Early Childhood in the State of Hawai’i- Inspiring Focus on Cultural Equity, Inter-generational Change, System Change, and Most Underserved Children

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A Reflection from the Early Childhood Funders’ Collaborative Hawai’i Study Tour by Isabelle Hau, Investment Partner, and Vinice Davis, Venture Partner, Omidyar Network


Thanks to the leadership of longstanding Early Childhood Funders’ Collaborative (ECFC) member and host Al Castle, CEO of the Samuel N. & Mary Castle Foundation, and the flawless coordination of the ECFC Executive Director Shannon Rudisill, a group of 27 ECFC members representing 25 foundations visited Hawai’i on November 5-7, 2018 for a study tour.

With any study comes rich learnings, which we thought would be good to document – as reflections for those of us who were fortunate to be part of this unique experience and as summary for those unable to attend.

1. Inspiring focus on Cultural Equity

Hawai’i is a state with tremendous racial, language/culture diversity and wealth inequalities. The group visited several programs that not only fully embraced cultural differences on the islands of Hawaii, but promoted cultural equity.  Cultural equity embodies the values, policies, and practices that ensure that all people—including but not limited to those who have been historically underrepresented—are represented in the development, access, distribution and delivery of policy, resources and programs.  Two particularly interesting examples include:

Promoting parent choice in programs – The Community Learning Center at Mā’ili powered by Kamehameha Schools offers 12 different options to parents, based on their preferences.  They programs varied in their focus: Some programs are fully emergent in Native Hawaiian, some are bi-lingual, some are part-time with a gradation of parental engagement expectations, some are full-time, some focused on STEAM, some on play-based learning, etc.  We had the privilege to visit six programs out of those 12 –(PIDF Ka Pa’alana, Punana Leo, Kamehameha Schools PreK, Keiki O Ka’Aina, and INPEACE).  The diversity of the programs offered in a single location was strikingly different from most early learning centers on mainland that only offer one type of programming to families and children.  Choice has been fundamentally embedded in the Kamehameha Schools as a main attribute for representation and inclusion of diverse families and educators.

Promoting local culture as a mechanism for parent engagement and deeper child learning as a result – Across all the programs we visited, Hawaiian language and culture were prevalent.  It was evident that with programs embracing culturally relevant content and language, parents and grandparents were meaningfully more engaged, with evidence that greater parental engagement leads to better children outcomes. It was inspiring to see the intentional engagement of fathers in particular in some programs.

BRINGING LEARNINGS NATIONWIDE – In 2017, there were 20 million children in the US under the age of five, and 50.4 percent of them were children of color.  In addition, 16 percent of children entering kindergarten in 2014-2015 were non-English speakers, and this number has been growing. The model we saw in Hawai’i has a lot to offer for the rest of the US. What if early childhood programs were to offer classrooms with multiple options for parents?

What if early childhood programs were fully embracing culturally relevant content? Where are the other bright spots in the US taking similar approaches?

2. Inter-Generational Emphasis

The program Tutu & Me is a traveling preschool that invites grandparents (‘tutu’) to participate in enriching activities with their grandchildren starting at infant age groups.  Tutu & Me is traveling, with all activity materials and supplies packed and organized in a traveling van and brought onsite for each session. Adult caregivers (grandparents or parents) sign up annually for sessions that are held twice each week. The sessions feature developmentally appropriate activities, including play at different stations that emphasize cognitive, social-emotional learning, and physical mobility. Adults are encouraged to fully participant in the playful learnings with their child(ren). Tutu & Me is supported by evidence – delivering better children outcomes through the program, including statistically relevant “changes in the language and engagement factors for the younger children”.

BRINGING LEARNINGS NATIONWIDE – Tutu & Me was inspiring as it leverages a local site to provide quality early childhood services, engages multiple generations, and meets the community where they are in a joyful manner. Tutu & Me has been replicated in other states.  There is a lot more potential to leverage community centers or libraries to engage with parents and grandparents on the mainland. Libraries offer free classes that attract families, care providers and children- although those typically are not structured as a curriculum and not consistently offered in all communities.

How could this evidenced-based program be scaled nationwide and tailored to community norms and cultures under local leadership?

