Pre-K Pressure

Inside the Kindergarten Admissions Race

October, 2007

When Betsy Hata, the director of admissions for Punahou School, starts noticing parents and their children testing out her office sofa, she knows that her kindergarten admissions process is in full swing. The sofa of interest sits outside Hata’s office on a wide, covered lanai next to a couple of low tables, usually home to current issues of the Punahou Bulletin, scratch paper and crayons. The reception area is where the young applicants wait before they are taken behind closed doors and administered the first of two tests required for entry into Punahou. To these parents, it’s important for their children to know the sofa and be comfortable with the admissions office’s surroundings, because minimizing the unfamiliar for their unpredictable 4-year-olds may increase their chances for a good testing experience.

The sofa test drive is probably the most benign of the preparations that Hata has noticed recently. Of course, there have been the applications fattened with letters of recommendation, portfolios, DVDs and CDs. But over the past five years or so, Hata and her staff have seen an increasing number of young applicants coming to the sessions very prepared, maybe overprepared.

“Sometimes, [during the test] we don’t have to ask these kids a question. They just start talking,” says an exasperated Hata. “They know what we’re going to ask, so their answers are spot on. But there never was a question to begin with. Sometimes they will start volunteering information on things that we don’t want to know.”

Kelly Monaco, associate director of admissions for Iolani School, has also noticed a significant increase in pre-K preparation and parental pressure. The veteran of eight admissions cycles, Monaco recalls the parent who recently called her office six times in one day, asking three different staff members the same application-related question. There was also the mother who telephoned Monaco 10 times, seeking guidance on what to write on her personal statement about her child. Of course, Monaco will never forget the kindergarten application that came in packed with 35 letters of recommendation.

“The thing about that application wasn’t just that there were so many letters, but that the child was doing enough activities, so that the parents could get that many people to write letters,” says Monaco. “Some parents are getting it backwards. They are preparing their kids for this testing process, but actually they should be preparing them for life. It’s good to expose them to new words and have them print the alphabet, but at this age, they should be spending more time with their grandparents, not studying.”

Wealth Opportunity Achievement Success

While there are dozens of excellent independent schools throughout the Islands, Iolani and Punahou, along with Kamehameha Schools, cast giant shadows over the state’s and the nation’s educational landscape. Collectively, the K – 12 institutions comprise three of the four largest independent schools in the country: Punahou, with 3,760 students is No. 1, Kamehameha School’s Kapalama campus, with almost 3,200 students, is the second-largest school; and Iolani, with an attendance at about 1,840, is the fourth.

These Big Three are also among the wealthiest independent schools in the country. Kamehameha’s legendary endowment is approximately $7 billion, Punahou’s is $150 million and Iolani’s is approximately $135 million.

Wealth equals opportunity equals achievement equals success, goes one formula. And the schools, especially cross-town rivals Iolani and Punahou, have a long history of academic excellence and real-world achievement. Their students are disproportionately represented among year-end lists of statewide national merit scholars and have unusually high representation at Ivy League and other highly competitive colleges and universities. In addition, matching each other broadside for broadside, the two schools boast graduates who not only populate Island boardrooms and country clubs but have also built multinational companies and even nations.

Cracking the Code

Kindergarten is the first and largest entry point into both Iolani and Punahou. For the 2007 school year, Iolani accepted 70 students from an application pool of a little more than 400. Punahou received about 570 applications and offered entry to 150 students. According to both Hata and Monaco, the number of applications submitted every year has been steady for more than a decade, mirroring the fluctuations of Island birth rates rather than economic or social trends.

“Our admission numbers haven’t changed much,” says Monaco. “Even after 9/11, when the economy got really bad, and we were going to war and there was a lot of uncertainty, people still applied. It seems to be recession proof.”

Of course, the cost of attending these schools reflects present-day economics, which may account for the consistent number of applicants. The 2007 tuition for Punahou is $15,725 and $14,000 for Iolani.

