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Free preschool program to open at Wailuku Elementary

Hawaii Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke and state lawmakers, including Maui County’s Sen. Lynn DeCoite, Rep. Troy Hashimoto and Rep. Justin Woodson, explore the newly renovated classroom at Wailuku Elementary on Thursday that will open this school year as part of the Ready Keiki initiative to expand preschool access. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photos

Free Printable Visual Schedule For Preschool - No Time For Flash Cards
Free Printable Visual Schedule For Preschool – No Time For Flash Cards

WAILUKU — Wailuku Elementary will host one of the first 11 classrooms in the state under the Ready Keiki initiative, which aims to expand free public preschool programs as families face the high cost of early education and child care.

On Thursday morning, Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke, state lawmakers and state education officials stepped into the newly renovated classroom, which is equipped with wooden tables and chairs, a stack of blue cots for naptime and shelves fitted with transparent backing so teachers can keep an eye on kids.

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Free Printable Picture Schedule Cards – Visual Schedule Printables

Wailuku and Hana will be the two initial sites in Maui County this school year. There will also be one on Kauai, another on Hawaii island and seven others on Oahu to start. Luke said sites were chosen not only based on school principals’ interest but also “to get a pretty good cross section of the need around the state.”

“Right now, only the parents who can afford to send their kids to preschool are doing it,” Luke said. “So as a society, it’s really a social justice issue. Just because your parents couldn’t afford it or because there’s no preschool by them and no access that some of these kids are left behind and already entering kindergarten at a disadvantage.”

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Weekly Preschool Planner Free Printable

Yuuko Arikawa-Cross, director of the Executive Office on Early Learning, said when kids enter kindergarten, it’s easy to notice the ones who’ve already gone through “intentional types of learning” such as home providers or preschools.

“It’s very noticeable in terms of their social-emotional skills, their ability to interact with other children, how they regulate their emotions and their behavior, and their curiosity and their readiness to learn,” Arikawa-Cross said. “That is the benefit and I think the promise of early childhood education is that … we actually foster their development so they can continue this really healthy progression for the rest of their lives.”

Editable Preschool Daily Schedule — Preschool Vibes
Editable Preschool Daily Schedule — Preschool Vibes

But the number of kids eligible for early childhood programs has long outpaced the number of openings. Arikawa-Cross said that with an estimated 16,000 births per year in Hawaii, there are roughly 32,000 children ages 3-4. The amount of pre-kindergarten seats available in the community is only half that at 16,000 to 17,000, and only about 800 of them are public.

“So even if a family wanted to send them, there’s not even a seat for them,” Arikawa-Cross explained. “But the cost of some community-based care is very, very expensive, and so some people think they can’t afford it, so they just choose to stay home … and watch their children, which is fine, but sometimes families need to work, especially if you’re a single parent, too.”

State officials have been trying to bolster Hawaii’s early education system. In 2020, lawmakers passed a bill that set a goal of providing opportunities to enroll in preschool to all kids ages 3 and 4 by 2032. Last year, they put aside $200 million to expand access to pre-kindergarten eligible children.

Former Gov. David Ige released $5.5 million before he left office, which Luke said they were hoping could fund five classrooms at a cost of about $1 million each, with plans to open by August 2024. But after the team decided to renovate classrooms instead of building new ones and standardized the flooring, furniture and other materials, the project came out ahead of schedule and under budget, with the average cost of each classroom at about $450,000, Luke said, crediting school principals, education officials and construction management team Bowers + Kubota for the timely work.

Wailuku Elementary, which filled the maximum 20 slots allocated to each Ready Keiki classroom, is expected to add two more classrooms by next year. Additional Ready Keiki classrooms are on the horizon for Maui County, including one for Molokai next year, and the state is eyeing potential sites in Kahului, Kihei and Upcountry. The goal is to create 465 classrooms statewide by 2032, according to the program’s website.

“What we’ve been looking for is hubs,” Luke said. “So as opposed to having a preschool on every campus — because some of the principals cannot handle having another preschool and some of the principals don’t want a preschool because lack of space and lack of workforce — and so what we are doing as part of Ready Keiki initiative is having a pool of potential preschools in an area.”

Gov. Josh Green assigned Luke to oversee the Ready Keiki initiative, which she announced in January, shortly after taking office as lieutenant governor. Luke was a longtime state lawmaker who chaired the House of Representatives Finance Committee. When asked why the Legislature allocated $200 million to expanding pre-K programs when existing schools struggle with aging facilities and staffing shortages, Luke said Thursday, “It’s in a situation where we have to do both. … It’s not one or the other.”

“When you’re entering kindergarten, the teachers and the schools expect you to be ready to learn and take instructions, get along with your classmates and start doing homework sometimes, and so we don’t want to leave some of these kids at a disadvantage,” Luke said. “And when you take a look at what kind of benefits preschool education has on the life success of kids, it’s well worth the investment.”

Arikawa-Cross said certain students will be given priority in Ready Keiki enrollment, including those who are below 300 percent of the federal poverty line, homeless, learning English as a second language or in foster care. The program also aims to place students who are from the area, “because we are also trying to help each school too, to give priority to the kids who will continue their progression naturally through the school because they’re from this community.”

Pre-K teacher Kim Holokai will get the chance to teach the first group of Ready Keiki students at Wailuku Elementary. She said the curriculum includes “a little bit of the elements of traditional preschool” but also a lot of project- and inquiry-based learning, which allows students to “lead by their questions.”

“Preschool is the foundation. It’s their first experience, so you want to make it a positive one,” Holokai said. “There’s more and more demands as the years go by. So it’s important to give them exposure and make them have a solid foundation.”

Meanwhile, the Ready Keiki classroom in Hana is being renovated and set to open on Aug. 7, according to Luke’s office. State Sen. Lynn DeCoite, who represents East Maui, Molokai and Lanai, said “the need is huge” in Hana.

“We’re trying to stimulate jobs,” DeCoite said. “Most of the issues is that these guys aren’t able to get babysitters. It’s an added addition for those that are wanting to get back to work. … I’m just hoping after today, most of the other principals take an opportunity to do one reassessment of their campuses to see either they have the space or they have classrooms.”

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* Managing Editor Colleen Uechi can be reached at [email protected].

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