Hawaii might halt junior kindergarten
By Loren Moreno
Advertiser Education Writer
Lawmakers are considering a measure that would eliminate junior kindergarten in Hawai'i public schools and move up the date children are eligible to enter kindergarten, changes that would require thousands of late-born 5-year-olds to wait an additional year before they can start school.
When the junior kindergarten program was implemented in 2006, it was hailed as a boost to early education in a state where four out of five students entering school lack basic skills.
However, lawmakers say junior kindergarten has not been effectively implemented at the school level, with junior-K students often mixed in with regular kindergarten classes.
"The effectiveness of junior kindergarten was called into question," said state Sen. Norman Sakamoto, (D-15th, Waima- lu, Airport, Salt Lake), chairman of the Senate Education and Housing Committee. "I personally would like to have a junior kindergarten. ... But if we're not going to effectively help the young ones, perhaps we should ask them to come the following year to school."
Educators respond that junior-K, first tried in 2004, was an unfunded mandate by the Legislature and that most schools could not afford to create separate junior-K classes. Acting Superintendent Kathryn Matayo-shi said the state Department of Education supports the proposed change in the kindergarten eligibility date, to Aug. 1 from the current Dec. 31.
The measure, SB 2068, still has half the legislative session to go, and Sakamoto said it is a work in progress. The bill passed out of the Senate Ways and Means Committee last week.
Despite junior-K's problems, educators, parents and early-education advocates say the program is helpful and that the proposed changes will create a burden for parents at a time when they can least afford it.
If the bill passes, it would not take effect until the 2011-12 school year.
Liz Chun, executive director of the Good Beginnings Alliance, said fewer parents can afford to pay for preschool because of the recession. As a result, changing the date children are eligible to enter kindergarten to Aug. 1 — currently kids must be 5 by Dec. 31 — is going to hit hard, particularly among low-income and at-risk students.
"My concern is as we essentially take out five months worth of students who will be able to start a kindergarten program, they will have to wait a whole year and parents' ability to pay for preschool seems to be slipping," Chun said.
For instance, about 63 percent of students entering Kalihi Elementary in 2008 as kindergarteners went to preschool. In 2009, that number was down to 33 percent, according to the Hawaii State Readiness Assessment compiled by Good Beginnings.
"This really amounts to not only a savings mechanism for the (state DOE), but truly another cut away at an opportunity for a young child to receive education prior to when they are 5 years old," Chun said.
Chun said many families, especially in "vulnerable communities," will not be able to afford to have their child in preschool for the year that they cannot be in kindergarten.
"Having them stay home without access to some kind of early learning will affect their readiness," Chun said.
Raedelle Van Fossen's son, now in first grade at 'Āina Haina Elementary, entered junior kindergarten last year. Van Fossen said junior-K offered her son the jump start he would not have received if he would have had to wait another year before entering school.
"He was at a point where I think preschool was too easy for him academically. He needed the challenge . If we kept him in preschool another year he would have been bored out of his mind. I think there is a need for it," she said.
Less than 18 percent of children enter kindergarten with the literacy standards they need to succeed in school, according to a 2008 report by the state's early- learning education task force. That means the vast majority of children entering school are already behind, the report said.
Nearly 15,000 students are enrolled in kindergarten in Hawai'i public schools this year.
Christina Small, principal of Liholiho Elementary School, one of the schools that piloted junior kindergarten as a separate class back in 2004, said the program has merit.
"We found that some students that were late-born, after half a year they soared," Small said. "We find that socially they need more help, more play, more socialization."
Small said that if the school could no longer early-enroll children born in the latter part of the year, those children would be more likely to stay home without exposure to the skills they need to start classes.
"We would rather have them in school. The most development happens between birth and 5 years old, and they will miss that opportunity," Small said.
At Ala Wai Elementary, junior kindergartners are mixed in with general kindergarten classes.
Charlotte Unni, principal at Ala Wai Elementary, said junior kindergarten students often will enter school without some of the skills they need. They may be unable to sit still in a classroom, may need more social development, and sometimes may have never opened a book.
Often, those same children are ready to move on to first grade with the rest of their class by year's end. Sometimes, junior kindergartners are held back for another year before they advance.
"Some kids in class are two years in kindergarten. Some kids are one year in kindergarten. We found that the kids that are in the senior-K, they blossom. The first year they are a little slower. They aren't developmentally there. By the second year, they are shining," Unni said.
Lisa Uyehara, administrative director for the Early Education Center in Downtown Honolulu, said if lawmakers were to change the entrance date for kindergarten, Hawai'i's public schools would be more in line with local private schools and districts across the country.
Currently, Hawai'i public school students must turn 5 by Dec. 31 to attend kindergarten. That's fairly late compared with private schools, Uyehara said.
"A lot of private schools have very specific cut-off dates. Boys have to be 5 by June, girls have to be 5 by August," she said.
Ben Naki, program director of PACT Early Head Start/Head Start in Kuhio Park Terrace, said the change being contemplated by lawmakers would affect the most vulnerable families.
"More kids will be out there who will need our services, but ... it is not as if we can serve more kids than we are funded for," Naki said.
The Kuhio Park Terrace program has slots for about 200 children, but every year there is a long wait list, he said. He expects that wait list would grow if the kindergarten eligibility date changes.
He also said a number of the programs being pared as a result of the state's budget crisis are affecting children.
The state Department of Human Services is expected to decrease childcare subsidy rates beginning in February, Naki said. That will likely hit more than 1,600 low- to moderate-income families.
"A lot of the programs that are being looked at (for budget cuts) are the early- childhood programs," Naki said.