Both Iolani’s and Punahou’s admissions processes feature a one-on-one cognitive test and a group session in which children are observed in a classroom setting by teachers and other evaluators. Both schools work with child psychologists, who craft and tweak their tests. The tests are administered by a small staff of evaluators, who are sworn to secrecy. What happens behind the closed doors of the testing rooms and classrooms is a mystery.

While this secrecy protects the integrity of the tests, it also creates an information vacuum, which anxious parents easily fill with theories, presumptions and bits of precious information, which are passed along to others in preschool play yards, at birthday parties, on playing fields and at any other gathering place, where people talk about their kids.

“Parents hear what they should or shouldn’t be doing and then the anxiety starts to build,” says Hata. “So they push academics earlier and earlier. And that is why a tutoring agency will take a 3-year-old. What can a 3- year-old do there?”

There are nearly three-dozen tutoring agencies on Oahu, most of which offer private-school test prep in one form or another. These agencies aren’t regulated or certified by a government or private agency, so the credentials of tutors vary widely. Some staff have experience and advanced degrees in education, many are college students.

Because the agencies aren’t regulated, it is difficult to accurately track their growth, but anecdotal evidence suggests a cottage industry on the rise. Ten years ago, Wiz Kids started business in Pearl City with five tutors and about 10 students. About five years later, it opened another location in Kaimuki and now together both schools have about 30 tutors, who teach 200 to 300 students, from pre-K through high school. The four-and-a-half-year-old Shicida Hawaii Education Center has three locations and nearly 300 students. They admit children as young as 18 months.

Kupono Learning Center, which offers extensive private school preparation at all levels and is arguably the most prominent and well-advertised tutoring agency, didn’t return phone calls from Hawaii Business.“I think we do get a lot of kids in [to Iolani and Punahou], but we don’t make any guarantees, and we don’t keep track of those statistics,” says Kehau Sala, a tutor at Wiz Kids. “But our business has been growing, even though we don’t do any advertising. I think it has been all through word of mouth.”

Old School Schooling

Kyoiku Juku occupies a cozy classroom on the second floor of a King Street office building. The space is literally bursting with learning and literature with its large bookshelves overflowing with textbooks, storybooks, games, puzzles, worksheets and other papers. A dozen or so desks are spread out in the middle of the room and are presided over by the institute’s president and founder, Dr. Toshiaki Takahashi, who sits behind a small desk of his own, which is piled high with folders, papers and books.

Kyoiku Juku is a tutoring agency, or juku, which specializes in private school examination preparation. In Japan, jukus, or “cram schools” are private, for-profit institutions that prepare students for the country’s rigorous examinations for private middle and high school and offer other supplementary academic, athletic and artistic enrichments.

“This type of education system has been very popular in Japan since the 12th century,” says Takahashi. “The basic philosophy is one-on-one training. It’s how they did it in the temples, which were the main educational institutions for hundreds of years.”

Kyoiku Juku’s primary focus is prepping its students for entry into Iolani and Punahou and on a wall in the school’s stairwell hangs a large, handwritten scorecard that charts last year’s results for its students who applied for entry into the schools’ for kindergartens, fourth grades, middle schools and high schools. Kyoiku Juku had a good year, with 37 of its students gaining acceptance into Punahou and 21 into Iolani. Of the 13 preschoolers that the juku tutored, seven received acceptance letters from Punahou, four from Iolani.

Takahashi founded Kyoiku Juku in 1977, shortly after receiving his Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Originally, the school served the city’s Japanese expat community, familiarizing recently relocated children to the Islands’ American education system. Attendance at the juku swelled to more than 200 students through the ’80s, but when the Japanese economic bubble burst in the early ’90s, Kyoiku Juku’s student population was cut in half. Shortly thereafter, Takahashi shifted to a new market and a new focus – local families and their desire for their children to gain admittance into Iolani and Punahou.

Today, the juku’s student population is again hovering at around 200. Tuition ranges from $44.10 per hour for a one-teacher to two-students session to $66.15 for a one-on-one session.

