In her State of the State speech, Gov. Linda Lingle referred to public education in Hawaii as a "broken" system and put school reforms at the top of her agenda. Today, the Star-Bulletin begins a four-part series, "Schools Under Stress," by education reporter Susan Essoyan, who investigates why teaching and learning at Hawaii's public schools can be more difficult than it should be. The report, which will continue periodically throughout the year, also looks at possible solutions to improve schools.
For many Hawaii students, the problems start at the first step, kindergarten. Children who start off behind tend to lag for the rest of their school years. While some advocates argue for raising Hawaii's kindergarten age, one school on Maui has come up with a novel solution.
Giving kids a good start
The youngest struggle | One school's solution
Searching for textbooksHigher prices have made one classroom staple, textbooks, hard to come by. And even when they are available, many books can be decades old. One estimate has state schools in need of 134,000 textbooks.
Taking care of the basicsSometimes the shortages are even more basic. Some schools across the state do not have enough toilet paper and other supplies to keep bathrooms stocked. While there are cries for the Legislature to do something, a few schools are not waiting and are trying to fix the problem themselves.
Poor schools finding a wayOnly two of the state's 100-plus high-poverty schools have reached their goals for student achievement four years in a row. We look at a unique program those two schools have in common.
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THE STRESS FACTOR
Youngest students struggleAaron Shimoda, who turned 4 on Dec. 15, is too young to start kindergarten this fall at most public schools on the mainland or at private schools in Hawaii. But he can go to Moanalua Elementary.
Some legislators favor raising theIntroduction
kindergarten age, but opponents say
keeping children out of school longer
will not correct shortfalls in performance
One school's solution
By Susan Essoyan
His parents just don't know if that would be fair to him in the long run.
"When you look ahead, you know that when he's in high school, he'll be competing against boys as much as a year and a half older in the private schools," said his mother, Lori. "The bottom line is the age should be standardized."
Why teaching and learning at Hawaii's public schools can be more difficult than it should be.
With Hawaii's public school students under growing pressure to perform against their counterparts across the country, some legislators want to raise the state's kindergarten age in hopes of leveling the playing field. Children in Hawaii must turn 5 by Dec. 31 of the year they start public school.
Only six other states have deadlines between Dec. 1 and Jan. 1, and one is raising it next year. Most states use an August or September cutoff for kindergarten entry. Several states leave the decision up to local school districts. Private schools in Hawaii generally require boys to reach age 5 by June 30, and girls by Sept. 30, because boys mature more slowly than girls.
"If we're going to be compared, we have to all be apples, instead of apples and oranges," said Carol Nafus, president of the Hawaii State Parent Teacher Student Association, which supports a bill just introduced by Sen. Norman Sakamoto (D, Salt Lake-Foster Village), to move the date up to Aug. 1 by the 2006-2007 school year.
A few months can make a big difference at that age in school readiness, advocates say, and struggling in kindergarten sometimes sets kids up for trouble later.
But opponents argue that keeping kids out of school longer is not the answer to shortfalls in student performance. The teachers' union contends that too many of Hawaii's children miss out on early education already, and delaying school entrance would just compound the problem.
"Because our parents are not able to afford preschool, the children are just going to come back a year older, after having done nothing," said Karen Ginoza, president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association. "We'd rather have them at school, teaching them and getting them to learn even a little, rather than at home watching TV."
Data show that late-born children in Hawaii's public schools tend to score lower on the Stanford Achievement Test than early-born children in the same grade. (See graphs.) The gap is most pronounced in the lower grades but persists into secondary school, with boys born in the last quarter of the year scoring lowest overall.
"It is not a trivial difference," said Selvin Chin-Chance, head of the state Department of Education's Test Development Section. "From the testing perspective, the kindergarten age should be changed to make us more in line with the majority of states."
"It's one of the few variables that we do have some control over," he added. "We can't control poverty, or parentage, or English-language ability," all factors that can pull down test scores.
The federal No Child Left Behind law, which took effect last year, monitors schools based on student test scores, and imposes sanctions on those that fall short.
Delaying kindergarten means that some families will have to pay for another year of preschool or scramble for care at home. Outcry over that prospect prompted the Legislature to table a proposal last year to move the deadline for turning 5 up to June 30, effective in the 2005-2006 school year. Instead, legislators asked the superintendent to study the impact of such a move.
In a report to the 2003 Legislature, the Department of Education concludes that moving the deadline up by six months to June 30 would displace 6,300 students and "place undue burdens on families and the community." It recommended instead phasing in the change gradually over three years to minimize the number of students affected.
Sakamoto's Senate Bill 17 would move the deadline to Oct. 16 in the 2005-2006 school year and to Aug. 1 the following year, and no further.
The question of when a child is ready to start kindergarten depends on a host of factors, including age, gender, developmental maturity and home environment, experts say. Every child is different, and parents should judge case by case.
Cynthia Ward, whose son Misha was born on Dec. 28, put him in kindergarten when he was 4 and has no regrets. Now 12, he is a seventh grader at Kawananakoa Middle School.
"If he had had to wait for another year, it would have been disastrous for him," she said. "He does really well in school. He would have been bored."
Ward, a professor of English at the University of Hawaii, opposes changing the kindergarten age on the grounds that academic success depends on "more education, not less."
"If they want to get the scores up, they should think about instituting a free preschool," she said. "I think people would even be willing to pay more taxes for something like that, although the politicians are afraid of doing it."
Elisabeth Chun, executive director of the Good Beginnings Alliance, said the availability of preschool is key.
"We have one of the latest entry dates for kindergarten, but those other states fund pre-kindergarten, or they fund to a greater degree programs where children can go to preschool," she said. "If we really want to close the achievement gap, then we have to help parents prepare their children, which means investing in preschool."
She said if the state did that and ensured that kindergarten was developmentally appropriate, "then changing the age could be a no brainer."
In recent decades, kindergarten has become more academically rigorous, requiring kids to sit at their desks and pay attention, a challenge for 4-year-old boys in particular.
"Kindergarten used to be about socialization, using big muscle groups, playing with blocks, fingerpainting and the like," said Dean Liskum, who recently retired after more than 20 years as a counselor in Hawaii public schools. "Now, within the first month, students are expected to perform paper and pencil tasks."
"The number of students that begin to fail is significant," he said. "Even as early as kindergarten, students psychologically begin to drop out."
Liskum analyzed statewide data in 1998 and 2001 and found that nearly 25 percent more students born in the last half of the calendar year were classified as learning disabled than those born in the first half of the year. The figures are weighted to take into account normal fluctuations in the percentage of children born each month.
"If we don't come to the starting line with the same level of maturity as mainland students, how can we be expected to compete with them on standardized tests?" he asked. "We will always be behind if we don't change the enrollment date."
Shimoda said she and her husband, Wade, are "flip-flopping" on whether to put Aaron in kindergarten, which starts in late July at Moanalua, or keep him at the Early Education Center for another year.
A counselor at Moanalua told them Aaron could go to kindergarten twice, if need be. "But we thought that was not a good idea, because he'll see all his friends going up to the older class," said Wade Shimoda.
"I wish the public schools would just raise the age," Lori added. "Don't procrastinate."
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