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Hawaii’s state-run preschool programs receive first report card, indicates room for improvement

Updated: 
May 16, 2016 - 12:30am

KAILUA-KONA — State funded pre-kindergarten education still has a long way to go in Hawaii despite significant progress in 2014-15, according to a report by the nonpartisan National Institute for Early Education Research located at Rutgers University and made available by a press release from the Hawaii Children’s Action Network.

Hawaii’s Executive Office on Early Learning (EOEL) launched a pre-K program in 2014-15, allowing the state’s inclusion in The State of Preschool Report for the first time this year. In its initial year, the EOEL’s program served 365 students in 20 classrooms across 18 schools. Those numbers rose in 2015-16, when the program served 420 4-year-old students in 21 classrooms across 19 schools.

“Hawaii’s economic future depends on early investment in its youngest citizens,” said Deborah Zysman, Executive Director for Hawaii Children’s Action Network.

The report, which tabulated numbers from the 2014-15 school year, indicated that pre-K students were served by the state in every school district in Hawaii. The state spent $2.8 million during the period analyzed, or $7,671 per student, according to the release. Federally funded Head Start programs supported 2,624 preschoolers in Hawaii during the same school year, spending $7,631 per student.

Hawaii ranked seventh in the country in the area of state spending and ninth in all reported spending, but those numbers are per capita figures, not total spending. Each state-sponsored classroom is located within a public school, as Hawaii state law prohibits public funding of privately run preschool programs.

Zysman said that aspect of state law drives costs per student up. Most other upward-trending states are using the Head Start model and contracting out to nonprofits to expand their pre-K programs, but the Hawaii constitution prohibits that action on the islands.

“The (study indicates) that we are a small program, but a quality program,” Zysman said. “Now, we’re looking at how we bring that quality to scale.”

Despite state and federal efforts — as well as the private pre-K education sector — Child Care Aware of America found in a study published in May of 2015 that as many as 66,000 children were in need of educational day care or preschool in Hawaii, but only 37,000 spaces were available.

Hawaii ranked 42nd in access for 4-year-olds to state funded pre-K classrooms and provided no access to 3-year-olds — collectively the state’s most significant shortcoming in 2014-15.

But educational conditions for those students being served are moving in the right direction. Teacher-to-student ratio is a crucial element of pre-K education, and Hawaii operated on a 1:10 ratio.

Primary preschool teachers in Hawaii are also required to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree and fulfill licensing requirements, while assistant teachers are required to possess an associate’s degree. There were both a primary teachers and an assistant teachers present in every classroom in 2014-15. The state also employed five resource teachers and an educational specialist on its pre-K staff.

The report identifies 10 benchmarks on its quality standards checklist, which programs across the nation should aspire to meet. Hawaii met eight of those 10, falling short in the areas of teacher specialized training and teacher in-service.

Hawaii licensing requires pre-K teachers be licensed to teach K-6, but does not require they specialize in pre-K education. The report suggested that because of this, the state support a more intensive workforce policy.

Zysman said concerted efforts over the last year have been implemented to train teachers specifically for the job of preschool educator. Outreach to principals to help improve understanding of the nuances of pre-K education has also been made. She added that she expects the next report to express a more favorable view of Hawaii in this area, as the published statistics used by the NIEER to make judgments lag one year behind.

The teaching in-service benchmark requires teachers receive at least 15 hours of in-service per year, which they did not in Hawaii in 2014-15.

One policy on which the report praised the state was dual language learning. Hawaii has two official languages, Hawaiian and English, and is a member of the WIDA Consortium — meaning it participates in ACCESS ELLs and administers language proficiency assessments to students in grades K-12 who are identified as English language learners.

In summary, the report contends that Hawaii has significant steps to take, but numbers indicate that the future of pre-K education in the state is growing slowly brighter.

“Ensuring that every child has access to high-quality preschool can help pave the way for their success in school, on the job, and in Hawaii communities,” said NIEER Director Steve Barnett.

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