New rule for kindergarten poses issues for parents, preschools

Some Maui preschools are already filled to the brim with reservations for next school year, when the state’s new kindergarten age law takes effect and an estimated 800 late-born 4-year-olds in Maui County will need to wait another year before entering kindergarten.

Under the law to take effect for the 2014-15 school year, students must be 5 years old by July 31 to enter kindergarten the same year. Previously, children could enter kindergarten if they turned 5 by Dec. 31. The new law affects around 5,000 children in the state.

The law challenges preschools, the state and especially parents because late-born 4-year-olds will take up additional space in preschool programs and there will be less space available for younger children. The island’s already crowded preschools will have no relief, and some parents will be stuck paying around $8,000 for another year of preschool.

“Right now, we are completely full and cannot take any more children than we have. What we will have to do is try to accommodate more 4-year-olds, leaving less space for the younger children,” said Melanie Nishita, the director at Kahului Baptist Preschool.

The school is at its capacity at 72 students, with 16 late-born 4-year-olds that the school is looking to accommodate next academic year.

Nishita said that normally the school would have around 50 openings for new children for the upcoming school year. But, with the new law, the school has only 32 such openings, and there are 110 students currently on the school’s waiting list.

It’s the same for some smaller preschools. For example, the 14- to 15-student Kansha Preschool has only three to four spaces open for the next academic year.

Director Charlene Doi said normally seven or eight spaces would be open for new students because that would be around the number of students exiting the preschool. But with the new law, three or four of her students will not be able to attend kindergarten.

Like many other preschools in Central Maui, Kansha has always had a waiting list. The new law exacerbates the situation.

“We have children who are late born that are filling the spaces. It’s kind of a bittersweet thing. We definitely feel bad for the parents because it is an additional year (of tuition and preschool),” Doi said.

Some early-childhood education officials say the average cost of preschool is $8,000 a year per child in Hawaii.

Joey Mizufuka, director at Kihei Baptist Preschool, said that some parents “are shocked they have to pay tuition again” for another year of preschool.

She added that she is making sure parents know about financial aid options.

The law impacts the Kihei preschool because many families are not able to afford preschool, so enrollment is low. Also Kihei residents who work in Central Maui prefer to have their children attend preschool near their workplaces, Mizufuka said.

Mizufuka said, with the new law, around five to six students could remain at the preschool, which is “good for us.”

Currently, Kihei Baptist has 16 students. It is licensed for 32.

Doi, who has more than 30 years of experience with preschools, said every preschool is different when it comes to registration deadlines and applications, but it is usually during February and March that that most schools register children for the next year as well as figure out their enrollments.

GG Weisenfeld, director of the state’s Executive Office on Early Learning, said “now is the time” for parents to look into preschool as well as other types of care for their children, no matter if the child is an older 4-year-old or younger.

Now is also the time for parents to inquire about and research financial assistance options, she said.

“You don’t want to wait until summer to find what is going on,” she said.

At least several financial aid programs have application deadlines in April.

Weisenfeld said “it’s hard to say” how many families might need financial assistance should their child need additional child care or preschool because of the new law.

But she added that it’s better to apply for the aid even if families think they might not qualify, because their application information can be helpful to the state in determining who needs financial assistance.

Of the estimated 5,000 children statewide that will be held back from advancing to kindergarten, Weisenfeld said 40 percent of those families have an annual income of $53,000 or less for a family of four; 45 percent have an annual income of just above $53,000 to $132,000; and 15 percent have an annual income of more than $132,000.

Weisenfeld said that the lowest income group and a portion of the middle-income group – or those families that make under $67,000 a year – could qualify for assistance through the state-funded Preschool Open Doors program. It provides preschool tuition subsidies to qualified families.

The existing program received $6 million from the state Legislature last year, she said.

Depending on who applies, Weisenfeld said, the program could help 1,200 children. One of the program’s top priorities is to assist those late-born 4-year-old children.

There are other programs in the works as well.

The state is awaiting final decisions from the Legislature on whether $3 million will be provided for a pre-kindergarten program that would operate 32 classrooms on 30 state Department of Education elementary school campuses.

The program would reach out to rural areas where there are no or few preschools. In Maui County, the programs, if funded, would be located in Hana and on Lanai as well as at Kaunakakai Elementary School.

In addition, Weisenfeld said, the Legislature could appropriate $1 million for family-child interaction learning programs for parents and children to learn together in a preschool setting in order to prepare for kindergarten.

Last week, a rally was held at the state Capitol to urge lawmakers to fund a bill to support the interaction programs.

According to ‘Eleu, a collective of Native Hawaiian early-childhood agencies that organized the rally, the estimated average cost of preschool in Hawaii is $8,000 a year per child, compared to $2,400 for a child in a family-child interaction learning program.

