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With lack of teachers, preschool program keeps some centers closed

Maui Economic Opportunity Head Start preschool teacher Kathy Matsuoka patrols the playgound Thursday morning in Kahului. She said she has been at the job for 22 years, and while she enjoys it, the pandemic has brought many challenges, including staffing shortages. “Ever since COVID hit it has been hard,” she said. “There were a lot of challenges. We lost a lot of staff.” Head Start has had to close three of its 13 centers due to a lack of teachers. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photos

A local nonprofit’s preschool program has enough federal funding to serve 219 children this school year but only has the capacity for 160 due to the closure of three centers and lack of teachers.

Three more lead teachers are needed to reopen three of Maui Economic Opportunity’s 13 Head Start centers across Maui County, including Haiku Head Start and Wailuku B Head Start programs at Haiku and Wailuku Elementary Schools, and Kahului B at Luana Gardens.

Preschool teacher Desiree Barut is just one of eight lead educators remaining at Head Start as the first week of classes got underway this week.

“The reason why I like being a teacher is because I like interacting with kids,” said Barut on Thursday after school via phone. “Even with my own kids growing up, I see the difference when there’s an adult figure in their life. It doesn’t even have to be a teacher, as long as it’s somebody that’s there and you can come to and be comfortable with and have that relationship. They need to have that person to look up to.”

MEO Head Start serves eligible children between the ages of 3 and 5 from families living on Maui and Molokai, including low-income households, those experiencing homelessness, foster children or families on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or Supplemental Security Income.

A youngster pedals around the Head Start playground Thursday.

All other families are eligible by meeting poverty income guidelines established by the federal income table. Head Start also enrolls and serves children with special needs.

Debbi Amaral, director of Early Childhood Services, said Thursday morning that “it’s disappointing” for Haiku residents in particular because that location only has one Head Start program, which “makes it very challenging.”

To honor the families that were already accepted into this year’s program, MEO moved the eligible keiki and families to Makawao B near Kalama Intermediate.

“Fortunately, the families were very willing to drive from Haiku to Makawao B to receive services, so it is an impact to the community, but we’re doing everything possible to try and meet their needs based on the resources that we currently have,” Amaral said.

Every preschool is valued, she said, but the Head Start program is unique in that it targets communities that are financially challenged and underserved.

Head Start is designed to help families build a strong nurturing foundation within their household, but to also provide additional access to resources that could help them with employment, medical and dental needs, and nutrition.

There are about 60 students this year who may not have access to the benefits that the Head Start programs provide due to staffing levels.

However, the challenges of recruiting or holding on to teachers is multi-faceted, beginning with the fact that “there is a specialized criteria and set of qualifications that an individual has to have,” Amaral said.

The qualifications for early childhood development are very different from the state Department of Education, so finding people to meet the criteria has been difficult.

Firstly, MEO teachers are licensed by the Department of Human Services. Also, an individual must have a Child Development Associates credential, or state certificate that meets or exceeds a CDA credential and leads to an associate or bachelor’s degree in early childhood education, or complete minimum education requirements within two years from hire date.

The full-time position pays between $18.76 and $23.04 per hour depending on the individual’s qualifications and experience. The low hourly rates have made it challenging to recruit, too, she said, but there are efforts by the county and state to make adjustments.

“I believe we’ve been really working on, number one, awareness of the importance of the position, and number two, to recognize the work that our early childhood professionals do and increase their salary because it’s difficult to attract individuals when their pay may be lower in comparison to other entry-level positions,” she said.

MEO lost three lead teachers during the COVID-19 pandemic as they pursued different fields or left for other personal reasons.

Amaral added that the pandemic overall created a lot of stress on the staff as they adjusted to new protocols, transitioned to distance learning and then back to in-person classes.

This isn’t just a challenge at MEO, though. Other partner programs are also struggling to fill different positions in different capacities now that the school year is back up and running, she added.

“I know we’re not the only program that is struggling to secure, especially individuals with specific qualifications,” she said. “It’s really challenging right now.”

Being a teacher to young children and supporting families in need has been rewarding for Barut despite the challenges.

She found her calling in early childhood development and education after her son, who’s now in high school, had a good experience with MEO’s Head Start preschool program.

“Throughout the school year, I just saw fun things happening and my son never cried,” Barut said. “Every time he was always like ‘bye, mom,’ like it was the best day of his life to go, so I knew it was just a really good place for him and I always tried to volunteer whenever I could.”

The classes also helped her with parenting skills and methods to practice and utilize at home.

She explained how she became inspired to offer that same educational experience for keiki as well as a safe and positive place for families to learn and grow together.

MEO was Barut’s first lead teaching role, where she has now worked for about five years out of the Kahului A and Wailuku A Head Start buildings. She has 20 students enrolled in her Wailuku A classroom.

Though the three vacant centers are ready to go with proper licensing in the event that there is a new lead teacher hired, it would take at least a month for the individual to go through the hiring process, prep the classroom, confirm the family’s interest for eligible students, conduct parent orientation and so forth.

Those interested in lead teaching opportunities may call (808) 249-2990 or visit meoinc.org and click on the “careers” tab.

* Dakota Grossman can be reached at dgrossman@mauinews.com.

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