Kyoiku Juku began tutoring pre-K students nearly four years ago in response to parent demands and with the hiring of Susan Patterson, a secondary-school teacher from San Antonio, Texas.

“I had never heard of testing to get into kindergarten,” says Patterson, who’s also a mother. “But some of the parents remind me of how I felt, particularly if it is your first child. Everything at that moment seems so monumental.”

Drawing upon her experience as both a teacher and a mother, Patterson started piecing together a curriculum that teaches children to identify all the letters in the alphabet randomly as well as count to 100 by fives and tens. Her students are asked to identify shapes, not just circles and squares but also hexagons, octagons, parallelograms and trapezoids. They are also taught how to hold a pencil and are asked to draw a person. Stick figures are not allowed. If the child is ready, she will teach them how to read.

Working one-on-one, Patterson also tries to teach her young students how to reason and communicate confidently. She asks them open-ended questions and encourages them to give detailed and expressive answers. Patterson doesn’t allow her students to say “It’s too hard,” or “I can’t do it.” She also teaches them basic etiquette. It’s old-fashioned schooling, customized to individual students. It’s just introduced earlier.

While the teacher stresses repetition, Patterson says that her lessons involve much more than drills and exercises. There are games, puzzles, engaging conversation and plenty of hugs.

“We have challenges, and we love challenges,” says Patterson. “So often they say they can’t do something, and then they do it and their faces light up. I believe that a child can be reading before kindergarten, and they can do simple math. I have 5-year-olds who are reading at second- and third-grade levels.”

“I have recommended Juku to a lot of friends, and a lot of them go there now,” says Mona Nemoto, whose daughter was one of Patterson’s students last year. “I love Miss Susan. First off, she’s a mom, so she is nurturing, caring and supportive, but she’s also an educator, who knows about discipline and the resources and materials that a child needs to know. It’s a highly competitive world now, and our kids have to be prepared.”

Nemoto’s daughter tested for and was admitted into Iolani’s kindergarten this semester. But the mother intends on sending her back to Juku next year to continue her supplementary education. After working with Patterson, she noticed a more mature and confident little girl, able to verbalize her feelings more clearly.

Is she too mature for her age?

Not at all, says Nemoto. Her five-year-old daughter’s current ambition is to be a princess and marry a prince.

Mutual Assured Instruction

Many of those interviewed cited the failure of Hawaii’s public schools as the source of much of the parental angst and anxiety. However, the true origins of this pre-K pressure actually predate Hawaii’s DOE and even Punahou. The roots of this debate are as old as kindergarten itself.

Early-education pioneers, such as Friedrich Froebel, who founded the first kindergarten in 1840, believed that most children do not acquire the ability to reason till 5 or 6 years old, so teaching them higher-level skills was a waste of time, if not counterproductive. Instead, they believed learning was a gradual, natural process, closely linked to the child’s connection to the world. For instance, young children learn concepts such as sweet and sour by tasting and rough and soft by touching. They do most of their learning through play.

Simultaneously, alternate education theories stressed that children needed to learn certain skills early to ensure success in later grades and later in life. These theories acknowledged that the world was ever changing and competitive, a sort of race that needed to be won.

According the Stephanie Fenney, emeritus professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s department of Curriculum Studies, ever since this Cold War wakeup call, the early-education debate has swung back and forth between the progressive educators and the skill-based believers. The advent of federally mandated No Child Left Behind initiative, with its back-to-basics requirements and reliance on testing, has swung the pendulum overwhelmingly to the skills-based side.In 1957, this tug-o-war was suddenly thrust onto the national stage when the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik into orbit. The American public and their politicians were shocked that the seemingly backward communist country had beaten us to space. We may have had more hydrogen bombs but the Russians had more nuclear-powered brains and it was all the fault of a touchy-feely American education system. Children needed to get back to basics.

“I meet parents all the time who brag that their child is a genius and can count to 100,” says Fenney. “So I reach into my purse, pull out 10 objects and ask them to pick out the three pennies. They don’t understand. They have no concept of the numbers or the alphabetic principle. Those things are developed slowly.