3. System Change in Action

LEARNINGS FROM HAWAI’I – Hawaii has sought to adopt a system change approach to early childhood, with concerted philanthropic and policy maker leadership.  The Director of the Executive Office of Early Learning position and cross-stakeholder Early Learning Board at the State of Hawai’i are examples of those efforts. System change has not been and will not be a linear process (as an example, there was a divisive failed attempt to amend the constitution). We were inspired by how the vision of Princess Pauahi for education for Hawaiian children continues to profoundly impact thousands of learners, and how increasing resources toward early childhood are been allocated toward quality education under a shared aspiration of quality education for all children.

BRINGING LEARNINGS NATIONWIDE – The island nature and history of Hawai’i makes the state quite unique.  However, some principles regarding system change apply to other states or communities in terms of leadership and collective impact vision and work.  The co-creation of a shared vision for the future, the identification of leverage points to drive change, experiment and learn from pilot projects, the appointment and empowerment of leaders, such as the Director of Executive Office of Early Learning, are all learnings applicable across communities throughout the US.  The visit in Hawai’i also reminded us about the importance of relationship building and compassion at the core of system change.

Our visit brought us to some innovative programs serving the most underserved children – homeless children and children with special needs.


LEARNINGS FROM HAWAI’I – Hawai’i has the highest percentage of homelessness in the United States.  We had an opportunity to meet with the amazing team at Partners in Development Foundation – Ka Pa’alana Homeless Family Education Program that has served 5,000 homeless and at-risk families over the past 11+ years.  The program has become the first-of-its kind preschool to become National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC)-accredited. It delivers high quality early childhood and equips parents to be the children’s first and most important teacher, while empowering adults toward greater self-sufficiency.

ECFC members had an opportunity to experience the beautiful science preschool curriculum of the traveling program (‘Ike No‘eau) that leverages culturally relevant activities, such as fishing, to ignite children’s interest and family engagement as a result, and local materials (e.g., sea shells) for developmentally appropriate activities.

We also had the chance to meet with aligned funding partners supporting this effort – US Department of Education, Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Kamehameha Schools, the US Department of Health & Human Services through the Administration for Native Americans (ANA), the Samuel N. and Mary Castle Foundation, and Aloha United Way.

BRINGING LEARNINGS NATIONWIDE – Nationwide, over 50 percent of children living in federally-funded homeless shelters are under the age of five, and therefore early childhood education can have a significant positive impact on their development and future academic achievement. Head Start serves as a critical provider of services for young children who might be homeless, although Head Start and especially Early Head Start for our youngest learners remains largely insufficient relative to the needs.  The National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth (NAEHCY) has best-in-class resources on programs and policies for young children.  How could we see more integrated and quality approaches like the Ka Pa’alana program being provided as a resource for homeless children and families nationwide? Is there more we can do to coordinate as funders around this particular demographic in need?



The group also visited the Milestones program that focuses on a transdisciplinary approach to pediatric health, aiding families to improve care for children with disabilities and neurological conditions in Hawai’i.  Milestones provides high quality medical assessments and treatments for children with disabilities, inter-island and rural care with clinics, medical centers and community providers, child-centered and family-focused therapy for children on the autism spectrum and comprehensive, and transdisciplinary care for children ages birth to five with behavioral conditions.


While there are screening processes and treatments offered throughout the US for young children with special needs, how can we learn from the Milestones program’s values of Aloha – Compassion, Pono – Integrity, Lokahi – Togetherness and Ka Pule Kahea – Innovation?

Hawai’i has deep core values that were honored throughout our visit: hospitality, stewardship, teamwork, humility, and honoring the dignity of others.  The two values we would like to leave with include:

(1)   ‘Ike Loa – The value of learning – to know well.  To seek knowledge and wisdom.  This is such as critical value for all of us as funders, as we need to keep learning from others (especially from those we’re hoping to serve), from each other, and reflect on success and failures in our work.

(2)   Kuleana – One’s personal sense of responsibility – ‘I accept my responsibilities, and I will be held accountable’. Philanthropy holds a certain level of power that comes with deep responsibilities as risk capital for impact at scale for children and families.


Photo credit: HIchildreninline 1

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