Bob Peters, chairman of the state’s Early Learning Council, believes a public-private partnership would be the best way to make universal preschool a reality. An A1 story on Monday incorrectly said he thought the best model for universal preschool would have the state setting up a preschool system with private providers, rather than offering it in public schools.
A new law will end junior kindergarten in public schools in 2013 but could be the catalyst for the creation of a state-funded universal preschool program.
Offering junior kindergarten costs the Department of Education about $30 million a year, and advocates and lawmakers are proposing to use that money to plant the seeds for a free preschool program that would be available to all 4-year-olds (and potentially younger children).
"Here’s dollars that you could redirect, and you could actually put more kids into preschool," said state Rep. Roy Takumi (D, Pearl City-Momilani-Palisades), chairman of the House Education Committee. Takumi added that creating a universal preschool program could take years but that initial funding — with diverted junior-kindergarten dollars — would provide a good foundation for a "really quality early learning program."
The discussion, which officials emphasized is preliminary, is happening as a growing body of research links high-quality early childhood learning with success throughout a person’s academic career — and beyond.
It also comes as the state Department of Education is putting new emphasis on a child’s preschool-through-third-grade years. Key sections of the state’s Race to the Top grant application and strategic plan focus on early childhood education as a means of improving student achievement.
Hawaii is one of just 12 states with no state-funded preschool program.
Junior kindergarten, which began in 2006, was envisioned as a way to address the state’s problem that four out of five children entering kindergarten lack basic skills and 40 percent go into kindergarten without preschool experience. Junior kindergarten is meant for children born too late in the year to qualify for regular kindergarten.
But lawmakers say the program was never fully implemented and has had mixed success, with only about one-third of public elementary schools ever developing stand-alone junior-kindergarten classrooms.
Some parents and teachers counter the program was an unfunded mandate that, despite tight resources, has helped thousands of children better prepare for first grade.
Children in junior kindergarten can be moved into first grade after one year or can remain for another year of kindergarten.
The program is set to be phased out with the 2012 class of about 6,000 late-born children. Kids born from Aug. 2 to Dec. 31, 2008, who would have been eligible for junior kindergarten in 2013, will have to wait an additional year before entering school.
Anneliese Scott, a junior-kindergarten teacher at Kalihi-Waena Elementary School, said she has seen how the program can help late-born children.
Scott has about 15 junior-kindergarten students this year in a school where 77 percent of children come from economically disadvantaged families.
"It particularly serves the students who would slip through the cracks," Scott said Friday as she prepared for her afternoon junior-kindergarten class. "It’s such a crucial stage of development."
Parent Cory Cleveland said that in just the first week of classes, she has seen growth in her 4-year-old, Josiah. He also has adjusted more quickly to junior kindergarten than he did to preschool. She had to pull him out of preschool because he got so upset when she would leave for the day.
"This is awesome," Cleveland said, sitting in the classroom at Kalihi-Waena, with her son playing on the floor nearby. "He comes home and he talks about what he did at school."
Steve Warner, principal of Kalihi-Waena, said junior kindergarten has seen success on the campus and is popular with parents.
"It gives us a chance to work with them (students) and get them ready for kindergarten," he said, adding that preparation for kindergarten and first grade is key. "You want them to love school and come ready to learn."
Like many schools, Ala Wai Elementary has junior kindergarten students integrated with kindergarten students because there are not enough junior kindergarten kids to have a full class. (Some schools also do not have enough teachers or classroom space to offer separate classes).
Ala Wai Principal Charlotte Unni said parents like the junior kindergarten model, especially because it does not seem like a failure when a junior-kindergarten child is held back for another year of kindergarten.
"It’s easier to accept the idea of spending two years in kindergarten," she said.
She also said many low- and moderate-income families will struggle to find preschool options for their children without junior kindergarten.
The law that ends the program, approved in the last legislative session, says children entering kindergarten in 2013 must be at least 5 years old by Aug. 1.
The measure also directs the Early Learning Council to study how the state could serve late-born children (starting with the children who would have been served in 2013).
Advocates say a program created for late-born children could lay the groundwork for voluntary universal preschool.
"The challenge has (always been) there’s been no money" to create a new program, said David Tom, director of public policy at the Good Beginnings Alliance.
Tom also said that the money going to junior kindergarten might be better — and more efficiently — spent through partnerships with private providers.
In its strategic plan, the DOE has identified early learning as one of its key areas of concern, indicating that by 2018 it wants all kindergartners to enter school with "quality preschool experiences" or "ready to learn."
Last year about 61 percent of the state’s 15,000 entering kindergartners and junior-kindergartners had attended preschool.
In some areas that percentage was much lower: Only 25 percent of kindergartners in the Kau district of the Big Island had attended preschool; 33 percent of preschoolers in Nanakuli attended preschool.
Bob Peters, chairman of the state’s Early Learning Council, said it is vital that the state provide some educational alternative for late-born kids.
"I’d like to see it provided in such a way that it is a good-quality preschool experience that leads to kindergarten," he said.
He added that there is "the beginning of the will" in the islands for the creation of a universal preschool program. But he added there is still much work to do — and funding to secure.
Though the $30 million saved by not offering junior kindergarten will go far, it will not go far enough in providing a comprehensive system, advocates say.
Peters also said that he believes a public-private partnership would be the best way to make universal preschool a reality.
Diane Young, an educational specialist for early childhood and kindergarten at the Department of Education, said a significant number of students affected by the demise of junior kindergarten will need other options for child care.
"It’s time for us to sit down … and kind of (draft) out a reasonable plan so that people feel like they’re not being neglected," she said. "It might be a great opportunity for the DOE to move into universal preschool."