Preschool scramble

The phones are ringing off the hook and the wait lists are growing at preschools on Kauai. 

“There is a shortage of preschools on the island. I’ve never seen it this bad,” said Val Rita, director of A Room to Grow school in Lihue.  “I know in Lihue and Kapaa, in particular, there are a lot of pre-schools with waiting lists. Now that the law has gone into effect, parents are getting desperate. I’m getting a lot of calls from parents of 4 year olds that don’t have any place for their children to go.”

When Gov. Neil Abercrombie signed Senate Bill 2545 in 2012, repealing the junior kindergarten program at the end of the 2013-14 school year, it created a pool of children who, unless conditions change, will fall through the cracks when it comes to early childhood education. 

That law, coupled with the age change requirements created by an earlier act compounded the problem. 

Children who turn five years old on or after Aug. 1 this year will need to wait until the 2015-16 school year to enroll in kindergarten. Prior to that bill being signed, children could enter public school if they were at least five years old on or before Dec. 31. 

The age requirements are forcing hundreds of parents to scramble for preschools where they can enroll their children.

Rita said they have a wait list of almost 60 students, mostly in that 4-year-old category.

She is aware of the shortage due to her own preschool demand but also because of her involvement with the Kauai Association of the Education of Young Children and the Kauai Early Learning Program. Rita disagrees with the new law. 

“We have a student now who just turned four and can do math and read. And I have another child who is not ready,” she said. “The law doesn’t give the teacher room to evaluate the student on a case-by-case basis.”

My Growing Place preschool co-owners Tricia Padilla and Deanna Kanehe in Kilauea said their 4-year-old school is taxed to the max with the changes in the law. 

“We’re flooded with calls daily,” Padilla said. “We have 80 kids on a wait list right now that don’t have a place to go.”

Padilla and Kanehe have a plan to meet the need for more preschools on the North Shore. On Tuesday, they testified before the Kauai Planning Commission seeking a permit to open a second preschool.

“There are currently only three preschools in Kilauea,” Padilla told the commission. “There is no support, no other place for these children to go. If we rally as a community, we can create a high-quality place and support the working families. This has a huge impact on our community.”

A fourth preschool in Kilauea, Natural Bridges, closed in May. They were licensed for up to 30 children. A handful of parents and community supporters for a second My Growing Place voiced their concerns at the commissioner hearing. 

Jennifer Luck is the mother to a 4-year-old daughter with a November birthday and another child on the way. 

“With Natural Bridges closing there are a large group of children on the North Shore looking for a preschool,” she said. “It is immensely important to the health and welfare of our children.”

Brooke Hemingway is the mother of four children, three under the age of five. She is also a nurse at Wilcox Memorial Hospital. Hemingway wants them to have a quality early learning experience, but with the shortage, she’s worried.

“He won’t have the same experience of being in a classroom with friends. He’ll have to stay at home with me and my husband and I will do a juggling act to figure things out,” Hemingway said. 

Commission chairperson Jan Kimura said he liked the idea of a second My Growing Place, but had concerns.

He asked about  student-teacher ratios, as well as parking and traffic impacts in the neighborhood of the proposed preschool. Before the commission said it could approve the transition of a home on Oka Street into a preschool that will be licensed for 28 to 30 children, it put a few conditions on the permit, including a waste management variance and a report requirement every two years about the impact on the community and neighbors. 

Prior to the hearing, letters were sent by the school to 300 neighbors with no negative responses received, according to Padilla and Kanehe, who said they need $40,000 to start their new preschool.

“We have none of it right now,” Padilla said. “We have loans lined up but that would cost $2,000 a month over the next two years.” 

Elsewhere on Kauai, two public school classrooms, funded and approved by the state, are planned to open by fall at Eleele and Kekaha elementary schools. They will accommodate 40 children as part of the state’s new prekindergarten program. It will be the first time Hawaii has designated state funds for pre-K education, joining 41 other states that already do the same. 

Yet preschool providers are concerned the state’s assistance still won’t cover all the needs. 

“We don’t have enough preschools on Kauai,” Rita said. “I always tell people who have any experience with teaching children that if they have any inclination, open a preschool and you’ll be kept busy.”

• Lisa Ann Capozzi, features and education reporter can be reached at lcapozzi@thegardenisland.com.

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