Incoming kindergarteners who missed out on preschool and other early education activities because of the pandemic may have an opportunity to catch up with a free three-week summer program aimed at helping them acclimate to classroom routines and social interactions.

Public elementary schools statewide have until Monday to sign up for the federally funded Summer Start Kindergarten Transition Program, according to a letter from the Hawaii Department of Education to complex area superintendents and principals.

It’s one of several DOE initiatives to address shortcomings after more than a year of distance learning for many schools to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Robyn Chun, director of Graduate Early Childhood Education Programs at the University of Hawaii Manoa, also expressed hope that the economic and child care challenges exposed by the pandemic will lend more momentum to efforts to promote early education programs in Hawaii.

Hokulani School kindergarten.
Many of Hawaii’s kindergarten students — some seen here in a 2016 photo of Hokulani Elementary — enter the grade without having had prior preschool experience. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“There is that heightened awareness that without early learning, we cannot recover this economy, we can’t go to work,” she said.

“We have a situation where families in general haven’t been allowed to do things that allow children to socialize with one another. That has been hindered by COVID, so who knows what (the long-term) impacts will be,” she added.

The DOE program is being funded as part of President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan, which allocated $412 million for Hawaii’s schools, with a mandate that $95 million be spent on targeted interventions to help students disproportionately impacted by the health crisis.

With the opt-in deadline looming, it is unclear how many schools will participate. DOE Spokesman Derek Inoshita said the department was still planning and gauging school interest in the program but is “very hopeful that there is expressed interest from elementary schools.”

The transition program at each school will be led by two teachers with up to 20 students per classroom and three to five hours of instruction per day for 15 days. Participating schools will be required to collect student information and data, track daily attendance, issue a formative assessment and host at least one family engagement activity.

The DOE is offering $35 per hour for teachers to lead the summer program.

The ‘Little Leaders In Class’

The transition to kindergarten is one of the most critical steps in a child’s learning journey, say education experts.

A quality early learning experience can pave the way for success, while a less positive transition to kindergarten may induce high levels of stress that could lead to chronic absenteeism, an apathy toward school in the first and second grades and fewer academic gains, according to a guide published last summer by the Hawaii Executive Office on Early Learning.

However, an enriching early learning experience is not available to everybody in a state where the costs of private preschool average $9,400 per year for a 4-year-old.

The first publicly funded pre-K classrooms were only established in the 2014-15 school year, starting out at 18 DOE schools. Despite double the number of classrooms today, there is space for just 410 students due to COVID-19 spacing restrictions.

While using federal stimulus money, the kindergarten transition program would expand statewide a pilot summer program that took place on a smaller scale in 2018 and 2019 through Hawaii P-20 Partnerships for Education with funding provided by the Samuel N. and Mary Castle Foundation.

Michelle Matsuzaki, a Kailua Elementary kindergarten teacher who led the summer transition program in 2019, said the children who participated became more independent, confident and capable of following school routines and trying new things.

“It’s just that maturity level in those three weeks, where I felt they were ready to start kindergarten,” Matsuzaki, who has taught kindergarten for 24 years, said.

She said the children with experience ended up helping other kids when they started kindergarten.

“They became little leaders in the class so they could show the other kids, ‘This is where we keep the supplies, and this is where we can find this,’” she said.

The kindergarten bridge pilot began at two Oahu schools in 2018 — Kailua Elementary and Kalihi Uka Elementary — and expanded to 13 schools statewide by the following summer, according to Kim Guieb, the P-20 project manager and early literacy grant coordinator.

“This was a pilot because we wanted to support early learning experiences, especially for children who didn’t have any,” Guieb said.

Hawaii P-20’s summer kindergarten transition program expanded to 13 schools by 2019, with complex area superintendents helping to identify select schools based on the community’s socioeconomic need. 

The Samuel N. and Mary Castle Foundation provided an initial $30,000 to seed the program at those two schools, doubling that figure by the following summer, with DOE matching that amount, according to Guieb.

“It’s a social equity and educational issue and it was very attractive to me from the beginning. We all know who is taking advantage of preschool and who is not, where the gaps in coverage are,” Al Castle, executive director of the Castle Foundation, said.

“It’s a disgrace that Hawaii has not developed a fully accessible public preschool program accessible to all,” he added while acknowledging recent progress by the state early education office. “It should have been done 30 years ago.”

The pilot program was on hiatus last year because of the pandemic, but organizers said they will support the new version this summer, with priority going to children who have gotten little or no preschool experience, Guieb said.

The DOE is requesting that roughly $1.8 million be set aside for the program this summer, per materials posted online ahead of Thursday’s next Board of Education meeting.

In this 2017 photo, pre-K teacher Cherie Yamashiroya sits with Head Start preschoolers at Linapuni Elementary in Kalihi. Head Start is a federally funded early childhood education program. Suevon Lee

State early education advocates say 64% of Hawaii’s young children need child care due to working parents, but the state only has enough licensed child care spots for 25% of children from infancy to age 5, estimated to total around 107,400 here.

The child care shortage is particularly acute in high-needs rural areas and on the islands of Kauai, Molokai and Lanai, which have no licensed infant-toddler centers, according to a 2020 Hawaii Early Childhood Facility study commissioned by the state early learning office.

Furthermore, many private early childhood centers are now operating at reduced capacity due to state COVID-19 spacing guidelines or had to close due to lower enrollment over parents’ health and safety concerns. National organization Child Care Aware of America calculates that the number of total child care spaces in Hawaii took a nose dive from 23,400 in 2018 to just 1,611 as of July 2020.

On the public pre-K side, 37 classrooms have the capacity to serve 410 students, versus the 740 total students that could have enrolled pre-pandemic, with health restrictions limiting classroom size to 10 children per class, according to EOEL spokeswoman Keopu Reelitz.

The Executive Office on Early Learning did not make a request for additional funding for the coming academic year due to the state budget shortfall and has no plans to open additional public pre-K classrooms next year, she added.

The EOEL classroom spaces are prioritized for children with high needs status, including low family income or for whom English is not the first language.

A major early education bill passed last year mandated that the DOE develop a kindergarten entry assessment program by July 2022 and work to broaden free prekindergarten access to at least 50% of otherwise unserved 3- and 4-year olds by December 2027, among other things.

Chun, of UH Manoa, said most early learning money comes from the federal level though the situation is changing.

“We feel that education in K-12 is a public right, but as a nation, we haven’t felt traditionally that early learning is a public right,” she said.

Laurent Moriguchi Director Executive Office on Early Learning with Governor David Ige, DOH Director Bruce Anderson, Dept of Human Services Pankaj Bhanot and UH president David Lassner.
In 2019, Hawaii education and health officials announced the creation of the 2019-2024 Early Childhood State Plan, a framework to support Hawaii’s young children and their families. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Preliminary data collected by Hawaii P-20 for participants in the 2019 summer program shows that those kids missed a fewer amount of school days overall during their kindergarten year than their non-participant peers.

There isn’t clear statewide data on how many of Hawaii’s kindergarteners start school with prior early learning experience, but teachers say the advantage of having early education is clear.

Casey Tran, a kindergarten teacher at Waianae Elementary, recalled a student who attended that school’s transition program in 2019.

“He was my highest student, honestly,” Tran said. “He knew how to read by the end of the school year and even when the pandemic happened, he was still making progress throughout that entire time. He was on it — he’s the one I always called on to help other students. He was done with his work first.”

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