Carolann Larson, the wife of an Army infantry officer based on Oahu and the mother of four young children, immediately noticed the positive impacts of pre-kindergarten schooling on her son, Maxamis.

After attending Kamalani Academy’s pre-K program last school year, he showed a number of positive traits: at home, he wanted to help out more. He was more compassionate toward his younger siblings. He was able to group similar items together.

And when 5-year-old Maxamis started kindergarten this year at Solomon Elementary on Schofield Barracks Army Base, he was one of only two kids in his class who knew to take his folder out and hang his backpack where it needed to go.

“It was an amazing program,” Larson said, of Kamalani’s pre-K. “He benefited so much from it, and I think we did too as a family.”

Maxamis Larson with his pre-K teacher Akeyo Garcia at Kamalani Academy last year. The program closed over a building permit issue. 

The charter school’s pre-K program, which has since been discontinued over a building permit issue, was possible under a federal preschool development grant intended for eligible 4-year-olds in Hawaii’s public charter schools. Charter schools are tuition-free and state-funded with Hawaii Department of Education money, but operated by independent governing boards.

A four-year $14.8 million federal grant awarded in 2014 helped establish 18 new pre-K classrooms across 11 public charter schools in Hawaii. The maximum reach is 360 students per year, since classroom size is limited to 20 students.

The grant expires next year, meaning the future of these public charters’ pre-K programs could hinge on whether the Legislature doles out funding next session to help keep them afloat. The Hawaii Public Charter School Commission, the statewide charter school authorizer, plans to ask the Legislature for $4.1 million annually to sustain the existing pre-K classrooms, said executive director Sione Thompson.

“It’s not up to us to allow (these programs) to continue or not,” he said. “We would love the state to fund it. That’s our primary ask.”

Already, some charter schools are bracing for the possibility their existing budgets may not be able to sustain these classrooms.

“Many parents are already asking if we will have a preschool after this year,” said Kalima Kinney, principal of The Volcano School of Arts & Sciences on the Big Island. “We are hopeful that the state will allocate sustainability funding. If not, we would hope to sustain the program with a combination of fees and state per-pupil funds from our general budget, but the unfortunate reality is that this simply may not be possible.”

Expansion Of Pre-K In Hawaii

The uncertain future of the charter schools’ pre-K programs is playing out against the backdrop of an active effort in Hawaii to boost the state’s early education options and expand free pre-K.

In 2017, just 2 percent of Hawaii’s 4-year-olds were enrolled in a state-funded pre-K program, compared with the national average of 33 percent, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research. Private pre-K programs remain out of reach for many Hawaii families due to the cost — the average annual cost of enrolling a 4-year-old in a private pre-K center in Hawaii is $8,724, according to Child Care Aware of America.

Through the Executive Office on Early Learning, the Hawaii Department of Education is slowly expanding the number of free pre-K classrooms in traditional DOE schools. Following the most recent round of funding from the Legislature, there are now 26 pre-K classrooms in 24 traditional DOE schools statewide — enough spaces to serve 520 students annually.

But no-cost pre-K programs in Hawaii  — including those pre-K classrooms operated out of traditional DOE schools and charter schools, through the federally funded Head Start and other programs geared toward special education students — reach just 16 percent of the state’s population of 18,500 4-year-olds.

That’s why education officials say preserving what’s already been established is key. “The directors of the charter schools are very much in support (of these programs) and feel it’s important for the funding to be continued,” said Deanne Goya, the charter school commission’s pre-K grant manager. “They see a significant difference in kindergarten readiness.”

Proponents say the benefits of pre-K education are even more far-reaching: it improves children’s vocabulary, helps with socialization and down the line, lowers early school dropout rates and reduces behavioral issues. Research shows 85 percent of a child’s brain development happens by age 5.

The state’s goal is to prioritize opening additional pre-K programs in schools with large low-income student populations and expand partnerships with higher ed institutions to get a better-trained workforce for early education.

It’s also committed to delivering high-quality early learning systems where classrooms have a student-to-teacher ratio no larger than 10:1 and teachers are offered regular coaching and mentoring.

Larson, Maxamis’ mother, hoped to enroll another son, Lincoln, into Kamalani’s pre-K program this school year, but now is left with no feasible alternative. She and her husband aren’t able to afford a private preschool, and they make too much to qualify for a federally subsidized pre-K program like Head Start.

“He is staying at home. We haven’t been able to get him in anywhere,” she said.

As for Maxamis, Larson said the kindergarten student “likes to be a leader” after his pre-K experience.

“He really enjoys doing his homework and going to school,” she said. “Having had that preschool option helped prepare him go to kindergarten. He’s so eager to learn all the time.”

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