In the current environment of standardized testing and academic rigor to ensure children are on track for high-school graduation, college and beyond, we often forget that success in school and in life is more than a narrow focus on academics and testing to demonstrate school achievement and “success.”

Success in school and life requires a comprehensive and integrated system of support that ensures a foundation of health, social-emotional well-being and overall wellness; opportunities for quality early-learning experiences; engagement of families who support their child’s development and learning; and a well-prepared and well-supported teacher workforce who can inspire and motivate learning. This support system must start from the earliest years and continue throughout a child’s educational career, even after he or she leaves prekindergarten, to ensure well-rounded, enthusiastic and successful learners.

And measuring the success of that early-childhood support system requires looking beyond academics — into the ability of a child to work cooperatively, problem solve and engage in successful interactions with others, for example. A few years ago, a study dinged the federal Head Start preschool program when its graduates who were assessed in the third grade, did not show better reading and math outcomes than those who did not have preschool experience.

However, there should have been consideration for the fact that these were some of our most disadvantaged children who were socially as well-adjusted as their same-aged peers and demonstrated successful outcomes in areas outside of just reading and math. The study also did not take into account the quality of education provided in the years following preschool — kindergarten through third grade.

Screen shot from the Executive Office on Early Learning’s website.

Hawaii’s early-childhood system is a patchwork of public and private programs and services for young children administered by multiple state and county agencies, private childcare providers and nonprofit agencies that are not necessarily coordinated. Currently a child could unintentionally receive multiple services through various agencies or organizations, all addressing the same concern while another could fall through the cracks and receive nothing. To create a more cohesive and comprehensive system, the community is launching a new plan.

The Early Childhood State Plan 2019-2024 is an overarching framework that will help coordinate efforts of the state, counties and community by setting shared priorities and driving the need to collaborate and leverage resources to improve the lives of our keiki and their families.

The five-year plan was facilitated by the Executive Office on Early Learning, the state’s lead agency overseeing the development of the statewide early-childhood system, including the young state-funded prekindergarten program. Steering-committee collaborators from public and private sectors statewide met monthly and worked between meetings to develop the plan.

Consider The Whole Child

One-hundred and fifty-three additional participants, including statewide focus groups and interviews, also spent time reviewing the drafted plan. Individuals provided candid feedback; contributed to the final version; and addressed a unanimous priority to look “system-wide, beyond early learning” to consider the whole child.

Participants represented a broad spectrum of Hawaii’s community, including parent groups, health professionals, policymakers, early care and education professionals, advocates, philanthropists, higher education, attorneys, and state department personnel.

The community agreed on five building blocks needed to ensure a comprehensive and coordinated early-childhood system that addresses the needs of our children, families and workforce.

First, establish a platform of health and wellness. This includes medical, dental, hearing, vision, mental health, and nutrition services and support as well as domestic violence and substance-abuse prevention and treatment. It prioritizes the needs of Hawaii’s most vulnerable populations — poverty-stricken children and families, and those living in remote and rural communities.

Second, place greater focus on early learners — birth through age 8 — and more high-quality early care and education offerings. This encompasses increasing public and private early-care and education settings, addressing the growing demand for Hawaiian-language immersion options; increased support for children with special needs; and an emphasis on children’s social-emotional development so they are better prepared to learn.

Third, forge strong partnerships with families, continuously supporting their needs and encouraging engagement in their children’s education and well-being. Increased support also incorporates strategies for transportation; affordability of programs and services; access to programs and services for rural and remote residents; overcoming language barriers; and meeting our population’s diverse cultural needs.

Fourth, promote the development of a highly competent and adequately compensated early-childhood workforce, especially in light of the dire shortage, that:

  • follows nationally accepted standards for best practices and
  • has earned credentials for a solid foundation and understanding of child development, which has proven critical in helping our keiki achieve positive outcomes.

An example of a state that has committed to infrastructure building in thoughtful growth to attain high-quality success is New York’s public pre-K program: It started its first public pre-K program for vulnerable populations in 1966 and launched its pre-K program for all 4-year-olds 32 years later. Other states have reflected that their own rapid expansions — before carefully building an infrastructure based on sound research and practices — have made it difficult to infuse quality after the fact. New York did it right, gradually serving more children in a well-planned system. We can learn from New York, shortening the timeframe and prioritizing high-quality standards.

Fifth, ensure accountability for the plan’s successful implementation as well as its governance. This means setting clear roles for EOEL’s governing board and stakeholder groups, and establishing a system for annual review of progress, new challenges and possibly new priorities for action. Stakeholders need access to adequate, stable funding; better avenues for involvement; and resources. Data analysis and reporting will help ensure accountability.

The award of a $1 million federal Preschool Development Grant Birth through Five a couple weeks ago will play a central role in implementing this pivotal plan, and will provide another opportunity for stakeholders to get involved in the next phase — strategizing implementation.

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