Wednesday, October 7, 2015         

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Fewer tots deemed set for school

Many keiki "don't know how to color or sit still," says an educator lamenting pupils' lack of skills

By Mary Vorsino


This school year, more Hawaii kindergarten students started school without key skills, fewer had attended preschool and more than half came from low-income families, according to a new state Department of Education readiness report.

The figures, all indicators of future academic outcomes for kids, put new urgency to long-term plans for a state-funded preschool program, say advocates and educators.

Research has shown that low-income children, those who do not attend preschool and kids who fall behind in kindergarten are more likely to struggle through school than their peers.

Educators say the kindergarten readiness report confirms what they have seen on their campuses: The economic downturn has meant many families cannot afford to send their children to preschool.

At Kuhio Elementary School in Moiliili, 8 in 10 kindergartners are from low-income households, 57 percent did not attend preschool and many come without skills needed for their first year of school.

"They don't know how to color or (other) basic things about schooling -- how to sit still, how to be with kids their age, how to separate from their parents," Principal Evelyn Aczon Hao said.

David Tom, director of public policy at Good Beginnings Alliance, a nonprofit advocacy group for early childhood education, called the results of the new readiness report "not good."

"The studies have shown it's the economically disadvantaged children who are entering school without the necessary skills," he said. "We're clearly concerned with the percentage of children who are unable to avail themselves of preschool."

The Department of Education issues the readiness report annually to gauge how prepared kindergartners are for their first year in the school system. About 7,500 kindergarten and 5,500 junior-kindergarten students are enrolled annually in Hawaii public schools.

The new report shows 59 percent of kindergartners statewide attended preschool, but there are wide variations in attendance by district.

Sixty-eight percent of kindergartners in East Honolulu went to preschool, compared with 41 percent on the Waianae Coast and 46 percent in the Kau area of the Big Island.

The percentage of kindergartners attending preschool statewide is down from 60 percent last school year and 61 percent in 2008-09.

Nationally, 68 percent of kindergartners attended preschool, though that figure includes students who attend private school.

Meanwhile, the number of kindergartners from low-income households has risen 12 percentage points since the 2006-07 school year, to 51 percent. It rose 3 percentage points from last year alone.

Advocates believe part of the reason for the increase in kindergartners coming in with no preschool experience is cuts to state child-care subsidies in February, which spurred hundreds of families to search for other child-care options.

Christina Cox, KCAA Preschools of Hawaii president, said the readiness report illustrates the need for a state-funded preschool program in the islands, at least for low-income families.

Hawaii is one of 12 states without state-funded preschool.

The Early Learning Council is drafting a recommendation for developing such a program and is expected to send it to the governor soon. Legislators have also expressed support for a state-funded preschool program and say the $30 million in savings expected from ending the junior kindergarten program in 2013 could go toward setting up a state-subsidized preschool.

Junior kindergarten began in 2006 as a way to address long-standing concerns over the number of children entering kindergarten unprepared. Junior-K was designed for children born too late in the year to qualify for regular kindergarten.

But legislators abolished junior kindergarten earlier this year, saying it was never fully implemented and had mixed success.

Kindergarten is not mandatory in the islands.

To gauge the readiness of kindergartners, the DOE surveys teachers statewide on whether their students display key skills. The readiness report showed:

» One-fifth of kindergarten teachers said at least three-fourths of their students had key literacy skills, including knowing how to hold a book and being able to communicate ideas with phrases and sentences.

That is down from 24 percent of teachers the year before.

» About 60 percent of teachers said most of their class did not possess vital "approaches to learning" skills, including showing an eagerness to learn and appearing interested in the outside world.

Last school year, 57 percent said their students had those skills.

» And 93 percent of teachers said most of their kindergartners did not meet all benchmarks when they walked into class on day one.

Last year, 91 percent said most lacked all the key skills.

Logan Okita, a kindergarten teacher at Fern Elementary School in Kalihi, said she has seen what preschool can do for low-income kids.

Most of her students come from disadvantaged families, but many also attend preschool, either through low-cost or free programs.

"They come to school ready to learn," she said. "Most of them are ready for a rigorous kindergarten program."

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