In an announcement, ‘Eleu added that the family-child programs also “fill in the gap” in early-learning services for children from infants to 5-year-olds because these programs are “strategically” located in rural settings and undeserved areas.

The family-child programs give families affordable choices, ‘Eleu added.

In addition to family-child interaction learning programs and preschool opportunities, officials say licensed child care providers who work in their homes also are needed, especially since younger children may not be able to attend preschool because of the overflow of older students affected by the kindergarten age change.

“We really need more licensed child care providers. It’s been slow across the state. We really need them now because of this,” said Ailina Laborte, Maui coordinator for PATCH, or People Attentive to Children. The group assists with child care referrals.

“I feel worried, where are those younger kids going to go? We don’t want anyone to be displaced,” she said.

Currently, there are 84 state-licensed child care providers on Maui island. There were 97 providers about three years ago, Laborte added.

Around 85 to 90 percent, or “maybe more,” of those child care providers are already handling their limit of children.

Laborte said she hopes all parents know about the change of the kindergarten age and that the Department of Education’s junior kindergarten program, which had served late-born 4-year-olds, will be discontinued after the current school year.

The junior kindergarten program was eliminated in the same legislative bill in 2012 that makes the new kindergarten age effective this year.

Although there are hurdles with the new law, Weisenfeld said that studies show there are benefits to having students enter kindergarten when they are older.

For example, while students may be prepared academically for kindergarten, Weisenfeld said research shows they may not be ready socially or emotionally.

“Often they are catching up,” she said of the late-born students. “We don’t want the children to come in who are young, who have a hard time sitting, have a hard time listening, have a hard time writing their name.”

Weisenfeld said most states already have implemented similar age rules for children entering kindergarten.

Officials at independent schools on Maui, including Maui Preparatory Academy and Doris Todd Christian Academy, say they already have earlier cutoff dates for enrolling children into kindergarten programs.

Nevertheless, some parents believe their late-born child is ready for kindergarten, which poses the question of what other kinds of academic skills or programs their child can benefit from. Parents also say juggling finances is another hurdle.

Parent Mark Roy, whose son Nikko has to go to preschool for another year because he is late born, said that the new law is a “challenge” for the family.

He said Nikko is “eager and very much academically ready to start the ‘big boys’ school,” but he must remain in preschool for a third year. The family has already been spending a lot of time on helping him with reading and math at home.

“Based on my own observations, the change has also made it very challenging for the preschools on Maui as they have had to adjust as best they can (based on limited resources) to try and accommodate those children who are being held back from entering kindergarten,” Roy wrote in an email interview.

Roy also has to deal with the financial side effects of the change.

“The new law has very much so affected our personal finances. We will now have to pay another year’s worth of preschool tuition fees, which amounts to something like $8,000. This is not a small expense,” Roy said.

The financial aspects of the law change may affect families’ other children as well. Rowena Dagdag-Andaya said that she and her husband want to enroll their youngest child in a toddler day care program, but they are still weighing the options because they have to pay for a third year of preschool for their oldest son, Trey, who is late born.

“It’ll be expensive to send both of them to preschool, but we’ve seen how Trey has benefited from preschool and its value, and see early-childhood education as an investment,” she said.

But overall, Dagdag-Andaya said, she and her husband have mixed feelings about the law.

Although they believe Trey is ready for kindergarten, they do not mind keeping him back one more year because that means extra time with him before he goes to college.

She said Trey has benefited from his experiences at Little Explorers preschool, where there’s been “significant growth socially and cognitively.”

On the flip side, Dagdag-Andaya said she was disappointed that there are no other choices available for those who don’t meet the age cutoff. The choice comes down to whether to send their child to preschool for three years or not.

A proposed “School Readiness” program, which was discussed in a bill during the 2013 Legislative session, failed to pass. It would have set up a state program to assist the late-born children.

Instead, the bill funded $6 million for the Preschool Open Doors program for financial assistance.

In this November’s election, voters will be able to cast ballots on a constitutional amendment to allow public funding for private early-childhood education programs.

If passed, the constitutional amendment could help more families pay for preschool for their late-born 4-year-olds.

But, for now, at Kahului Baptist Preschool, Nishita said the school already has begun a pre-kindergarten classroom structure to prepare for this upcoming school year.

“This curriculum is more challenging than our preschool curriculum. We hope this curriculum will challenge our late-born children to the level they are when they need to begin (kindergarten),” Nishita said.

While she acknowledges there are a “few girls” who will be held back even though they are ready for kindergarten, she said the new curriculum addresses these students as well.

She said she hopes their studies will “keep them as engaged and challenged as they would be in kindergarten.”

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at