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The Power of Preschool — A Special Publication by The Good Beginnings Alliance

(page 3 of 8)

Opening the Door

Why Hawaii education experts say making quality early learning accessible to all Hawaii 4-year-olds is important – and why now

Sydney Johnson, a teacher’s aide at KCAA Mother Rice Preschool, teaches Ariella Lima how to use scissors

Photo: Stephen Guzman

“We see a difference, a lag, when a child doesn’t go to preschool,” says Dale Tanouye, principal of Iliahi Elementary School, where in 2011-2012, for the first time, less than half (49 percent) of incoming kindergartners attended preschool. Tanouye, a former kindergarten teacher, and Iliahi’s four kindergarten teachers say what’s often missing or lagging is a child’s readiness to learn – intellectually, socially, physically and emotionally.

Imagine, they say, the challenges a 4- or 5-year-old faces when entering kindergarten with no preschool experience: never having been separated from mom and dad and crying every day for weeks; having difficulty sharing, waiting one’s turn, being nice to others or working with a partner; unable to listen without interrupting to a five-minute story read by the teacher; communicating only in “baby talk”; unable to cut with a scissors properly and safely (not cutting their clothes or themselves) or hold writing implements properly and safely (not eating these materials); unable to identify colors, shapes, letters or even their own name.

“These are the challenges I face every year and deal with daily,” says one Iliahi kindergarten teacher. “I am zonked at the end of the day but [what] brings me joy is to see the lightbulb turn on in ‘little Johnny’s mind’ or ‘little Sue’s eyes.’”

What may be surprising is that this Wahiawa elementary school is likely representative of the large middle range of Hawaii’s public elementary schools. While a Title I school with a significant percentage (49 percent in 2011-2012) of students receiving free or reduced-cost lunch, Iliahi serves some 400 students that run the gamut of families from middle class to low income, says Tanouye.

Christie Tomasa works with some of her 4-year-olds at KCAA Mother Rice Preschool on South King Street in Honolulu.

Photo: Stephen Guzman

“Most of our students come from working families, many of whom are struggling economically in these times.” Part-Hawaiians (38.5 percent) are the largest and fastest growing group, followed by Filipinos (26.2 percent) and Japanese (10.1 percent); many live in multi-generational families.

Tanouye says school readiness has become more important because kindergarten must meet specific learner outcomes as part of standards-based education. Hawaii was a pioneer nationally as the first state to receive federal funding to develop educational standards under President Clinton’s Goals 2000 legislation in July 1994. Tanouye expresses concern that every year Iliahi faces a challenge to meet its kindergarten standards outcomes, particularly in language and reading, to set the foundation for first grade.

To help students lagging behind their peers, Iliahi gives those challenged what Tanouye calls “a gift of time” by holding them back for an additional year of kindergarten. The school also began a “Kindergarten Camp,” a two-week summer session with their kindergarten teachers and volunteers to introduce incoming kindergartners to the structured environment of school, from putting things away and paying attention to the teacher to cutting with a scissors and identifying their own name.

Iliahi Elementary is among the majority of public elementary schools that are experiencing a decline in preschool-experienced incoming kindergartners. In 2011, that percentage fell in nine of the state’s 15 school complexes over the previous four years. Last year’s 58 percent of all incoming kindergartners statewide who attended preschool was the lowest level since 2008, when all schools began reporting that statistic.

Statewide, kindergarten teachers echo Iliahi teachers’ experiences. Only 37 percent of teachers in 2011 – down from 43 percent in 2009 – reported that at least 75 percent of their incoming students demonstrated “attitudes and habits that facilitate learning,” such as asking questions, paying attention to instructions and showing interest in the world around them.

Citing continuing economic challenges for families, many Hawaii education experts believe that percentage will continue to decline.

‘The time is now’

“We need to do the business of early education differently to change outcomes for our state,” says Deborah Zysman, executive director of Good Beginnings Alliance. “[Early education] is foundational today for successful long-term workforce development for our children. But it is also a current workforce issue for employers whose workers have families that are struggling financially.”

With the average cost for preschool per child in Honolulu at $720 a month, families face hard choices in the current economy with the rising costs of food, energy and housing. “It’s hard to be at work when you’re worried that your preschooler is safe for what you can afford, much less that your child has the opportunity to learn,” she adds.

GBA is particularly concerned about the growing “gap group” of Hawaii families who fall between the high-income families who can afford quality early education programs and the neediest low-income families, many of whom are eligible for government-sponsored preschool programs targeting the disadvantaged.

“We know that some ‘gap group’ families take out second mortgages, use credit cards to pay for quality preschool,” says Zysman. Others forgo preschool and opt for free babysitting instead by aunty or grandma.

