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Hawaii’s prekindergarten classes lauded for quality not quantity

                                Keolu Elementary School Principal Gay Kong said having a prekindergarten class at her school has made a huge difference in students’ readiness. Above, children worked Friday on creating a maze for class.


    Keolu Elementary School Principal Gay Kong said having a prekindergarten class at her school has made a huge difference in students’ readiness. Above, children worked Friday on creating a maze for class.

                                Prekindergarten teacher Alan Arimoto worked with a student Friday at Keolu Elementary School.


    Prekindergarten teacher Alan Arimoto worked with a student Friday at Keolu Elementary School.

Hawaii’s public prekindergarten program got top marks for quality in a new national report, one of only six states to do so, but ranked near the bottom for how many 4-year-olds it reaches.

Even before the pandemic, Hawaii’s state-funded preschool served just a tiny fraction of the population — 679 students, or an estimated 4% of the state’s 4-year-olds — in the 2019-2020 school year, according to the 2020 State of Preschool Yearbook issued by the National Institute for Early Education Research.

By contrast, 34% of 4-year-olds were served by state-funded preschools on average in the 44 states, the District of Columbia and Guam that have such programs. Six states don’t have preschool education funded and managed by the state.

“Hawaii is moving in the right direction — increasing access and funding while committing to improving quality standards,” said Steven Barnett, founder and senior co-director of the institute, which is based at the Rutgers Graduate School of Education.

The yearbook relied on data from the 2019-2020 school year but also included an update on how the coronavirus pandemic has depressed preschool enrollment across the country since then.

The Hawaii program met all of the institute’s 10 quality standard benchmarks. They include requiring degrees and specialized training for teachers; a strong curriculum aligned to standards; a staff-child ratio of 1-to-10; vision, hearing and health screenings for children; and continuous improvement through classroom observations and data collection.

“We’re really proud,” Lauren Moriguchi, director of the Executive Office on Early Learning, said in an interview. “The program is just 6 years old, and it’s only in its infancy, so it’s a huge accomplishment for us in a short period of time.”

She credited the public schools, the University of Hawaii College of Education and the Legislature for helping lay a solid foundation.

“As we work toward the vision of the Legislature to expand access to early learning, we know that the workforce is going to be one of our biggest obstacles,” she said. “The demand for quality care really exceeds the amount of qualified early learning providers.”

The Executive Office on Early Learning was established in 2015 to create the public prekindergarten program and coordinate early childhood learning statewide. It now has 37 prekindergarten classrooms at 34 public schools statewide, out of a total of 174 Department of Education elementary schools.

The prekindergarten initiative focuses on underserved and low-income families and communities. And it has shown remarkable results, with 96% of students meeting or exceeding expectations in all areas of child development and learning at the end of their prekindergarten year, according to program data.

At Keolu Elementary School in Kailua, Principal Gay Kong said prekindergarten has made a huge difference for her students since it began five years ago.

“I was begging for it to be here,” she said. “We have a very high percentage of disadvantaged children. This is our one shot to even that playing field for them. Children that are not disadvantaged probably know thousands more words when they walk into the classroom at kindergarten.”

Kong recalled the visible difference between those with preschool experience and those without it on their first day of kindergarten, when teachers put out a large piece of paper for students to work on together.

“The children that were with us the year before, they were engaged with each other, they were actually writing things, creating things on the paper, and they were just being very collaborative; they would help each other draw,” she said. “Those that didn’t receive that prekindergarten, they were reluctant to even walk over there; they weren’t sure what to do with the crayon. You really see the difference in that readiness level.”

Kong found the regular professional development sessions offered by the Executive Office on Early Learning so powerful that she had her other teachers in lower grades join in along with the prekindergarten teachers.

“Every time you went, you fell in love with teaching again,” said Kong, a veteran educator who is close to retirement. “Sometimes people think about pre-K as being a romper room, but this is a very serious business.

“We take the children’s experiences and elevate them. That is what leads the curriculum; that is what tells the teacher how to move forward,” she said. “It’s really being super attentive to what the children themselves are noticing and helping them develop a deeper thinking about those experiences.”

The National Institute’s study focused on state-sponsored prekindergarten, not private preschools or federally funded efforts. About 4,000 children ages 3 and 4 in Hawaii are served through the federally funded Head Start program and special-education classrooms for preschoolers at public schools. About 1,500 children attend private preschools with the help of child-care subsidies through the state Department of Human Service’s Preschool Open Doors program.

When public and private programs are combined, Hawaii is close to the national average for preschool enrollment, at about 47% of 3- and 4-year-olds here versus 48% nationally, according to the 2020 Kids Count Data Book published by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Part of the reason state-funded prekindergarten reaches relatively few children in Hawaii is a provision in the state Constitution that prohibits state funds from being used to support private educational institutions, including child care programs and preschools, Moriguchi said.

“We don’t really have a truly mixed delivery system in Hawaii because of our constitution, whereas other states have been able to expand their systems using public funds to do so,” she said.

Hawaii ranked fourth among the states in the Preschool Yearbook for the amount spent per student in the prekindergarten program, at $9,886 annually.

Moriguchi said her office didn’t seek more funding this year to expand to more schools since state agencies and departments were told to cut their budgets, given the fiscal impact of the pandemic.

But legislation is moving forward that takes aim at the shortage of qualified staff for early childhood programs serving youngsters from birth to age 5.

A bill sponsored by House Education Chairman Justin Woodson (D, Kahului-Wailuku- Puunene) would provide a stipend program for residents pursuing early childhood degrees or certificates at University of Hawaii campuses. In exchange, recipients would commit to working in the field for at least two years. HB 1362 passed out of conference committee Thursday.

“Over the past couple of years, we made great strides to expand access to high-quality early learning opportunities, and we will continue to prioritize Hawaii’s keiki to provide them with the proper foundation,” Woodson said.

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