“You can teach children music, art, math, science, but are you doing it in a way that is embedded in something that is meaningful to them?” asks Fenney. “In about five or 10 years we are going to discover that some of these kids, who had gone through this ‘drill and kill’ curriculum, are going to be in a bad situation. They didn’t learn anything useful.”

That day may have already come.

Getting with the Program

Wendell Lee, a partner with the public accounting firm Accuity (formerly PricewaterhouseCoopers), has a unique perspective on the country’s education system. Lee sees a steady stream of the best and brightest, hiring from between seven to 15 new employees each year from the University of Hawaii as well as from other universities and law schools on the Mainland. Approximately 80 percent of Lee’s staff of 80 is under the age of 30. In most cases, it’s their first “real” job.

Several years ago, Lee began noticing something unusual — some of his new hires were having difficulty managing and completing their projects.

“In our profession there is usually minimal guidance. You’re given a project and you go to work and solve it,” says Lee. “We started to notice that some of our employees were having difficulty if a project had some ambiguity to it. They couldn’t solve problems with out-of-the-box ideas or even common sense. Instead, they were trying to kill them with theory.”

After passing along his observations to his firm’s national human resources office, Lee was informed that what he was seeing was similar to what many managers throughout the country were also experiencing: the first appearances of the “program kids.” According to Lee, these highly skilled but somewhat unimaginative new employees are the result of programmed upbringings – childhoods that are tightly scheduled with academic and athletic activities and virtually devoid of free time. Soccer and baseball practice, karate, ballet, piano and Japanese lessons fill afternoons, weekends and winter and summer vacations. These kids are smarter, more skilled and better coached than ever before. Now goal-oriented young adults entering the workforce, they are ready to conquer the world. You just have to tell them how and where to start.

“When we were kids we just played on the street. We didn’t have many toys, so we played cowboys and Indians, hide and seek, or we went down to the river and looked for tadpoles,” says the 44-year-old Lee. “We were responsible for filling our own days with activities. They’re afraid that their child will be bored. But being bored is good, because it gives them the opportunity to manage their time and solve problems.”

Lee, a father of a 10-year-old, admits that he and his wife do their fair share of scheduling for their son. He points out that in urban Honolulu it is difficult, if not impossible, to approximate his 1970s childhood. Most Island households need two wage earners to make ends meet. In addition, many families live far from where they work and go to school, so if a child does have enough free time to run around, the neighborhood is likely deserted until sundown.

Meanwhile, back at his Bishop Street office, Lee has had to become a more active manager, interfacing more with his employees and offering advice before he’s asked. “Now, we do more flash and bang, more guidance. We break things down into manageable pieces,” says Lee. “It was rough at first. But once you see it and understand it, you can adjust.”

Nearly everyone interviewed for this article – no matter where they stood in this classroom conflict – had similar observations: A big part of childhood has been lost. But how big of a loss is it? And was it inevitable?

“I think kids are growing up too fast,” says Kyoiku Juku’s Patterson. “Sometimes I worry that these little ones don’t have a chance to kick off their shoes, run through the grass and be a kid. Everything is so organized and planned. But that is what the world is today. Competition is so steep. There is no time to take a nap, because while you’re lying in the grass, someone will pass you by.”

Child’s Work
A partial list of kindergarten readiness skills taught at Kyoiku Juku:

  • Open-ended questions – answer question in complete, detailed sentences, without being coaxed
  • Drawing a person – full-body with complete facial features, tapered fingers, no stick figures
  • Drawing a picture – detailed picture with entire page filled, uses at least five colors, then child can tell a brief story about the picture
  • Understands terminology – child exposed to varied vocabulary, such as “impolite,” “dilapidated,” “curious,” “equal,” “same,” “greater,” “lesser,” “opposite,” “before,” after.”
  •  Classification/sorting – can separate fruits from vegetable, farm animals from zoo animals, large cubes from small cubes.


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