According to the Hawaii Department of Business, Economic Development & Tourism, for parents to afford licensed care for one child, as well as before- and after-school care for a school-aged child, a family of four in Honolulu has to earn $61,900 annually, with 27 percent of these families falling below the self-sufficiency level and unable to afford child care. A single working parent has to earn $56,400, with 77 percent of these families below self-sufficiency to afford child care. The statistics in the Neighbor Island counties are similar, according DBEDT’s December 2011 report on “Self-Sufficiency Income Standard: Estimates for Hawaii 2009.”

“The children of our working families are being disenfranchised,” says Zysman. “Access to quality early education is a social justice issue in Hawaii. School readiness is an equity issue that cuts along income lines in our state.”

Some of the most dramatic declines in preschool attendance are in the state’s working class and low-income neighborhoods. In 2011, at Mountain View Elementary on the Big Island, serving one of five lowest income census tracts in the state, about 20 percent of kindergartners attended preschool, compared to 48 percent four years ago. Puuhale Elementary in Kalihi welcomed just 27 percent of preschool-experienced kindergartners, compared to 45 percent in 2010.

“The time is now,” says Zysman, “[for] universal early education for 4-year-olds in Hawaii to provide the broadest access possible for our families.”

She cites a number of key developments working in favor of a universal program in the state, including an increasingly shared, community-wide conviction among educators, businesses and parents that early learning positively enhances a student’s future learning.

First, as a key initiative of Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s “New Day in Hawaii Comprehensive Plan,” the governor’s office has created Hawaii’s first cabinet-level Executive Office of Early Learning. Second, in 2014, the Department of Education’s junior kindergarten program, enacted by law in 2006, is due to end, with parents of more than 5,000 late-born children needing quality preschool for their keiki, and adding to the groundswell for a universal program. And third, high quality private-provider preschool programs already exist in the community – from community center and church-sponsored programs to private home-based certified programs.

A state-funded early learning program

Hawaii is only one of 11 states without a significant state-funded early learning program. Nationwide, state-funded programs have been one of education’s biggest success stories, with dramatic enrollment increases and increasing program quality over the past decade. Recent years, however, have seen a decline in state commitments due to budget cuts, according to “The State of Preschool 2011: State Preschool Yearbook” by the National Institute for Early Education Research.

“For about 40 years, we’ve known that more than 85 percent of brain development occurs from birth to age 5,” says Terry Lock, director since July 2012 of the newly established state Executive Office of Early Learning. With 36 years of experience in early childhood education, Lock was the director of early childhood at Kamehameha Schools for six years and worked previously in the Office of Head Start in Washington, D.C.

An exciting recent development in advanced neuroscience research shows support for the importance of early stimulation in the development of the “executive functioning” of a child’s developing brain. This area controls such skills as the ability to regulate emotions, to develop attention span and to keep and retain information, says Lock.

“It’s so important to take the total experience a child has in these early years to a higher level,” says Lock who, at the publication time of this story, is working on what is called “The Governor’s Plan for Early Learning,” the state’s first state-funded early education program. The major elements of the governor’s plan are to be phased in over time, starting in the 2014-2015 school year and initially targeting the “neediest, at-risk” children, with the eventual goal over time to serve all 4-year-olds, says Lock. 

Bottom line: It’s the kids

Investing in the early years of education is fundamentally about addressing our children’s physical, social, emotional and intellectual well-being. More employers, government agencies, social service agencies, educators and families recognize that early education’s benefits extend to healthier families and stronger communities. Investments in our youngest citizens ultimately also strengthen and innovate local economies with talented and competitive future workers.

“We support early education for all children. We know that given the opportunity, they do respond and they will do well,” says Iliahi Elementary Principal Tanouye. “Our children deserve no less.” 



The Must-Haves of a Top Universal Preschool Plan

Photo: iStockphotos.com

Quality. “School readiness is so significant that the preschool experience must be a quality program with teachers trained in early education, an age-appropriate curriculum, regular and ongoing assessments, and monitoring of a child’s progress,” says Diane Young, DOE (Department of Education) education specialist, who created preschool classes at Linapuni Elementary School for families from Kuhio Park Terrace.

Funding. Nationwide, state funding has been critical in launching a universal program, with state spending per preschool child enrolled averaging just over $4,000 in 2011. GBA’s Zysman says that as a workforce investment, starting earlier by funding preschool will make public education cheaper in the long run, with anticipated financial savings from having fewer students in special education, less remedial enrollment in K-12 and decline in high school dropouts, among other positive developments. 

Efficient coordination. “Partnering with DHS’ (Department of Human Services) existing Pre-School Open Doors Program, we were able to create efficiencies to benefit 204 preschool students in areas with persistently low school achievement scores and, in some cases, no preschools available,” says Camille Masutomi of the DOE’s Race to the Top Office of Strategic Reform on its two Zones of Innovation Early Childhood Programs created in Kau, Keaau and Pahoa on the Big Island and Nanakuli/Waianae on Oahu.

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