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Honolulu preschool closure will worsen early education shortage, advocates say

After 36 years, Seagull Schools' Early Education Center in Downtown Honolulu will be closing its doors in August. Earlier this month, the city notified the school that it would not renew its lease. The city plans to repair the municipal parking lot underneath the school.
Casey Harlow / HPR
After 36 years, Seagull Schools' Early Education Center in downtown Honolulu will be closing its doors in August. Earlier this month, the city notified the school that it would not renew its lease. The city plans to repair the municipal parking lot underneath the school.

For nearly four decades, Seagull Schools' Early Education Center has sat on the corner of Beretania and Alapai Streets in downtown Honolulu.

Ryan Okuno is the parent of two children, a 4-year-old and a 1-year-old. His oldest is a student at the preschool.

"In terms of location, it's perfect," he said. "My wife works a block away; we live in town, so it's on the way for me to get to work. The tuition is just right. It's a quality center... you hear nothing but great things about this place."

The Early Education Center was the Okunos' first choice for a preschool. However, demand for a seat at the school is high, and their son was put on a long waitlist. Luckily, they were able to get their son into another nearby preschool.

But spots became available at Seagull Schools during the pandemic — allowing Okuno's son to gain admission to the preschool. For Okuno, he's seen his son flourish in the last two years.

"From just the basics — numbers and letters, being able to composing a sentence, being more independent. You know, at home going to the bathroom on his own. Remembering to wash his hands when he comes in from playing."

Okuno is in the process of enrolling his youngest child at the school.

Ryan Okuno and his son.
Casey Harlow/HPR
Ryan Okuno and his son.

The preschool opened its doors in 1986, originally created to care for children of City and County of Honolulu employees. It eventually expanded its enrollment qualifications to the general public, providing an essential service to those working for the State of Hawaiʻi, The Queen's Medical Center and the Honolulu Board of Water Supply.

Unlike other preschools, the center has enough room to care for more than 220 students — making it one of the largest preschools on Oʻahu. It is also one of the most affordable at $1,000 a month.

"We know we're about $200-$300 cheaper a month than our counterparts in early education," said Megan McCorriston, CEO of Seagull Schools.

The school is also open for 11 hours a day.

"That's to allow our diverse workforce to come and access our child care services, and enable them to get back to work," McCorriston said.

Earlier this month, the city notified McCorriston the lease at their downtown location would not be renewed, and they would have to vacate the area in August. The city plans to repair the municipal parking lot underneath the school.

When that preschool closes, there may not be enough schools to take in displaced students.

Closure worsens child care shortage

"We don't have enough programs," said Kathleen Algire, director of early learning at the nonprofit Hawaiʻi Children's Action Network. "We don't have enough classes or spaces to serve all the children who have need. And that's been an ongoing issue in the state. We've never had enough."

Algire says the pandemic has worsened the shortage of child care providers in the state. But the closure of the Early Education Center exacerbates the issue.

"We have over 200 children displaced, we have nothing for those kids to be absorbed into . . . At this time, we've only seen a loss of seats," she said. "The market is getting even even more rough for parents to be able to find care. But the desire for care has not changed."

Adding to the competition are also parents who got onto a waitlist when they found out they were having a child.

"General waiting times or waitlist for any school, including Seagull Schools, it's usually one to two years," said McCorriston. "And many times it's really disheartening, many times we just don't have the space for them and they they outgrow the waitlist and and never get a space at one of our schools."

There are several factors contributing to the shortage of child care providers. One is the shortage of early educators in the state and country.

Sophia McCullough

"Child care is extremely costly to operate. That's because it's really labor intensive," she said.

"What we've seen over time, is people leaving the workforce in early care and learning, because it pays poverty level wages. It is a demanding job. And people can go work in a different sector — retail, hospitality — and they can earn more. And so we've kind of created an unsustainable system that is only going to continue to deteriorate unless we make some kind of significant public investment."

Algire also notes that child care has been treated like a business, and not a public service or benefit. She suggests that more funding from the state and county could go a long way in overhauling the current early education system.

"We need to be investing in our early care and learning the same way that we do for our other educational institutions."

Last year, the Legislature took steps to address the teacher shortage. This included a measure that would provide a stipend for University of Hawaiʻi students focusing on early education. Lawmakers this year aim to continue making investments in the worker shortage bycreating a pilot subsidy program at the Executive Office of Early Learning.

The search for a new facility

McCorriston says she's hopeful the school will be able to find a new location, and have it ready in six months.

"Given the amazing response that we've seen from the community... I just have to remain hopeful. And maybe I'm naively optimistic but I have to remain hopeful that we're going to find a place for at least 220 families at one or two new locations very soon. We're going to do everything possible to make that happen."

McCorriston says they are still looking at sites near downtown or Kakaʻako to be near the workplaces of parents. But they are also expanding the search into neighborhoods such as Kalihi, Liliha, McCully and Mānoa.

However, opening a new preschool isn’t that simple. There are legal requirements, such as fences and gates to keep kids safe, and practical requirements like having child-size toilets near the classroom for potty training.

"I'm not really sure there's a place that's like ready made that has that," said Algire. "So I'm sure that modifications might have to be made. That's extremely expensive, especially right now we know and just the size of the space alone, if they were looking in that area, I think would be really difficult to come by."

In the meantime, parents, like Okuno, are scrambling to find another affordable option for their children.

"The thing that really concerns me is the larger blowback from the closure of this school," he said. "You're going to end up with more kids needing fewer spots. The other schools, who knows if that could lead to rent seeking behavior. They're going to know that their spots are more valuable, you know, supply and demand, right? And it's hard enough to live here."

Casey Harlow was an HPR reporter and occasionally filled in as local host of Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
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