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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, April 7, 2007

Get to kids early, education survey finds

By Treena Shapiro
Advertiser Government Writer

Statewide survey results confirm what early education advocates have been saying for years: Hawai'i's youngest need to be better prepared to enter kindergarten.

A survey of 628 kindergarten teachers showed that only 8 percent of them felt that most of their students started kindergarten with all the skills necessary for success.

The Hawai'i State School Readiness Assessment, conducted by the Good Beginnings Alliance for the state Department of Education, also showed that about 39 percent of the state's 12,800 entering kindergartners come from low-income families. In about 19 percent of the classrooms surveyed, at least half of the students had no structured education experience at home or at a preschool prior to kindergarten.

"Where there was less early education experience and lower family income, there was a difference in the entering skills of the children," said Liz Chun, executive director of the Good Beginnings Alliance, a nonprofit aimed at improving early education.

The survey results highlight a need for more quality early education programs that can reach preschool-age children at every income level, advocates say.

Regardless of income or experience, kindergartners at all income levels are lacking early math and literacy skills, such as recognizing a few letters or numbers, or knowing how to open, close and turn pages of a book.

"Out of a classroom of 20, there should be at least 15 students who are deemed ready," Chun said.

However, the survey showed only 19 percent of classrooms met that benchmark in literacy and 26 percent in math.

"That means that the teacher has to start going back and teaching them basic skills," Chun said.

The Department of Education has not generally seen preschool as essential, said spokesman Greg Knudsen.

"The focus has been to help all of the students catch up so that are all performing on the same level at all of the grades," he said.

However, he said, with research showing how active young minds are, it would be a waste not to develop them.

It also could benefit public schools. "If everyone came prepared, I think you'd see some overall improvement in early achievement," he said.

Rep. Lyla Berg, who is shepherding early education bills through the state Legislature, said she wants to make sure kids at every income level have access to quality education experiences.

"The goal is to offer as many opportunities as we can to all 4-year-olds, not just the most needy," she said. "We really believe there are many different settings for a child to be ready for kindergarten and for school."

All of those settings should have quality early education teachers, Berg said.

"A lot of folks in the early education field are not certified," she said. "We'd like to raise that bar."

Berg also would like to see more educational opportunities opened to preschoolers. Part of that would be writing the Pre-Plus program into state law so more providers can put preschools on public school campuses.

"I think the state is moving more toward being proactive in preparing our youngest children for school," said Board of Education Chairwoman Karen Knudsen.

Studies bear out the importance of early intellectual stimulation, she said.

"If our children are ready and prepared to learn by having their curiosity piqued, by engaging in activities that stimulate curiosity, the theory or research shows they will perform better," she said.

Reach Treena Shapiro at tshapiro@honoluluadvertiser.com.

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