Bill offers footing for universal preschool

The Early Learning Council that would be created by Senate Bill 2878 “is key in establishing a comprehensive, quality early learning system” to be known as Keiki First Steps, said Anna Peters of the Kaua‘i Good Beginnings Alliance.

The bill relating to early learning sits on the desk of Gov. Linda Lingle.

Good Beginnings Alliance was established through Act 77 in 1997, and created a public-private partnership to build a coordinated system of early childhood care and education. But it lacked sufficient authority, resources and accountability to reach its intended goal, Peters said.

Kaua‘i Complex Area Superintendent Bill Arakaki said the bill looks like a major initiative coming down, but said Kaua‘i educators have a “semblance” of what the bill is trying to establish.

“Kaua‘i has always been known to work in partnership with many agencies,” Arakaki said.

The bill would establish the Keiki First Steps grant program, and statutorily establishes the Pre-Plus program and promotes the development of early learning facilities.

Kaua‘i has one Pre-Plus program at Kilauea Elementary School. Family and Child Services runs the preschool program in a Department of Education classroom. Enrollment is open to 3- and 4-year-olds.

Pre-Plus head teacher Jane Woodward said they are limited to 20 students. Five of those parents’ pay their own tuition. Five receive tuition assistance from Head Start, five from Childcare Connections and five from Open Doors. It costs $525 per month. Breakfast, lunch and field trips are included in the tuition.

Woodward said a center-based preschool up the street is full, as are they. Every week parents come in to pick up applications.

“We could use two more preschools up here,” Woodward said.

Arakaki gave other examples of a number of programs Kaua‘i complex has in partnership with other key organizations focusing on early learning. The P-20 initiative looks at education as a continuum from early learning through post-high school.

There is a Families for Real program at Kalaheo Elementary that helps parents and children get ready for kindergarten. Parent and Community Network Center facilitators and Problem Student Assessment Program aides have been trained to work with parents in the Mother Read and Father Read programs at King Kaumuali‘i and Elsie Wilcox Elementary Schools.

Arakaki also cited the Sequenced Transition to Education in the Public Schools, or STEPS, as an example of the DOE working closely with other public and private organizations to enhance early learning.

“It’s very important to be a part of (early learning) and this bill will push the envelope,” Arakaki said.

He said principals and schools are willing to look for space to house programs. It is a challenge. Some schools do not have enough facilities.

“Whenever there is a community need, we will always attempt to provide the program so students will benefit,” Arakaki said.

Despite efforts, however, the bill states, “the current landscape of Hawai‘i’s early learning services remains highly fragmented and lacks cohesiveness.”

Peters said she commends the Early Learning educational task force, established through Act 259 in 2006, for its “work, time and energy that went into completing their report for the legislature” submitted in late 2007.

The task force pulled together information and data and produced a five-year plan that proposes a comprehensive, voluntary early learning system that would initially offer services to 4-year-old children and focus on underserved families.

The bill acknowledges the work of the Early Learning task force and states, “In time, all families, regardless of income or background, would be provided access to high-quality, culturally-responsive early learning services…”

Services in the system would include licensed center-based programs, licensed family care providers, family interaction programs, and home-based/family involvement types of programs.

The Early Learning Council will establish policies and procedures to improve and expand on existing programs and services. It will develop incentives to enhance quality programs and services already in existence.

Coordinating and developing an increased work force will be a huge task, said Peters. Especially on the Neighbor Islands. Training will be needed, as well as technical assistance and professional development.

The make-up of the council is included in the bill.

“Hopefully Kaua‘i will be a part of the council (through the inclusion of two members from the Hawai‘i Council of Mayors),” Peters said.

Act 77, which created Good Beginnings Alliance, sunsets in 2010. Peters said she doesn’t know what will become of GBA, but is excited that with SB 2878, the state can take a big step to developing a more comprehensive, sustainable system.

“Hawai‘i is one of a few states that does not have an early learning system in place,” Peters said.

Oklahoma and Georgia have established preschool systems for all 4-year-olds statewide. New York, Florida and Illinois are in the process of establishing similar systems. Some 36 states now offer some type of publicly-funded preschool program.

Peters also feels that in 10 years GBA has helped to build awareness of the importance of early learning and increased communication between and among families and service providers.

Peters said she has done what she wanted to accomplish, and is looking forward to working within a comprehensive and sustainable system.

Statistically, out of every 10 children, four are not ready for kindergarten, Peters said.

Results of the Hawai‘i State School Readiness Assessment for fall 2006 can be found on both the GBA and DOE Web sites. It shows that out of 730 kindergarten students, 74.1 attended preschool. A little over half were rated to display key skills and characteristics necessary for successful learning experiences in school.

According to the bill, “Research has confirmed that a large gap exists between the academic abilities of children from high- and low-income families by age six.”

“The gap can be closed by building an early learning system for Hawai‘i. Decades of research have determined that investments in high-quality early learning systems, based on the collective involvement of families, caregivers, and teachers, produce significant, long-term benefits for all children. These benefits include improved school success, decreased dropout rates, reduced crime, and increased workforce preparedness and productivity.”

The bill has yet to be signed by Lingle. She has until July 8 to sign, veto, or let it pass unsigned. Peters urges the public to email the governor to sign S.B. 2878 into law.

• Cynthia Matsuoka is a freelance writer for The Garden Island and former principal of Chiefess Kamakahelei Middle School. She can be reached by e-mail at


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