Schools will see decline in kindergartners

Public elementary schools across the state will see around 5,500 fewer kindergartners this upcoming school year, beginning Friday when a new law goes into effect.

Aimed at ensuring that students starting school are mature enough to thrive academically and socially, the law postpones kindergarten for late-born 4-year-olds. Previously, students could be enrolled if they were 5 years old by Dec. 31 in the year they enter school. Now, they must be 5 years old by July 31. Students who are 4 years old from Aug. 1 to Dec. 31 need to wait until next school year.

The state is expected to see around 10,500 kindergartners this school year. That forecast is down from last year’s enrollment of 16,600. (Fewer births and not the new law led to a decline of 500 students from last year’s total, DOE officials said.)

Maui County numbers were not immediately available, but one Maui elementary school principal said her kindergarten enrollment would likely be just half of what it was last year.

At Kahului Elementary, Principal Fern Markgraf said 109 kindergartners were enrolled as of last week. The current total is 101 students fewer, or 48 percent, of last year’s enrollment of 210 kindergartners at the school.

Even though the law will drop her kindergarten enrollment, Markgraf said there are some positive aspects.

“The intent of the law is really good,” she said, noting that it’s positive to have more mature students in kindergarten.

State officials have cited studies showing the benefits of having older students entering kindergarten. While students may be prepared academically, research shows they may not be ready socially or emotionally. Most states have implemented similar age rules for children entering kindergarten.

Markgraf said the “difficult part” was that the change comes “all at once.”

She pointed out that the change cuts off students who are born in the last five months of the year from entering kindergarten.

Some parents were unaware of the new law, even though there were news reports and public outreach, Markgraf said. She noted that there probably is not enough preschool space to accommodate all the displaced children and that not all parents can afford preschool.

Nevertheless, even with her lower enrollment, Markgraf and other public school principals around Maui County will start welcoming their students on Friday, the opening day for the 2014-15 school year for most public schools. (Parents should contact their child’s school to check on opening days because some schools may vary.)

Aside from the changes in kindergarten age requirements, kindergarten is mandatory beginning this year, under a measure signed in May by Gov. Neil Abercrombie.

Alvin Shima, complex area superintendent for the Baldwin-Kekaulike-Maui complex, stressed that parents with children of kindergarten age must register them in school. He recommended parents who haven’t registered to visit their district school.

Other changes this year include longer instructional times for middle and high school students and less assessment test-taking for students, Shima said.

Through state legislation, Shima said, middle and high schools now have a requirement for more classroom instructional time. The time will increase from 1,525 minutes per week (around 25.4 hours) to 1,650 minutes per week (27.5 hours), Shima said.

Elementary hours will remain the same with 1,525 minutes, he added.

The change could modify things such as recess and lunchtime.

But school hours will not change, Shima said.

“It’s good,” Shima said of the change. “We are always looking for ways to increase time for instruction. I think it’s a good thing.”

In opposing increased classroom time, the Hawaii State Teachers Association has maintained that student achievement is affected by factors other than instructional time, and the union has said the mandatory classroom instruction would be impossible to implement.

Also this year, schools will have a “new assessment tool,” allowing students to take only one test at the end of the year. In previous years, students had three chances to pass a special assessment test, Shima said.

“One of the things people complain about is that (the students) are being assessed so much. I think this is one of the ways they are trying to cut back on the assessments the schools have to do, (to allow for) more time for teaching,” Shima said.

Because there will be fewer kindergartners, Shima acknowledged that some teachers could be displaced, but so far he hasn’t heard of any problems. “Schools are still looking for teachers,” he said.

Markgraf said her number of kindergarten classes has gone down from eight to six. But no teachers lost jobs because they were transferred either to other schools or to vacant positions.

Next year, kindergarten enrollment is expected to rise again, she said, creating higher demand for teachers.

“Kindergarten teachers are not easy to find as some (other) grades,” she said.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at