PRIMARY SCHOOL ADJUSTMENT
DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Child aide Virginia Rose gives a reassuring hug to second-grader Mary Garrison, 7, at Jefferson Elementary School in Waikiki. The school's Primary School Adjustment Project (PSAP) has received national recognition.
In their world
A highly praised program that helps kids early on is being lost to school-level budgets
A boy had horrible nightmares because of a family background of drugs, homelessness and hunger, and his appointed guardian had no place to turn for help.
The guardian, Danita Maluyo, said her son's nightmares subsided after three to four months in Kuhio Elementary School's Primary School Adjustment Project. He also began to make friends in class easier.
"It's just incredible," Maluyo said. "I can't express to you how perfect PSAP is."
Squeezed for money, however, many elementary schools are dropping or reducing the program some parents feel "is the best thing schools have to offer," said Maluyo, appointed guardian for four sons.
University of Hawaii special-education professor Dennis McDougall predicts "it will come back to bite" schools that drop or reduce the program, a one-on-one prevention and early-intervention project for children from kindergarten through third grade.
"What would have been little issues will end up as special-education referrals," he said. "I've seen it happen before."
PSAP catches little social, emotional and behavioral adjustment problems before serious problems develop, McDougall said. One criticism in the special-education field is that kids sometimes are identified too late through the formal process, he said.
McDougall said he has consulted with eight or nine schools on the project, including Kuhio and Jefferson, and "kids love it." It lessens negative behavior and has a positive effect on all aspects of a child's school life, he said.
The program is based on what started as a primary mental health project in Rochester, N.Y., about 45 years ago. Now called the Primary Project, it has been recognized nationally by the surgeon general, the U.S. Department of Education's expert panel for safe and drug-free schools and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
All of Hawaii's 180 elementary schools have had the program since 1997, with state funding for a full-time child aide to work with the students and a half-time home-school liaison to assist parents, said Lynn Meguro-Reich, Honolulu District PSAP resource teacher.
Data from the program "is awesome," she said. "We have parent testimony. It will touch your heart."
However, under new school-level budgeting this year, 14 schools decided to fold the program, and many others reduced project personnel and services, Meguro-Reich said.
Among schools hanging on to the project despite budget troubles are Jefferson and Kuhio elementary schools. They were among 13 schools statewide that met rigorous standards for national certification of the projects in May by the Children's Institute of Rochester, N.Y.
DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Child aides such as Jefferson Elementary School's Virginia Rose, shown with Mary Garrison, 7, help children who have problems with social or emotional adjustment in their early years at school. The Primary School Adjustment Project has been in all Hawaii elementary schools since 1997, but 14 schools have dropped the program, and many more reduced staffing and services under new school-level budgeting introduced this year.
Jefferson Principal Vivian Hee said the project helps children get a healthy start in school by providing a caring adult to work with them. Research shows that if students do well in the primary grades, they will have an easier time throughout their school years, she said.
Kuhio Principal Evelyn Aczon Hao said it's a hard choice to keep the program, because her school budget is short $95,000 this year. But the project "is what the Department of Education is all about. We want to be preventive." It reaches children who may be a little withdrawn, a little too active or have difficulty socializing, she said.
"These are children that just need that extra care at the very beginning, from kindergarten through third grade."
But, Hao added, "How do you measure something that doesn't happen because you've prevented it? That's what makes it so difficult to persuade others to keep it."
Kuhio's PSAP child aide, Lori Takahata, said it's sad that schools are doing away with the program, because children do better academically when their social and emotional needs are met, and the project builds life skills. "We are positive role models. ... It's a very impacting program."
Kuhio's home liaison aide, Patricia Rodrigues, works with parents also to find resources they might need, such as shelter, food and clothing or bus passes, Takahata said. "We try and reach the parent, not only to make the child comfortable in school, but to make parents comfortable so they can come and speak to school staff."
Michiyo and Hiroshi Mitsui moved here from Tokyo in January and enrolled their 7-year-old son, Masanari, and 9-year-old daughter, Sayaka, in Jefferson Elementary School. Their son had no problems, but Sayaka had trouble adjusting to the new environment, new people and new language, Michiyo said.
"At first she was crying. She didn't want to go to school."
The Primary Project was recommended, and with help from Virginia Rose, full-time educational assistant, and Norma Santiago, the half-time assistant, Sayaka "changed a lot," Mitsui said.
Although Sayaka graduated from the project last semester at the end of third grade, "she is still feeling like Mrs. Rose is her mother," Mitsui said. "Mrs. Rose was always trying to make my daughter feel special. This woman helped my daughter to feel confident about herself."
For example, she said, Rose encouraged the child to get involved in a school event for students with special talent because she knows traditional Japanese dance. "Students came to her and said it was beautiful. She was so happy about that."
Maile Kapuniai, the project supervisor at Jefferson, said children visit the playroom once a week for 12 to 15 weeks for play with the child aides.
"It helps children express themselves, and gives them a sense of empowerment because they get to choose what they want to do," Kapuniai said. "They're in their world. Children are best at play, when they have that relationship -- one-on-one with caring adults at school. When things come up in the future, they'll be more able to deal with it."
Maluyo said she began to see a change in her son, now 5, after a few weeks in Kuhio Elementary School's Primary Project with Takahata and Rodrigues.
"If he had a feeling he could not verbally communicate, he was taught to draw out his feelings, what made him sad, what made him happy."
He makes his younger brothers draw pictures to explain their feelings, and also makes her draw a picture once in a while, she said. "He literally goes and gets me a box of crayons, and if he sees me draw angry, he says, 'Draw why you're angry.'
"Miss Lori has made a huge impact on him, because she's always giving a positive influence. He says she's always smiling," Maluyo said. His nightmares subsided after three to four months, and he began to make friends easier in class, she said.
She said it literally "took a village" to help her with her four sons. Takahata, Rodrigues and teachers at Kuhio have given her great parenting advice and resources, she said.