KAPAA — Phyllis Kunimura has always been interested in early education for children. More specifically, how a child’s brain develops.
When she took part in a teacher exchange program in 1961, coming over from Ithaca, New York, to teach kindergartners on Kauai, she wanted her students to learn with efficiency, even from the age of five.
“My goal had always been not so much how what the child learns, but how they learn,” said Kunimura, former first lady of Kauai and late widow of Mayor Tony Kunimura. “If we learn and understand how they learn, whether it’s the social or emotional, it’s the cognitive part. And that’s how they learn.”
While teaching at Koloa Elementary School in 1989, studies came out to show the importance behind cognitive development, which inspired Kunimura to take a leap of faith. She took a year off from teaching and started her own preschool.
Kauai Independent Day Care Services, also known as KIDS School, has been a part of the Kapaa community since the early 90s, where each child is tracked individually and self-directed learning isn’t just a general learning outcome, it’s a mission statement.
“When we think of education, it’s like constructing a skyscraper,” said Kunimura, co-founder and director of KIDS School. “You want a strong foundation of children being able to focus who can also problem solve and think critically. That’s the motivation behind this school.”
About 90 percent of a child’s development — social, emotional and cognitive — occurs before the age of four to five years old, according to Kunimura and the Department of Education.
In other words, a child’s brain is almost fully developed by the time a kid enrolls in kindergarten.
“The DOE’s big focus is on kindergarten, but to even be successful in kindergarten, they need to start before then. It’s from conception to age five,” Kunimura said. “What happened so many times was that a kid would have trouble reading in kindergarten, so they would learn the alphabet and be sent home with those cards to help teach them how to read.”
KIDS School isn’t your average campus.
“When they were working on the building, it finally came to me. We didn’t have classroom, classroom, then another classroom. We opened up the whole big space in the building and set up different modules,” Kunimura said.
A module at the school is a 20 x 30 foot space consisting of five modules: A problem solving module, creative play module, an art module, a physical education curriculum module and a learning center module, each separated by dividers. There is also a sixth learning module, for outside P.E.
Two of the staff of 15 at KIDS School school are alumni, according to Kunimura, and she hopes that more alumni reach out to help the school.
“Currently, our enrollment is down this year, it’s the first time it’s been down. But usually, we have about 84 kids,” she said. “I think it’s because parents don’t have funds. We have them come in, they fill out the registration, they fill out everything, then we talk about the money.”
Tuition at KIDS School is $538 per month.
“I was just dwelling on how we can get more kids into the school,” she said. “I know it’s going to help by getting the program out there to get parents to understand how important this is.”
After reading a previous TGI article regarding alumni a scholarship program funded by Waimea High School alumni, Kunimura came up with an idea.
“Rather than a scholarship, I think sponsoring a child would be more effective,” she said. “So alumni from KIDS School wanted to sponsor a kid for a year, or even partially sponsor them for a few months, they could. If we had several people willing to sponsor a child, we wanted have to kids and families turn away. It would become more affordable for them.”