The solution to improved student achievement in Hawai'i's public schools perhaps lies not in grades K-12, but in superior early childhood education.
It stands to reason that if children get a solid head start in preschools, they'll enter public schools better prepared to learn and succeed to high standards.
One of the most impressive programs to put this notion to work is the Tutu and Me traveling preschool offered in Hawaiian communities around the state by the nonprofit foundation Partners in Development.
Tutu and Me targets neighborhoods where 50 percent of Hawaiian children enter kindergarten without any preschool — putting them up to two years behind from the start as some can't count to five or identify basic colors.
The program is most unusual in that it involves caregivers in teaching children from ages birth to 5; in Hawaiian communities, the primary caregiver is a grandparent at double the rate of the national average.
"Teaching caregivers basic learning concepts, such as speaking to children in full sentences, not only enhances the learning experience of the children, but has important ripple effects in the 'ohana," said Jan E. Hanohano Dill, president of Partners in Development.
Studies show that every dollar invested in preschool saves $8 to $17 in social costs down the road, Dill said.
Two days a week, Tutu and Me vans with teams of teachers and aides roll into their communities to set up mobile preschools with varied learning activities to teach literacy and cognition skills, as well as physical and emotional development.
Tutu and Me started five years ago serving 200 children; now, the program enrolls 2,000 children and their caregivers at six sites on O'ahu, eight on the Big Island and two each on Moloka'i and Kaua'i.
Tutu and Me has produced booklets teaching its basic learning concepts and a CD containing favorite songs of participants.
Services cost $2,000 a year per participant, but children and caregivers enroll free thanks to support from Kamehameha Schools, the U.S. Department of Education and local churches and charitable foundations.
Tutu and Me targets predominantly Hawaiian communities in the most need, but is open to participants of all races.
For Dill, 62, former CEO of the Oceanic Institute, Tutu and Me is mostly about putting children first as Native Hawaiians raise themselves out of a century-long sense of despondency.
"It's our kuleana," he said. "You look at our kids in trouble and our kids in prison, and shame on us. You see our kids dying from drugs, and shame on us.
"We Hawaiians are struggling to get past our divisions and decide what is our rallying call. Our rallying call should be our children. When Hawaiians come to a commitment to our children, then we'll have a nation that is powerful. If we can't do that, then we don't deserve to have a nation."
Dill, a Kamehameha Schools graduate who was a leader in the struggle to topple former trustees in the late 1990s, is gratified by gains made by the school under the leadership of CEO Dee Jay Mailer and a new board of trustees.
But he believes Kamehameha Schools is too conservative and must play a more activist role in bettering the lives of Hawaiian children.
He's pressing to assure that the Hawaiian community is deeply involved in the selection of a new trustee to replace Constance Lau.
"Kamehameha Schools can be a real catalyst for Hawaiians, the community, the whole state in doing some outside-the-box things that nobody else can," Dill said.
"But these trustees are stand-pat guys. If you're risk-averse, you can't bring the real changes that are so badly needed."
David Shapiro, a veteran Hawai'i journalist, can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.