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State early learning office's new director enters role during critical time

preschool playground children honolulu elementary school education
Sophia McCullough
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HPR

For more than a decade, state lawmakers have emphasized the importance of early education and child care in the state. In 2012, the state Executive Office on Early Learning was established to create a public pre-K system, and support initiatives that address challenges facing families with young children.

But the office has been without a director since Lauren Moriguchi left last year. Moriguchi decided not to renew her contract after spending six years at the office.

The office entered a new era on Monday. Earlier this year, the state's Early Learning Board named Yuuko Arikawa-Cross as the new executive director.

"I've been committed to the growth and development of young children, and those who support them for the past 22 years in the Department of Education," Arikawa-Cross told HPR.

She was most recently the principal at Daniel K. Inouye Elementary School in Wahiawa. She also served as an assistant principal at the school until 2018. During her time there, she helped develop an inclusive Head-Start preschool on the school's campus.

In addition to her administrative roles at her previous school, Arikawa-Cross started out as a teacher at Kaʻala Elementary School in Wahiawa, then became a school renewal specialist for the Leilehua complex area — working with Leilehua, Mililani and Waialua high schools.

While Arikawa-Cross has dedicated her professional life to early education, she tells HPR it's also personal.

"I became a very young parent at 19," she said. "For a period of my life, I was a single parent... A lot of the agencies that are connected to the world of early childhood, I've actually interacted with on a personal level, raising my own children. And now it's as if I'm reliving it all over again, some parts of it because my son and his girlfriend had a child very young. So my granddaughter is three years old now."

"I'm watching them live the promise and challenges of raising a young child. So looking for affordable child care, trying to balance work and life."

There are 34 public schools across the state that have pre-K classrooms serving four- and five-year-old children. While the office is working to expand the number of classrooms, Arikawa-Cross enters the role during a challenging time.

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, preschools and child care providers were forced to close. And as the pandemic continued, it worsened the shortage of early educators, child care professionals, and providers — educators deciding to leave the field for better-paying jobs.

Yuuko Arikawa-Cross.jpg
Executive Office on Early Learning
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Yuuko Arikawa-Cross

"Coming along with the challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has really emphasized how essential early childhood programs are to our community," said Arikawa-Cross. "It also highlighted how fragile the sector is, too — with the loss of employees and the closure of some programs."

Early education and child care received millions of dollars in federal relief during the pandemic through the CARES Act and American Rescue Plan. While that helped to restore some state funding that was cut, and continue tuition assistance, Arikawa-Cross says more investment is needed in the state.

"We still need to find a way to stabilize our field, to continue to invest in these programs and their providers to make child care more affordable for our families."

In addition to the impacts of the pandemic, there are other challenges.

"We do have high rates of homelessness, and our cost of living and the cost of care is prohibitive for many families. In addition to that, in certain spaces in Hawaiʻi, the geographic barriers push challenges for accessing programs and services."

Despite these challenges, Arikawa-Cross tells HPR that Hawaiʻi's early education and child care system is unique compared to the rest of the nation.

In Hawaiʻi, there are public pre-K options through the EOEL and the state Department of Education. There are also charter schools, public pre-K programs, as well as private community-based child care programs.

But Arikawa-Cross says the state is unique compared to the rest of the country.

"Family-child interactive learning programs, which originated in Hawaii, are used as models across the United States... I think that Hawaiʻi also builds and develops on [a] multi-generational approach to enhance caregivers knowledge and understanding of child development. We also host Hawaiian language-medium preschool programs and charter schools, which focus on culturally responsive approaches."

As Arikawa-Cross starts her new role as EOEL's executive director, she tells HPR she is determined to help the office fulfill its mission.

"My ultimate goal, and my vision of success, would mean that we meet the needs of our Hawaiʻi families," she said. "If that means that our office must build upon and strengthen the current collaborative partnerships, to build and create new partnerships, to increase access to high-quality learning, and to increase the recruitment and retention of qualified early learning workforce. Then right now those are my priorities."

Arikawa-Cross says she would like to hear from parents, community members and organizations to understand their perspectives.

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