education program:

  • 33 percent are more likely to earn a higher average salary
  • 29 percent are more likely to graduate from high school
  • 50 percent are less likely to require special education
  • 70 percent are less likely to get arrested for a violent crime by age 18.

Conversely, low-quality programs — stemming from fragile, poorly planned, underdeveloped foundations — do more harm than good, setting children up for a lifetime of disliking or struggling with learning, and even resulting in expulsions. Ultimately, children suffer long-term consequences from programs with teachers who don’t have a solid foundation and understanding of child development.

No Laughing Matter

So, this is a child’s potential future “on” a low-quality or no early-education program:

  • displaying behavior that teachers may perceive as challenging
  • producing significantly lower test scores
  • earning $5,500 less per year in employment wages in adulthood
  • facing higher odds for the conviction of crimes.

Second, creating a fully staffed, enduring early-childhood education workforce with teachers who are skilled, highly qualified and fairly compensated is key to building the strong-rooted foundation that Hawaii needs.

Our state’s current educational workforce is ominous and reports about the 2016-’17 school year reveal:

  • 852 teachers quit, a 61 percent increase since 2010
  • 1,011 unlicensed teachers don’t meet state standards, a 63 percent increase from 2011
  • unlicensed teachers who don’t meet state standards are employed as “emergency hires” to teach our kids
  • Hawaii ranks as the worst in the U.S. for lowest teacher salary as adjusted for the cost of living.

This situation for the educational workforce is even more severe for early childhood educators. It’s no laughing matter, but rather one of EOEL’s most-serious motivators. Rushing the process and laying a foundation that compromises the quality of learning experiences young children deserve would burden Hawaii with similar educational challenges that we currently experience and add new ones.

EOEL endeavors to do it right by continuing to partner with local colleges to develop and support qualified prekindergarten teachers. Our strategies include working with partners to address the critical statewide shortage of an early-education workforce; increasing access to ongoing professional development for new and existing teachers; and creating career-advancement and educational opportunities for all who enter the specialized early-education field.

Working with our Legislature to secure more funding for this investment in Hawaii’s children is also essential. Through funding from the 2017 Legislature, EOEL opened five new pre-K classrooms in Honolulu, Maui and Hawaii counties this month. Each is staffed with a licensed teacher and educational assistant, and serves 20 children with priority for the most at-risk. Collectively, these classrooms give greater access to 100 more children and their families.

Working with our Legislature to secure more funding for investment in Hawaii’s children is essential.

EOEL has now developed and opened 26 total prekindergarten classrooms serving 520 keiki on 24 public-school campuses statewide.

Third, transition and alignment from prekindergarten into elementary settings ensures that the benefits of early learning are sustained while supporting a smooth continuation of the educational experience from early childhood into elementary school. These transitions into more structured elementary-school settings are when resources, relationships, talents and funding from all sectors unite to benefit keiki and their families.

When done right, there’s no reason for any of Hawaii’s youngest students to fall behind. There is a balance we can strike between increasing access and ensuring a high-quality program for our keiki and their families.

Let’s not hurt our youngest minds. Pay attention to legislation that offers solutions for early-education funding, workforce development and classroom space. Contact your elected officials and tell them you want them to vote yes on specific bills. Tell them you know how early education ultimately affects all of us. Spread the word.

Let’s do early education right the first time.

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About the Author

  • Lauren Moriguchi
    Lauren Moriguchi is the director of the Executive Office on Early Learning, and has worked in education for nearly 20 years. She has served as a special educator, mentor teacher, resource teacher, preschool teacher and an educational specialist. Her areas of study include child, family and consumer sciences with an emphasis on early childhood.